O'Connell influence will continue to shape aerial battle – Mowen
HAS Paul O'Connell's injury handed the advantage over to the Wallabies ahead of Saturday's second Test in Melbourne?
Not necessarily, according to Australia's line-out operator Ben Mowen.
The 28-year-old back-row forward, who made his international debut on Saturday and revealed he came very close to giving up on his Wallaby ambitions, believes that O'Connell will continue to be a huge presence for the Lions.
"He is staying on with the squad and I am sure he will continue to work closely with their forward pack," said Mowen.
"O'Connell is a player who is highly regarded by both sides and was certainly someone we did a lot of work on in preparation for this series. He will continue to work with their line-out and they will benefit from that experience."
Mowen likened O'Connell's new role with the Lions with that of former Wallaby international second-row Nathan Sharpe.
Sharpe retired from rugby at the end of last season with 116 caps but has been working closely with Mowen and the Wallaby line-out.
"Yes, Sharpey has been great for us. He's there to bounce ideas off and to get ideas from. I see O'Connell filling that role for the Lions for the next two Tests," Mowen added.
It is astonishing that Mowen only won his first cap last Saturday. The Brumbies captain was one of their stand-out players in the loss to the Lions. yet, at one stage, he was about to up sticks and head for Europe after growing disillusioned with his lack of international recognition.
"My wife and I discussed moving to Europe. She was keen on France and we looked at a club there. I had moved between Super Rugby clubs three times trying to break through and the thinking was perhaps it was time to start looking at securing a financial future.
"I was warned, though, that if I didn't stick with it, I would regret it, so I'm glad I did. I won't reflect until the season is over and I'm on the beach enjoying a beer, but making my debut will be a special memory."
Mowen believes the Wallaby squad will be stronger as a result of their experiences in a week they not only lost the opening Test, but were also disrupted by a huge injury list and the drama over Digby Ioane's arrest warrant.
"That's all galvanised us to be honest. We will be stronger this weekend," Sharpe said.
Much has been made of the Lions' 12 from 12 return out of touch last weekend but a good portion of their success was due to having to throw to the front of the line-out because of the uniform excellence of the Wallabies' defensive line-out strategy.
"One of the traditional strengths of Warren Gatland-coached teams is their line-out," said Mowen. "They like to throw to the middle or the tail and have their strong players coming through with big carries to break the gain-line.
"We worked hard at our three-phase defence, which is shutting that down and dictating what they can and can't do after just three phases. A lot of the success of that strategy is down to squeezing them in the middle and the tail and forcing them to throw to the front.
"It was challenging because they had five really good line-out jumpers, but it worked well enough."
Mowen acknowledges O'Connell's loss is a huge one for the Lions but he is generous in his praise of his replacement Geoff Parling – "I've been very impressed with what he's done with England. He's a clever operator" – and believes the Lions will have more plays up their sleeve for Saturday.
"The nature of these three-game series is you have to have once-off tactics. You need to come up with something new every week. That's one of the big challenges."
Mowen has predicted another hugely entertaining game this weekend. The Wallabies are in desperation mode as they need to win to force the series to a third deciding Test and that, he predicts, will draw the best from them.
"If we lose it's all over. There is no room for anything other than a win for us. Everything hinges on us winning this weekend.
"There is no alternative," he added.