Monday 18 December 2017

Frankie Sheahan: Don't be surprised if Lions' tally goes up in threes rather than fives or sevens

After three weeks of barely breaking a sweat against understrength opponents, the Lions face a massive step up in class against Australia in the first Test tomorrow morning.

Whoever sat down and designed the Lions' pre-Test itinerary surely was wearing gold-tinted glasses, as their first five opponents have done little or nothing to prepare Warren Gatland's side for the ferocity they are about to face.

In fact, the only opponents who could have given the first-choice Lions any sort of game were the Brumbies, but with that fixture coming just four days before the real deal, none of the front-liners were ever going to be risked, thus rendering that challenge worthless as a preparation for the first Test.

As a result, I think the Lions need to be very careful tomorrow. Instead of facing second-choice provincial players, the Lions will be taking on a grizzly Australia, whose sole focus has been to tear into this first Test and upset the northern hemisphere favourites.

After a series of facile wins, gained largely on the front foot, the Lions will, no doubt, be feeling very good about themselves. But taking on a team like Australia with that attitude is treading on very dangerous ground.

On the flip side, Australia are entering the contest completely under the radar. They'll have marked down this game as the most important of the three, because if you get off to a bad start, it is very hard to claw back the momentum. They'll be happy to squeeze out any kind of result – even a 3-0 win would do them.

If the Lions are to win tomorrow – as I expect they will – I think they have two serious weapons which they need to exploit – their powerful scrum and the form of Leigh Halfpenny.

From the off, the Lions pack need to gain the upper hand at the scrum, which has been slightly weakened by the selection of Tom Youngs ahead of Richard Hibbard. They need to spend time at it, have patience and allow as many collapses as it takes. No doubt the home crowd will soon get impatient, but they need to ignore their taunts and grind down the Australians.

Despite Youngs getting the nod, they should ultimately gain the upper hand and after that, the penalties will flow. And that's where Halfpenny comes in.

The Welsh full-back's form on tour has been staggering and if Australia concede penalties, he'll punish them every time. He will keep the scoreboard ticking over, so don't be surprised if the Lions' tally goes up in threes, rather than fives or sevens.

But when lining up with such potent backs at your disposal, the temptation must be to throw the ball wide quickly. With the likes of Jonny Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and George North waiting for quick ball, it will be hard to keep punching holes.

But that's where the patience is needed; the Lions need to keep it tight for as long as possible. An unstructured, sevens-style game will suit Australia. If the Lions work their set-piece well, keep it tight through the forwards and then attack out wide, the gaps will be there to exploit.

Another possible problem for the Lions in the back-line is the combination of O'Driscoll and Jonathan Davies in the centre. Without doubt Gatland had planned to use Jamie Roberts at 12, with O'Driscoll alongside him, but with Roberts on the treatment table, that ship has sailed until later in the series.

He is now faced with two natural 13s in the centre and how they work together is a challenge in itself. They will have played very little together until this week in training, so that combination is crucial for the Lions.

Having an embarrassment of riches in the back-row has given Gatland another dilemma that he couldn't have expected. Skipper Sam Warburton has struggled for his starting place – I certainly wouldn't have selected him – and had his compatriot Justin Tipuric breathing down his neck. It just goes to show the folly of giving him the captaincy, when you have the likes of O'Connell and O'Driscoll travelling too.

Personally, I would have chosen a Sean O'Brien, Tipuric and Jamie Heaslip combination in the back-row, but loyalty is a big trait of the Lions boss.

But even if Gatland has gotten that selection askew for tomorrow, I fully expect the tourists to excel at the line-out, with O'Connell's fingerprints all over that sector too.

With someone like the Munster man there to make the calls and design the plays, I expect to see a lot of variations and different moves from the Lions tomorrow.

Generally speaking on tours like this, the main line-out plays will be a closely guarded secret, and, in fairness to Rory Best and co, that could have had a knock-on effect on how the set-piece performed against the Brumbies.

But definitely, they'll have been slow to show their full hand in the warm-up games – all the good moves will have been reserved for the Test games. I imagine we'll see a good variation in the line-outs, with possible long balls over the back or short ones to the front, getting Mike Phillips involved quickly.

Gatland has moved on a lot since the days of the 14-man line-out and, with O'Connell in a rich vein of form, it can be a massive weapon for the Lions.

In the build-up to the tour, it was hard to see past a convincing Lions whitewash of their hosts. However, much has happened in the last three weeks, through the numerous injuries and losses of form, so I expect to see a Test series that will be a lot closer than many people envisaged.

But, no matter what way you look at it, I still think the Lions will be too strong for Australia.

If they play to their strengths, remain patient with their set- piece until the gaps appear, they can get off to the perfect start.

But if they do win, it will be largely down to Halfpenny I suspect.

Irish Independent

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