Saturday 16 December 2017

Eddie Butler: Gatland decided to play it safe – now he has to go for broke

Brian O'Driscoll is among those who might lose their place as the visitors face some big calls.

A disappointed Jamie Heaslip leaves the field
A disappointed Jamie Heaslip leaves the field

Eddie Butler

Another Saturday, another day of jolted nerves, another game hanging on the last kick at goal in the last seconds, another series in Australia to be decided on the last day. It couldn't be better planned to leave a lasting impression, could it?

The injury to Sam Warburton could have an impact on the outcome. The captain had a fine game at the breakdown, swooping with his vulture arms to claim turnovers. His departure meant Australia ruled the breakdown and stole an advantage at the lineout.

The echo between the throw by Richard Hibbard that came to naught and the failed attempt to find Martin Johnson in the closing moments of 2001 will resonate – prompting the reminder that the team that wins the second Test wins the series. It happened in 1989, when the Lions won, and 2001, when the Wallabies reversed the sway of the tour in the second half in Melbourne.

The feeling cannot be avoided that it happened in the same period in the same city in 2013. The Lions looked to shut out the tour, conservative in selection and narrow in style. To reduce risk is always an option for the side in the driving seat after Brisbane, but to fail to dominate the scrum and to spend the second half on the back foot, apart from the odd hack and chase, is to be left with the impression of Australians making the most penetrating of the day's plays.

The Lions, bolstered possibly by the availability of Manu Tuilagi and Jamie Roberts in the centre, may opt for an entirely different strategic approach in the decider. It could be a high-scoring classic, a return to the Brisbane night of tries for wings. Or it might be more of this Melbourne mincing machine, leaving every nerve and sinew shredded.

There came a period, when Mako Vunipola was penalised twice in succession at the scrum and then knocked on, and then slung out an imprudent pass, when the loosehead prop was fast becoming a one-man disintegration, the team's inability to impose themselves condensed into the misfortunes of a young front-row forward.

That he then pushed with all his might to earn the Lions a penalty, and carried on tackling and charging to the very end, suggested that there was more to his performance than a 10-minute glitch. There might yet be more to the tourists than an ever-shrinking ambition on the ball. But if the Lions are going to shake up their approach, they may have to contemplate the unthinkable. Roberts for Jonathan Davies would be the obvious swap, a rediscovery of the partnership that rocked South Africa in 2009. But is Brian O'Driscoll the player now that he was then? He has not had the best of series.

The insurance policy here was that there was always the third Saturday in reserve. Well, it's Sydney or bust now, and there is no point in playing safe and aiming not to lose the game. The series must be won, and selection is going to be as much agony as patching up the players and squeezing one more performance out of them. But which players?

Leigh Halfpenny, George North, and Tommy Bowe look set in stone as the back three. But at all points inside them a case can be made for change. Owen Farrell, Roberts and Tuilagi would be fresh, feisty and . . . totally untried.

Does Vunipola revert to his original role as a 20-minute specialist off the bench? Does the second row need more physical presence? Geoff Parling is not the biggest. Does Toby Faletau come into contention, to give the Lions an all-Welsh back row of Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and His Quietness?

The chances of risk being embraced as an ally are slim. The deciding Tests of 1989 and 2001 were tension-racked in the extreme. There is very little evidence to suppose that the last order to the Lions will be to cut loose. On the other hand, North and Israel Folau will have their input as, say, Ieuan Evans, at the end of an epic duel with David Campese, had his moment. It was just that it was more a drop on the ball than any flight of fancy from 50 metres out.

No, romance will not be the deciding factor. The ability to keep the thought processes intact and make limbs obey brains in the last stages of exhaustion will determine the outcome. We are going to the last kick in the last minute in the last game, no question.

One more Saturday of sedation and we'll be through it.


Irish Independent

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