Sunday 19 November 2017

George Hook: Match will be won by coach who embraces open rugby

Lions must throw off shackles of conservatism and play in a style that suits their aspirations

Warren Gatland, in relaxed mood yesterday, is relying heavily on his familiar Welsh backline for the opening Test against Australia
Warren Gatland, in relaxed mood yesterday, is relying heavily on his familiar Welsh backline for the opening Test against Australia
George Hook

George Hook

This morning the Lions will face Australia in the first Test at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. Since World War Two, the first Test has almost always proved crucial to a successful Lions tour – although interestingly 12 years ago, in the same city with Martin Johnson as captain, the Lions drew first blood but lost the series.

In that campaign the captain was magnificent and held the side together when the coaching team under Graham Henry had lost the support of half the tour party. Then Matt Dawson and Austin Healy broke the code of omerta that was before that tour expected, and since enforced contractually. We knew then that all was not well in the camp, but the personality of the captain kept the Saturday team together to make a contest of the series.

There has been little gossip from inside the camp. Either the journalists are being 'good boys' and writing only upbeat stories, or there is not a lot to say. I suspect it is the latter, as this tour has so far been devoid of interest to anybody except the fanatical supporter.

Part of the reason is clearly the number of injuries which saw a team take the field in midweek that was a travesty of the traditions of Lions touring. It is very hard to identify with this group of rugby players, who are dutifully turning up for photo shoots, but seem without outstanding characters.

To that end, the Irish involvement may be crucial. In the build-up to this game, it would defy belief if Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell were not dominant characters in the team room, by virtue of their talent, experience and captaincy skills.

In the war of words that invariably precede such occasions, the Wallabies have sounded confident.

PREDICTABLE

They believe they can win because the Lions' game plan is predictable, the scrum is average and the line-out can be disrupted. And there may be some truth in their in their beliefs.

The Lions have lost Jamie Roberts, which will put Brian O'Driscoll at inside centre, which will definitely make the defence more difficult as he and Jonathan Davies will need time to grow comfortable with each other.

On the plus side, Jonathan Sexton will feel secure in having his Leinster colleague close by. Bar the two Irishmen, this is a Welsh backline and I have to believe that Warren Gatland would have made it six out of seven if Roberts had been fit and O'Driscoll would have lost out.

With James O'Connor at fly-half, Australia will run intricate patterns that have opened the best defences in the world. The match will surely turn on that part of the game. For all the firepower of Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and George North, they will face a stern defensive test from Berrick Barnes, Israel Folau and Digby Ioane.

The Lions' line-out, despite the selection of Tom Youngs at hooker, will not be a confident outfit. Line-out throwing and catching is all about confidence and the Wallabies will attack the early throws to sow doubt. Captain James Horwill and Kane Douglas may be relatively unknown north of the equator, but they will know that it was this phase of the game that won them the vital third Test against Henry's Lions.

The Australian scrum has been a thing of threads and patches but surely with a front-row sporting a combined total of 180 caps they must be confident of at least breaking even. If they do, then look for scrum-half Will Genia and No 8 Wycliff Palu to create some holes. If they get across the gain line with any regularity, then the Wallaby backs will make hay off second phase.

The Lions have their own back-row attackers, but Jamie Heaslip and Mike Phillips, while individually outstanding, have yet to demonstrate the understanding and invention of their opponents.

This match is tailor-made for Heaslip. He should play the game that made him great, rather than the structured operation demanded of him by Ireland. This is not a game where the statistics of carries, tackles and mauls will be important. The Lions must fight invention with a game plan that suits the personalities and aspirations of the players. Deep down Gatland is a cautious Kiwi, but lucky for him he faces one of his own in Robbie Deans. This match will be won by the coach that throws off the burden of conservatism and embraces the joyous experience of open rugby.

One hundred and twenty five years of Lions rugby should give the advantage to the visitors, but I am not so sure. Australia are easily the weakest of the countries of the Lions' touring calendar but that very weakness may have been a problem for this squad, as they have struggled to put a clear stamp on their style without the competitive edge of tough provincial matches. Hong Kong was no preparation for this weekend.

Come full-time, I expect the green and gold flags to be waving high in the Suncorp. However, that may not determine the series.

Irish Independent

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