Sunday 25 February 2018

Tony Ward: Series over unless tourists overhaul team and tactics

Leigh Halfpenny fails to convert a penalty with the last kick of the match
Leigh Halfpenny fails to convert a penalty with the last kick of the match

IF there is one thing I find enormously endearing about Jonathan Sexton, quite apart from his obvious game-running talent, it is that refreshing ability to call it as it is.

Players' post-match comments are generally inane in the extreme. However, this observation from a man central to Saturday's action summed up what was an average Test – if hugely competitive and never less than interesting.

"At times it felt as if we were wishing the game to finish rather than going out and going after it. That's how I felt anyway," acknowledged Sexton.

Me too, Jonny, and I'm sure there were many more in a massive audience worldwide. This was a game the Lions set out attempting not to lose rather than going at it to win.

The difference in mindset was massive and it showed, with the Wallabies deservedly tying up the series despite Leigh Halfpenny's last-ditch attempt to pull a series victory out of the fire.


Much like life, you don't always get what you deserve, but on this must-win occasion, the team that wanted it more and played accordingly did. It wasn't open flowing rugby – it was never going to be – but what continuity play we did witness came in the second half from the home team.

The Lions got out of jail to some degree in Brisbane, but in Melbourne, they reaped no more than they had sown in a nervy, angst-ridden performance.

Both set-pieces huffed and puffed but I cannot get a handle on how a scrum can go from reverse to fifth gear within a few minutes. The swings at scrum time were extraordinary but Mako Vunipola, supposedly at sea technically, hung on in there and contributed to a primary phase which panned out about even over the course of the 80.

The line-out continues to cough and splutter – it misses Paul O'Connell's presence.

I cannot comprehend the logic of risking tail-end ball at the expense of reasonable security at the front or, at a stretch, the middle.

I understand the principle of extending attacking options off the end but surely a common-sense approach is demanded. All three hookers have struggled to find the back of the line with accuracy on this tour, so why add to the individual and collective pressure in that vital set-piece area? It's a hell of a lot easier to play the Wallabies with the ball than without.

Between the first and second Tests, Warren Gatland made five changes, at least two enforced, to a winning line-up. Whether there will be the same number despite losing I'm not so sure. Change must bring potential improvement and, on this series-deciding Saturday, it must also lead to a change in strategy.

So where to from here? Behind the scrum there are two obvious areas that need addressing. At scrum-half, Ben Youngs failed to grab his chance with conviction, the Lions No 9 playing second fiddle to the Australian catalyst Will Genia – as Mike Phillips had a week earlier.

Were the nod to go to Conor Murray, it would, on form, be logical and fair. Either way, it is a straight' call between the 'ninth forward Phillips or the very much in-form Ireland scrum-half.

The other change would see Jamie Roberts re-unite with Brian O'Driscoll in the midfield. If fit, then Roberts' selection is a no-brainer, because a repeat of Melbourne in personnel and strategy, and it's series over before a ball is kicked.

Up front, the big questions are Alex Corbisiero or Vunipola, Tom Youngs or Richard Hibbard.

O'Connell's absence is immense but Alun-Wyn Jones and Geoff Parling should, as a combination, remain intact.

The back-row dilemma is the same now as ever it was. On form, the case for Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Sean O'Brien as a unit is considerable but they haven't played together in that 6, 7, 8 format.

Ben Mowen and Michael Hooper have dominated the flanks both offensively and defensively, with Hooper the stand-out figure and man of the match for me in Melbourne.

The other key issue is the availability of James Horwill given his retrial later today.

Should the IRB lose the appeal, then it's advantage Wallabies for Sydney. But if the home side lose Horwill for the final Test, it's a loss equivalent to that of O'Connell.

Halfpenny's miss at the death has refuelled the hype tank. There will be suffocation coverage in the coming days ahead of the series-deciding Test.

And if O'Driscoll is to finally fulfil that Lions winning dream, then he's going to have to do it the hard way. Would he or we expect it any other way given the undeniable shift in momentum post-Melbourne?

Right now it's advantage Australia.

Irish Independent

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