Final battle of phoney war the toughest of all
Brumbies will push Gatland's fringe stars to the limit as Zebo and Kearney lead charge to squeeze into frame for opening Test
OPPORTUNITY knocks for a select few of the Lions team that will take on the best side in Australia in Canberra this morning.
There are precious few – if any – places left in Warren Gatland's Test team and his acknowledgement on Sunday that he has "a fair idea" of the side he will send into battle this Saturday is not what today's players will have wanted to hear.
That is the nature of these tours, though, and it would be incredible if Gatland exposed those with whom his hopes rest to what is going to be the toughest assignment of the tour outside of the three Test matches.
The Brumbies are the best Super 15 franchise in Australia. They won the Australian conference and have qualified for the play-offs.
They are also the most successful Australian franchise, with two Super 15 titles to their credit. And they are on an upward trajectory.
This is the first time in nine years they have qualified for the play-offs and coach Jake White has them playing a very clever brand of rugby that will test the Lions like they haven't experienced on this tour so far.
They have lost just one of their 10 home games this season and are the most serious opposition the Lions have faced up to this point.
The Brumbies will not try to run everything as the Reds did and will be far more subtle than the Waratahs were in their attempt to brutalise the Lions. White is a far more cerebral coach than either Ewen McKenzie (Reds) or Michael Cheika (Waratahs) and will seek to out-think Gatland.
The Brumbies will engage in a kicking game and won't attempt to play too much rugby in their own half. They will look to out-half Matt Toomua and full-back Jesse Mogg to turn the Lions backs around and keep them pinned in their own half.
They will then strive to upset the set-piece out of touch, force the turnover and take the back three on out wide in suitable positions. And they will also seek to make the scrum a contest and will certainly compete at the breakdown, an area forwards coach Laurie Fisher is particularly strong on.
Indeed the Munster players still rave about how effective and innovative he was in their breakdown work. In this regard the work of the Lions back-row, and in particular openside flanker Justin Tipuric, will be critical. This is where the Lions should have an advantage because the Welsh flanker is a master of the breakdown and a proper groundhog.
He will also be smarting, as will his back-row colleagues, at the likelihood that they have been overlooked for the opening Test. It is probable that the back-row on Saturday will be Tom Croft, Sam Warburton and Jamie Heaslip.
Gatland will be banking on today's back-row – Sean O'Brien, Tipuric and Toby Faletau – being so determined to prove him wrong that they will ensure the Lions keep their unbeaten record on tour ahead of Saturday's game.
This is a game fraught with danger for the Lions and one which will certainly test the 'togetherness' of the squad that is so important to a successful Tour. If the players involved today feel that they are now the 'dirt-trackers' and not in the mix for the Test squad, the risk is they will lose interest.
Gatland has been at pains to avoid that happening and has been largely successful. Up until this week it was all but impossible to predict a likely full team outside of the obvious selections.
The injuries to Tommy Bowe, Cian Healy, Jamie Roberts and George North open up some positions and there is a chance those who impress today will benefit by being involved on Saturday, which is another tactic Gatland is using to his advantage.
"There are places there. The players know that," he said. "We have been consistent all along in saying that we won't finalise a Test team until after this game. Nothing has changed in that respect."
The danger for the Lions today is that their team includes a number of players who have not been with the squad in recent weeks, don't know the calls, the patterns of play and who will be directed by a novice out-half in Stuart Hogg.
The Glasgow Warrior was very good in his previous outing in the 10 shirt when Conor Murray did a fine job of steering him through the match. He now has Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees – both late call-ups to the squad – outside him and neither player has had much time to adapt to the Lions game.
That does leave them vulnerable to a Brumbies side who have been together for quite some time and are exceptionally comfortable with their game plan.
"Those players you mention are internationals. And they have a pack that is very experienced. If needs be they can simply rely on their forwards to show the way for them. This is a very strong Lions side," Gatland said.
From an Irish perspective, the performance of Rob Kearney will be closely monitored. This is his first start of the tour after overcoming a hamstring injury and while he is unlikely to be in consideration for the first Test, he is such a good player you cannot rule out a place among the replacements.
O'Brien is certainly one who will want to prove a point. He is possibly going to be used as an impact replacement on Saturday, but he will surely know that either he or Tipuric should be the starting openside against the Wallabies.
He will be determined to make a statement. So too will Simon Zebo, who forced himself into Test reckoning with his performance against the Waratahs and if he impresses off the bench today he might earn himself a starting berth on Saturday. The Brumbies are weakened as they are missing a host of international players as well as injured stars such as flankers David Pocock and George Smith.
But, as Smith revealed, they are taking huge inspiration from the performance of the Brumbies back in 2001 when, minus the majority of their stars away with the Wallabies, they went painstakingly close to knocking the Lions over at Canberra Stadium.
"That was a different era and the Brumbies went on a two-match tour of New Zealand in preparation for that game. But we have spoken about it," said Smith. "It is part of Brumbies history and if we can take something from that game and use it 12 years later we definitely will."
The phoney war ends today. This is Test week and the importance of momentum for the Lions will be uppermost in the minds of the coaches and players. This is also the game that poses the most danger to the tourists.
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