Rocky Elsom: 'The Lions have a pretty good habit of losing'
Rocky Elsom believes Australia will win the Test series, but he tells Peter Bills the one man who can stop them is former Leinster team-mate Brian O'Driscoll
Has Wallaby coach Robbie Deans insulted the touring Lions by keeping all Australia's top players out of the firing line in the build-up to Saturday's first Test?
Former Australian captain Rocky Elsom, the man who had such a profound impact on Leinster rugby during his season in Dublin, has a withering retort to such an idea.
Elsom lays his views on the line with typical Australian bluntness. "It's what happens in the Test series, it's not the build-up games that matter," he says. "Besides, what is insulting for the Lions is the fact that they haven't won a Test series for 16 years. They need to win a bit more. But if they don't change that on this tour, they're going to have to address it pretty soon.
"You can't blame Deans for taking his best players out because he wants them on the field for the Test matches. The fact is, the Wallabies have lost so many players for various reasons in the past. I would have done exactly the same as Deans. His only care is about the team winning. His brief is to make them successful.
"Year after year, the Australians have lost a handful of top-line guys. They get injured or ruled out. And it's happened again this time, for a fifth year in succession."
Elsom harbours no doubts as to the likeliest winners of this Test series on the 2013 Lions tour. "I think for me, the boys (Australia) would be my pick. Without a doubt ...
"The Lions have a pretty good habit of losing and that's a big factor in the equation. The Wallabies are on home soil and the vital first Test is in Brisbane, an excellent place for Australia to play. And if the Lions lose the first Test it's going to be very difficult for them to come back. OK, it can happen, but the pressure starts to mount if you lose the first Test.
"So, I am very confident about the guys winning on Saturday. It wouldn't be the first time Australia has played extremely well at SunCorp stadium."
Yet one name sounds a warning bell in the back of Rocky Elsom's mind. His respect for that individual knows no bounds after the season he shared with him in Leinster colours that ended with a Heineken Cup triumph in 2009.
"The Lions have Brian O'Driscoll and he is still a very special player. To win a Test series like this, you only have to win two matches and Brian can do that for you. His role will be crucial, because any time that you have a guy that can win you matches you will be looking for him at the pivotal points of the game."
How big a loss would Jamie Roberts be alongside O'Driscoll if he loses his fitness battle?
"It depends on the group as a whole. Someone else can always step in and do well. The squad they have picked is based on that. You don't develop people on a Lions tour. They are ready to go when you get them. They have handy guys around, lots of others to choose from. They should be able to fill their team with pretty good players."
But do the Lions really have enough world-class performers, men who would walk into a World XV, which is always the ultimate arbiter? Elsom doesn't look at it like that.
"That is not the issue. You can say that but then, neither do the Wallabies. But it's about their preparation. Warren Gatland has enough good players, but now it's up to them to get the preparation right so that the individual players can prove that.
"And I don't buy the theory about others needing to have belief in those around them. Belief is a terribly over-used word. It doesn't affect your own performance, or it shouldn't, (or) what you think of the guys around you. Players have to get on with their own game, whoever else is playing."
Yes, but within the systems and structures decreed by the coaches. And in this field, Elsom – who has just completed a contract with new Heineken Cup champions Toulon – does believe there are doubts as to the Lions' efficiency in the light of their 14-12 midweek defeat by an understrength Brumbies side.
"It's not just the fact that they lost to the Brumbies. I don't believe you can go into a Test series congratulating yourselves about being unbeaten to that point, especially against some weakened teams. That wouldn't mean much anyway. There is no great value in that.
"It's what happens in the series, not the build-up games that matters. Losing in Canberra should definitely bring some urgency in the Lions game from the start. It will have been a worry for the Lions that their systems and principles didn't function well. Because the Test side will run the same patterns, the same line-out drills as the midweek side. And if those systems don't work properly whoever you are playing it's a worry.
"That is a big part of Test match football. You are relying on the systems you have practised throughout your tour or preparations. If the actual system breaks down, as it seemed to in areas like the line-out and breakdown in Canberra, then that's bad news. Players have to work within a framework for the team to be successful. You see that all over the world.
"There is always an element of chance in any game. But you need to remove that by having a solid strategy that everybody knows how to do, regardless of whether they are up for it or not on a particular day.
"In Canberra, the Lions didn't create anything for themselves in that scenario. They could have won the game, but didn't create enough chances and that has got to be a worry for them."
Elsom tends to discount the theory of fatigue being the cause of the Lions' midweek stumble. "That might be the case, but it's very difficult to know. Only the performance staff within the squad would know that.
"But we will know pretty quickly during this Test series. If some of the top guys can't be played for one or two of the Tests, then that's a firm indication of tiredness."