Monday 19 March 2018

George Hook: Inventive Aussies to expose Gatland's lack of imagination

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland
George Hook

George Hook

Last week, Australia lost a golden chance of going one up in the Test series due to the poor quality of their goal-kicking. Today they look in better shape to reverse that result.

The Lions are critically weakened in the front five and Warren Gatland's selection has done nothing to improve the quality of the back play, which was way below par last week.

Despite the injury carnage of the first Test, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans appears to be in a stronger position than his opposite number.

Christian Leali'ifano is fit again, not only to improve the midfield attack but, more importantly, provide his coach with a front-rank goal-kicker, and the absence of Berrick Barnes is unlikely to be felt as Kurtley Beale is a superior attacker to the man he replaces. Meanwhile, up front, the Australian pack looks a better unit.

In sticking with the centre partnership of Jonathan Davies and Brian O'Driscoll, Gatland has missed an opportunity to sharpen the Lions backline. Davies and O'Driscoll are too similar in style to complement each other at this level. They crave the type of strong, direct running that the likes of Manu Tuilagi would provide. Now, instead of a 17-and-a-half stone brick to worry about, the Wallabies can concentrate on implementing the same defensive pattern that worked very effectively last Saturday.

The scrum is a big worry. The Lions' collapse in the set-piece during the final quarter last week was very disappointing.

Mako Vunipola can carry ball until the cows come home, but if he cannot achieve parity in the scrum against a very average Wallaby front-row, his time on the pitch will be meaningless. The tourists are now down to their fourth-choice loosehead and the arrival of Tom Court from his holidays has devalued the Lions shirt.

Meanwhile, despite all the excuses trotted out for Dan Cole's substandard performance last week, Adam Jones will be have to shoulder the major burden at scrum time. However, 80 minutes of that kind of endeavour will almost certainly be beyond him and the Lions could face a tricky last 10 minutes if they have to rely on Ryan Grant and Cole to shore up vital scrums.

Dan Lydiate's selection is interesting. He has had very little game time in the run up to the series, but, at his best, has the ability to torment Australia at the breakdown. Gatland will demand 60 minutes of punishment from his blindside flanker before calling on Sean O'Brien to finish the job.

More importantly, however, Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Jamie Heaslip must find a way of staying off Craig Joubert's radar at the breakdown. It is impossible to think that the Wallabies will leave 14 points on the pitch for a second successive week.

Gatland has been at his usual mind-games in the run-up to this match. It is far and away his most unattractive feature. To criticise Deans for not checking Beale's footwear before he came on for Barnes was crass in the extreme. His latest performance is to put pressure on referee Joubert, by calling him the most honest referee in the game – a title that might be greeted with guffaws in France after his performance in the World Cup final.

Ben Youngs will not relish the prospect of trying to contain one of the best scrum-halves in the world, but the fiery young Englishman has the pace to match Will Genia in open play. However, Genia is simply too good and will again be hugely influential in this game and has the added advantage of linking with a better backline than last week, even if James O'Connor is an average No 10. Youngs' best bet is to keep his nerve and concentrate on delivering quick ball to Jonny Sexton, and leave Genia to the back-row.

The coach has already committed to bringing Conor Murray off the bench at some point today. The young Irishman, who has never displayed any lack of confidence, would need to curb his enthusiasm for the physical contest with Genia. It is probably too late to call Peter Stringer for advice on how to handle will-o'-the-wisp Australian scrum-halves but hopefully somebody has told him that concentration of the highest level will be required.


Last week, Warburton gave a substandard performance as a player, which clearly impacted on him as a captain. He was lucky to have as his lieutenant Paul O'Connell, who gave one of the great unselfish performances in modern rugby history.

O'Connell's contribution may only be understood at the end of today's Test match. It is easy to be wise after the event but O'Connell's long lay-off cost the Lions the services of perhaps one of the greatest captains in the history of the touring side.

Gatland has taken a huge risk in going into this match without a second-row replacement. He has plenty of line-out options but a scrum with a made-up lock partnership could spell disaster. Gatland is clearly terrified of the Australian back-row and has picked O'Brien and Tom Croft on the bench to afford the luxury of the maximum impact of the bench. It is high-risk strategy.

Australia are clearly the better team with a much more inventive tactical approach. Despite their common Kiwi backgrounds, Deans is by far the more imaginative of the two head coaches.

It is difficult to understand how the same New Zealand system has produced innovators like Deans and Joe Schmidt while also giving the Lions two arch-conservatives like Graham Henry and Gatland. Henry threw away the advantage of the first Test victory in Australia and lost the series. There is a distinct sense of deja vu about this tour.

Irish Independent

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