Wednesday 21 February 2018

Visitors now searching for needle in a haystack

Brian O'Driscoll consoles Leigh Halfpenny
Brian O'Driscoll consoles Leigh Halfpenny
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the Lions' team hotel on Melbourne's Collins Street last Thursday morning, coach Warren Gatland was asked how high was the temperature among his players ahead of yesterday's second Test.

The questioner must have reckoned that by then things were already bubbling. A very relaxed Gatland said that he hadn't really measured it, conveying the impression that there would be time enough for that. You went away with the belief that this game wasn't going to be played before it had to be played, and that the tourists were measured in what they were doing.

By close of business on Friday, however, the signs were that things had heated up considerably. Backs coach Rob Howley was struggling to keep himself in check when he spoke of the enormity of the prize on offer. Players too spoke about Brian O'Driscoll's input, how he had told his team-mates that he didn't want to suffer another episode of seeing a series that was within touching distance slip away.

If Leigh Halfpenny's kick had found the legs to clear the crossbar yesterday then perhaps all the emotion of the last couple of days would have been presented as having been crucial. But even before a ball was kicked in Melbourne you wondered where next the Lions could explore in order to give themselves that winning momentum.

They are exhausted now. That's always how it is going into the last week of a 10-game sequence that comes at the end of a season whose matches started 10 months ago. Factor in the pre-season training and friendlies and you accept that you don't want to be going to the final Test needing to win.

On the way out of the Etihad someone somewhere threw up as a crumb of comfort the win in the third Test in South Africa four years ago. It wasn't even a tooth filler, for that series was done and dusted the previous week. In the same vein, someone else suggested that had the tourists been offered one-all in advance of this point, wouldn't they have been happy with it?

"I suppose if someone had put us in this situation – maybe," Jonny Sexton said, with no appetite for this morsel. "But the fact of the matter is we were 1-0 up and we should have gone 2-0 up and we didn't, so we have to regroup and we need to just improve our performance. At times it felt as we were wishing the game to finish rather than going out and going after it. That's how I felt anyway."

That was a fairly candid assessment from a player who didn't have a lot to play with, and was frustrated with what he did as much as what he didn't get to do.

Now that the Wallabies have found a rhythm, if they can hang on to their inspirational leader James Horwill through another judicial process, they surely will have the third Test wrapped up before they turn into the final straight. Statistically, the Lions were blown out of the water everywhere bar the scoreboard. Two weeks running they have been neck and neck going to the line, despite circumstances suggesting they should have been done for.

Whatever about Brisbane, yesterday they won only the penalty count. And that lopsided 9-4 half-time stat balanced to 14-11 after a second half where the home team got into a front-foot groove that gave Will Genia a stream of quality ball. That allowed for a battalion of runners coming at all angles. Now that they have started using Israel Folau closer to the action, the Lions will be making more tackles going backwards.

You need to be dominant at the set-piece to have any chance of stemming that tide, but that went with the loss of Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins and Alex Corbisiero on the loosehead side of the scrum, and Paul O'Connell from the second-row. The Aussie spin on Mako Vunipola's scrummaging – he is designed to be seen in the last quarter rather than from the off – has been successful.

Even with O'Connell there last week, however, the Wallabies managed to corral the Lions lineout, limiting its quality, and they did it again here, reprising Justin Harrison's steal of Martin Johnson's ball in the third Test in 2001, with Michael Hooper this time picking up the Lions' last throw of the dice. There was massive frustration in the Lions midfield that they weren't seeing anywhere near enough decent ball, and it's hard to see how that will improve in Sydney.

Then there is the motivational stuff. Warren Gatland is a good man-manager but it would be a surprise if by midweek he wasn't managing a couple less by the time the injury situation clears. And what will he say to them to help them over their fatigue? What emotional string will be pull now?

"I think there's a balance that we need to strike between that [emotion] and our performance," said Sexton. "There's no point obviously in being the most passionate team and going out and not [being able to] execute and you can't finish your tries or get set-piece ball. We've got to find a balance there somewhere."

Finding it in the last week of the season, with dwindling resources and against opponents who are physically fresher and mentally boosted now, will be needle in the haystack stuff. If Warren Gatland comes up with something sharp next weekend, then it will make for a wondrous injection. Looks like a long week ahead.

Irish Independent

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