Sunday 25 February 2018

Frankie Sheehan: Gatland facing some tough decisions after Brisbane escape act

The Lions management may have been all smiles and backslaps in the immediate aftermath of the first Test on Saturday, but when they look back on their display they'll be a little less satisfied after escaping with a lucky win.

In the balance of things it was a pretty brutal display from the Lions. I felt that they should have been in control of their own destiny by being at least 10 points clear at the end, but instead they had to agonisingly watch as Kurtley Beale imploded and missed twice.

While they were very lucky to be so close, the Aussies were desperately unlucky not to win in the end.

I stand over everything I said about the Lions pre-Test: they needed to keep it simple; scrum them into submission and kick their penalties. Instead they played a loose game and almost got caught out.

We should be looking at a 1-0 deficit for the Lions after Saturday. If Leigh Halfpenny had a gold shirt on, Australia would have taken the victory.

It was tough on Kurtley Beale to miss those two late kicks, which would have given his side a well-deserved win.

By this stage the squad will have worked their way through the DVD of the game and it wouldn't have made for pleasant viewing. The first half was littered with silly errors, loose kicking and poor defence and the fact that they got away with it was miraculous.

Overall, it looked as if the Lions failed to execute a simple winning game plan despite having so many good leaders out there. But maybe the wrong man was making the decisions.

After nine minutes, a brilliant scrum from the pack earned a penalty inside Australian territory. But instead of taking a shot at the posts, the ball was handed to Jonny Sexton to edge them into the corner.

Three minutes later, the Lions had the chance to kick an easy three points when referee Chris Pollock awarded them a penalty advantage in the Australian '22'. With an easy opener on offer the Lions decided to chance their arm and go for the try.

However, the move broke down just as their advantage ran out and Australia broke away to score their first try.

What was the problem with telling the ref 'we'll take the penalty' or knocking on the ball? If it was the Six Nations that's what they would have done. Why change tack now?

Apart from the poor decision-making – both on the field and off – the overall tactics displayed were poor.

Another striking aspect of the game was the Lions' failure to read how the referee was patrolling the breakdown.

Twice in the opening exchanges Brian O'Driscoll was penalised for competing for the ball while off his feet. Then, late on, Mako Vunipola was pinged for the same infringement – the penalty that Beale should have kicked for the win.

Now, the Lions would have watched videos of this referee and he is a notorious stickler at the breakdown. They should have known from the start that he would come down hard on any foul play at ruck time, but after the first couple of times the alarm bells should have sounded.

On the positive side, Jonathan Davies was one of the stand-out performers and he laid down a huge marker when he ran over Christian Leali'ifano in the first minute. But after that initial burst we really didn't see the Lions repeat that tactic enough, especially late on when Michael Hooper had to take up a spot in the centre because of all the injuries.

OUTSTANDING

Overall, the Welsh influence on the game was massive. As well as Davies and Halfpenny, George North was outstanding, Alun-Wyn Jones was rock-solid in the second-row, Adam Jones was terrific in the front-row – he was withdrawn too early – while Alex Cuthbert had his best game of the tour so far.

But while Gatland is loyal to the Welsh lads that have served him well as their national coach, he is now faced with a massive decision regarding Sam Warburton.

The flanker did okay on Saturday, but I expected a bigger showing from him, especially as Lions captain. Their expected dominance in that area didn't materialise and someone like Sean O'Brien would give a huge lift to the side.

O'Brien would also bring some much needed bulk to that Lions pack. All the talk pre-Test was how much bigger and stronger the Lions were than the Australians, but when the pack weights were added up for Saturday, the Lions weighted in four-and-a-half stone lighter than their hosts.

It is a myth that they are more powerful than Australia and that showed on Saturday. O'Brien and potentially the selection of Richard Hibbard could change that.

The Lions will improve a lot from Saturday and I expect them to run out easy winners now.

Yet, only for Halfpenny and the Australians' lack of a reliable kicker, it could be a whole different story.

Irish Independent

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