Wednesday 25 April 2018

Gatland must heed warnings to counter revitalised Wallabies

Australia have done their homework and Lions supremo must respond

Lions head coach Warren Gatland
Lions head coach Warren Gatland
Conor George

Conor George

THE exaggerated words of praise that were bandied about Brisbane on Saturday and Sunday must be consigned to the past in the most ruthless fashion in Melbourne this weekend if the Lions are to have any hope of securing the series.

The quality of their performance in the first Test victory will not suffice this weekend against an Australian side who have come across as relaxed and confident this week despite coming off second best in the opening salvo.

Ironically, it's the manner of their loss that has infused the Wallaby squad with confidence.

A conservative estimate suggests they left 14 points behind them at the Suncorp Stadium and despite this, they were still within one successful kick of winning the game at the death. They will also have their first-choice kicker – Christian Leali'ifano – available this weekend.

The centre lasted less than 60 seconds of Saturday's game after being run over by a refrigerator named Jonathan Davies. Astonishingly, he has been cleared to play this weekend despite his concussion and will, presumably, be their dead-ball expert on Saturday.

PLAYING

Australia, despite losing a number of their backline, will be in a far better position this weekend as a result of actually playing a match.

They have also been boosted by the unexpected availability of James Horwill after he successfully came through a citing hearing. This is in stark contrast to the fortunes of the Lions who have lost their irreplaceable talismanic leader Paul O'Connell.

The magnitude of O'Connell's loss has, understandably, been downplayed by the Lions and he is staying with the squad.

Privately, they know they have lost one of their principal advantages and one of their more potent attacking platforms.

O'Connell actually called very few line-outs on himself in the first Test, possibly to hold something in reserve for the second and/or third Tests when the series will be decided. We'll never know now but no matter how you look at it, the Lions have been weakened.

In a roundabout way both Warren Gatland and his forwards coach Graham Rowntree acknowledged that massive improvement is needed this weekend and also gave the broadest hint they have learned from the experience by suggesting changes would have been inevitable had one of Kurtley Beale's kicks been converted.

"We asked ourselves would we be looking at changing things up had we lost and the honest answer is we probably would have," said Gatland.

So what have Gatland and his coaching staff learned?

1 PRE-DETERMINED SUBSTITUTIONS ARE DANGEROUS

Both props were replaced after just 51 minutes. It's been suggested that Alex Corbisiero's tight calf might have been a reason for his substitution but it's probable this was a pre-ordained decision. It backfired on the Lions last weekend.

They had comfortably been the stronger scrummaging side and certainly were controlled, calm and comfortable in the first half. They were second best in the last 30 minutes as the Australian front-row savaged the Lions' new trio.

Dan Cole was also poor on Tuesday, which will result in Adam Jones staying on the pitch this weekend far longer than last.

Change for the sake of change can be counter-productive.

2 THE WALLABIES HAVE MIKE PHILLIPS' NUMBER

He was poor in the first Test. Ben Mowen made his life miserable by chasing and harassing him into making mistakes. And when Mowen wasn't doing it, Will Genia was. The Australians know Phillips intimately at this stage having faced him so often.

He is a world-class scrum-half but whether it's because of the Wallabies' familiarity with his game or because of his knee injury, he was off the pace on Saturday. The Lions can't afford another off-day from their scrum-half?

With that in mind, Ben Youngs must be on the Gatland radar. To get the better of Australia, as Ireland showed in their 2011 World Cup meeting, Genia's influence has to be diluted.

3 THE LIONS CANNOT AFFORD TO CONTINUE

TO MARGINALISE

SEAN O'BRIEN

One of the reasons for Tom Croft's inclusion was the option of having him jump at the tail of the line-out.

Australia cut this option out by squeezing the Lions on their own darts, which negated the primary reason for Croft's inclusion. He is a rangy back-row who looks gangly when running with ball in hand.

While highly effective in open spaces, Saturday's game is going to be tighter and a carrier whose legs pump more like pistons will better suit their needs ... which is where the dynamic ball-carrying of Sean O'Brien needs to come in, with Dan Lydiate also an option.

4 LIONS' BREAKDOWN WORK MUST BE SHARPER

Brian O'Driscoll suffered badly in this department after being penalised three times in a row early in the game. For the remainder he was, Gatland told us, afraid to contest for fear of drawing a yellow card.

The Australians had no issue with the referee's policing of this facet of the game, according to loose forward Mowen, and he expects the interpretation at the breakdown of Saturday's referee, Craig Joubert, to be similar to that of Chris Pollock.

If that is the case, the Lions players have to be absolutely perfect in how they contest at the breakdown and must clearly be seen to be supporting their weight therefore giving Joubert no opportunity to penalise them.

5 THE WALLABIES ARE GOING TO RUN THE BALL

James O'Connor kicked just 7pc of his possession, ran 29pc and passed 64pc on Saturday. By comparison, Jonny Sexton kicked 23pc of the ball he received, ran none of it and passed 73pc. If O'Connor is at No 10, he will run the ball. If Kurtley Beale is at No 10, he will definitely run the ball!

The Aussie game plan is based on their handling ability and their running game no matter who is directing traffic.

There will be changes in the Wallabies' personnel but the game plan won't change. And when they do kick their defence will push up quickly to close the Lions down.

The challenge is for Lions attacking coach Rob Howley is to find a way to break them down.

6 WILL THERE BE CHANGES?

Yes. The Wallabies have had to change their team because of injuries. Joe Tomane and Beale should start and there may well be positional changes to accommodate Beale at 10, which would result in O'Connor going to the wing and Israel Folau moving to full-back. Otherwise Beale will slot into full-back with Tomane replacing Digby Ioane.

George Smith is likely to come onto the bench for them.

The Lions will start Geoff Parling in O'Connell's stead and it also seems inevitable that Mako Vunipola will be called up to start in place of the injured Alex Corbisiero.

The team announcement was due to be made in the early hours of this morning and if the speculation is correct, it will see the inclusion of Youngs at Phillips' expense with the remarkable Tommy Bowe replacing Alex Cuthbert on the wing.

Simon Zebo and Conor Murray are deserving of call-ups to the bench but might find themselves squeezed out.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport