Sport Rugby

Thursday 14 December 2017

First real contest raises fears for Lions' Test prospects

This series will be decided on whether Quade Cooper plays or not, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A contest! A match where there was meaningful engagement and, for once on this mongrel itinerary, a match of real substance. The Lions were resolute and clear-headed and were probably full value for the scoreline at the end of the game. Truth is, they were very lucky.

A dry day and a full Queensland Reds team would have beaten them, and beaten them well. This is the problem with these itineraries and if Robbie Deans had decided to let his Test players test the Lions, the team from the Northern Hemisphere would be coming in to the Test series with quite a few more bumps and bruises – not only to their corporeal self but to their spiritual side too.

As it is, they will go into the first Test unbeaten, not knowing how to deal with the pressure of losing. Very often a reverse is a catalyst for change, when the team decide to approach with renewed vigour and a changed game-plan because something didn't work in a provincial game. The Lions will go into the Test series with a minimum of heat applied to them.

People watching yesterday's game will point to the fact that the Lions, from about 30 minutes into the game, managed to wrest control and to dictate the pace of it after being run ragged and exposed on the wide outside by some mesmerising and enterprising play by the Reds.

The Lions, commendably, hung on and managed to retain some defensive structure which, with a little bit more probing, might not have been as sure as it was. In truth, the rain, and the fact that the Queensland Reds had no tight platform to work from effectively changed the course of the game.

The Reds lost six of their own throws at lineout time and some of the ball that they did win at this phase was of very little value to them. They also lost only one put-in at scrum time but Jake Schatz at No 8 and Nick Frisby at scrumhalf dealt poorly with their retreating scrum that once again yielded very little usable quality ball.

The problem lay in what occupied the Queensland Reds second row. If the Australian side had somebody like Martin Johnson and Jeremy Davidson playing for them it would have been a different story, instead they had Jim Davidson and Don Johnson on board after a good night out on the tiles.

The Queenslanders had Radike Samo and Ed O'Donoghue as their main agents of supply in the tight and that is why they failed so abysmally. O'Donoghue was christened Ballesteros because he has had more clubs than Seve.

The second-generation Irishman has spent six months here, a season there, including a two-year spell with Ulster and a proposed three-year stint with Leinster which ended six months into the first season. Samo is nearly 40 years old and is a Fijian No 8 who likes running around with the ball in his hands and nothing else.

If you are relying on this pair to help you win the game you are barking up the wrong cork tree. If Queensland had their two Wallaby second-rows of James Horwill and Rob Simmons playing yesterday then Richie Gray and Geoff Parling would not have looked quite as good.

The rains came down and the game changed and Queensland could no longer test the Lions on the outside. There would be too many mistakes made and the Lions went to the sideline and started to control the game from that phase, always confident of their ability in the tight. There were 50 turnovers in the game and it became obvious that you couldn't throw the ball around once the conditions worsened.

It was interesting to see the two coaches playing chess and testing out perceived weaknesses and strengths. Warren Gatland and Ewen McKenzie as front-row forwards would have had the IQ of an empty swimming pool but would be judged to be a little bit smarter as coaches and you could see what both were trying to do out on the field before the game started to change. Shaun Edwards is in Japan with Wales but they are using his blitz defence and most of his defensive concepts. The same concepts that won in Europe in the Six Nations but have failed against Australia on the last seven occasions.

When the press came from the Lions, when the conditions were dry, Quade Cooper got some runners, including the very useful Luke Morahan, away on the wide outside – and what I mean by the wide outside is one foot away from the touchline – with some wonderfully accurate and beautifully weighted long cut-out passes into the bread basket, where the recipient didn't have to hold or check or take the ball high or low.

If Queensland can expose them to that extent with half a team, what will happen in the Test series?

A lot depends on Cooper, who was very effective yesterday despite the usual quota of bloopers and howlers – he really did freeze the Lions press because they had no idea what he was going to do next.

Quite often, neither does Cooper, but he tested and probed and caused enough problems to give Deans problems with selection. This Lions series will be decided on whether Cooper plays or not.

McKenzie is old style and he does preach a fantastic brand of the game. He went old-style at the breakdown, where the Reds flooded numbers into the contact area and rucked past the ball carrier. They had quick ball whenever they wanted it, but there were too many mistakes in contact and the Lions scrambled well.

The Lions really should have taken advantage of some of the opportunities that they had. Alex Cuthbert should have scored from Tommy Bowe's dam-busting break from his own 22 but was surprisingly caught for pace and he had an unimpressive night.

Due to a broken hand which will end Bowe's tour we don't know who will join George North as a Lions wing, with the metronomic Leigh Halfpenny a certainty at full back. Simon Zebo, who has a very good chance of the call-up, could even start in the Test series if his defence holds up.

It was interesting that Gatland kept his Welsh back row on the field for as long as possible and he kept Dan Lydiate, even though he was blowing hard, on for the full 80. The blindside was the top tackler with 13 and I will bet the house that he will start in the Test series with Toby Faletau and Sam Warburton.

The tour captain should have scored when he was put through by another barnstorming break by North. Lack of game-time and match-sharpness were the margins between dotting the ball down and being held up. He missed three or four tackles but he will improve and he will be the Test No 7, irrespective of how brilliant Sean O'Brien is.

Worryingly, there were only four Test players – Halfpenny, Brian O'Driscoll, Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts – who didn't play last night. Injuries are already a huge factor. The Test team is taking shape but, even at this early stage, my money is on the Wallabies on a tour that nobody has fully bought into yet.

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