Wednesday 21 March 2018

Frankie Sheahan: Loose game plan and surplus of egos could cost tourists dear

Paul O'Connell in action against Australia in the first test
Paul O'Connell in action against Australia in the first test

Frankie Sheahan

As the second Test approaches, the loss of Paul O'Connell is the major setback that the Lions need to overcome to clinch a series victory.

There really couldn't have been a worse guy to lose from this team. He's a massive, massive loss. I suspect Warren Gatland would have preferred to lose any other player instead of O'Connell.

He is the real leader of this travelling party, both on and off the field, and the fact that he has been asked to remain on as part of the management team underlines that.

We all know how good he is. But I often find the first match he is missing, people really up their performance. I think players are so terrified that he'll be missing that they double their efforts.

It is the game after that you'd be more concerned about. They'll raise the bar this week, but if the Lions don't win tomorrow, they will really struggle next week.

It's not just his leadership qualities that will be missed, as the line-out will struggle without him. Without him there to call the plays, I suspect Alun-Wyn Jones will be asked to take on a greater workload. Despite all his qualities, the Lions will be under a little bit of pressure there now – and the Wallabies will smell blood.

They were within a kick of winning the first Test, which was incredible considering they shouldn't have been anywhere near it. Now with O'Connell gone, they will really fancy their chances of levelling the series.

I must say I'm impressed with the way Gatland has not been afraid to make the changes. He faced a real dilemma after the first Test: should he keep faith in the guys that delivered the result, albeit after a pretty poor performance?

It's the right call to bring Sean O'Brien into the set-up. His selection seemed an obvious choice from day one, but after he was left out for the Brisbane Test it looked as if he might play a peripheral role. He is on the bench tomorrow, and what an impact sub to call on.

There were a good few questions asked about how Mike Phillips performed last weekend but I really didn't expect Gatland to cull him completely.

After bagging a try in the first Test, Alex Cuthbert can also feel a little hard done by to be dropped for the returning Tommy Bowe.

Before his injury, Bowe looked a shoo-in for the right-wing berth, but to see Cuthbert handed a spot on the bench shows how tuned in for a series victory Gatland is.

I thought he would give them another chance to impress tomorrow, with the possibility of a few changes for the third Test, but he has been pretty ruthless.

I am thrilled for Conor Murray, Bowe and O'Brien, though. Conor has worked very hard on his game and it's hard to believe it is just three years since he made his Munster debut. He has shown that he thrives on the big stage and I expect him to do so again.

Yet, despite all the positive changes the Lions must work on their game management a lot more if they are to go 2-0 up.

In Brisbane the Lions played too much rugby inside their own half: they need to kick to the corners and avoid loose kicks to Israel Folau, who will punish them again; they need more variety in their play; they need to scrum more and they need to maul more.

But most importantly they really have to physically impose themselves on the Australians, because they'll get a lot of change from it. I think that's why Gatland has given Dan Lydiate a call-up.


He'll add some much-needed aggression at the breakdown and with O'Brien to call on, the Lions should be much improved in that sector.

While it seems from the outside that the Lions have the majority of the top-class players, there is a real worry that they might have too many chiefs and not enough Indians in the mix.

The 1997 Lions team had the likes of Jeremy Davidson, Tom Smith and Paul Wallace. These guys were real workhorses to complement the likes of Jeremy Guscott, Gregor Townsend and Lawrence Dallaglio.

There are hints that this year's team are all looking to leave their individual stamp on the tour.

That will have to be sacrificed for the good of the team. Victory should be the No 1 priority, with their personal performance a pleasant by-product. Let's not let egos get in the way of a good performance here.

But if they can park their individual ambitions for the good of the team, the Lions might be able to overcome the loss of O'Connell and wrap up the series.

If they don't and undertake to play the same loose game plan as in Brisbane, they'll be in trouble again. I fancy the Aussies to win.

* The Lions Legends – featuring Jeremy Staunton, Anthony Foley, Marcus Horan, John O'Neill, Trevor Brennan, myself and Alan Quinlan – picked up a famous 39-22 win against a Melbourne Select XV yesterday.

Irish Independent

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