Tuesday 21 November 2017

O'Connell's role crucial as Lions go in for the kill

Talisman can dominate battle of skies and breakdown to give tourists vital series advantage

Paul O’Connell has been peerless at the breakdown and in the line-out on tour so far.
Paul O’Connell has been peerless at the breakdown and in the line-out on tour so far.
Conor George

Conor George

NOW it finally begins; the elevation to fame and fortune or the descent into anonymity. For the Lions or Australia it will be the rise to ecstasy or the awful, chilling, powerless spin into the vortex of failure.

This will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some and a life-changing one for others.

The enormity of the occasion inevitably impinges upon any consideration of this morning's opening salvo in the 2013 Lions tour to Australia. And, just as assuredly, the weight of expectation will be an inordinate burden on both teams.

The winning team will be the collective who absorb all that pressure and use it to their advantage.

Previous Lions players have, on occasion, spoken of the sense of pride and achievement when they pulled on that famous jersey for a first Test.

In the same breath, they have spoken of the tensions that gripped their innards in the dressing-room beforehand, of the hairs standing up on the back of their necks during the pre-match palaver.

All of this and more is what the players will feel when they stand before the assembled capacity of 52,500 in Brisbane and a television audience of millions.

Much of the pressure on the players is knowing that the result of this first Test could be defining. Teams have come from behind in the series and won. The Lions, Paul O'Connell referenced this week, did so in 1989.

"Certainly if you don't win the first Test it leaves you with a big hill to climb," said O'Connell. "It's a massive game. A lot rides on the first one."

It was, however, the only time the Lions have come from behind and won a series.

The strands to this contest are many and the imponderables fascinating.

How will Australia's young out-half James O'Connor cope with the enormity of the occasion? He is the second youngest Wallaby ever, after making his debut as an 18-year-old in 2008, but this is only his second start in the No 10 shirt for Australia.

The Lions will target O'Connor as a potential weakness and they will strive to close him down quickly and often. What is worrying from the tourists' perspective is that it is impossible to identify any other possible flaws in their line-up.

Yes, they are undercooked and this is a line-up that has never played together before. But their selection has a touch of real quality about it. Every pick is a magnificent talent and a potential game-changer.

The only question is whether or not they will gel against a side that is more battle-hardened.

The Lions have spoken about their determination to confound those who labelled them "slabs of red meat" and predicted that they will seek to bludgeon the Wallabies into submission. They also contend they have an expansive game to match and better the Wallabies.

That may be so, but you can be certain the Lions' game plan will be based upon the premise that they win the set-piece battle and control the breakdown.

In both these areas the influence of O'Connell cannot be overstated. Out of touch O'Connell has been peerless and Australia will seek to limit his influence here by not kicking the ball into touch.

When they kick – and they have an array of kickers – they will send long balls into Lions territory and then trust their defensive line to counteract anything the visiting backs can conjure from the possession.

The set-piece is the Lions' primary source of possession and the Wallabies will seek to starve them of this, especially inside their half.

They will also attempt to negate O'Connell's influence at the breakdown, where he has been absolutely magnificent on tour. O'Connell has consistently recycled ball and helped afford his fellow forwards and backs gain front-foot possession.

The Wallabies will back openside Michael Hooper to get to the breakdown before O'Connell and secure possession. If he doesn't, they will then rely on the 20 stones of second-row Kane Douglas to shift the Lions forwards.

LENIENT

In this regard, it is possibly in the Lions' favour that Chris Pollack is refereeing the game, as Kiwi officials usually are more lenient at the breakdown, primarily because of Richie McCaw.

If the second man hitting the ruck stays on his feet, he is invariably afforded all the rights. The Lions will expect the likes of Warburton and Jamie Heaslip to chop any Australian ball-carriers at the legs and charge O'Connell with the responsibility of getting to the breakdown and getting over the ball while staying on his feet.

It is not too simplistic to suggest that the team who wins the breakdown will win the contest, as Brian O'Driscoll suggested.

"It will be a battle of the breakdown," he said. "It's a pretty simple game we play. You win the tackle contest, whether you're carrying or you're defending and you've a good chance of winning the game."

Away from the collisions, Australia's outside backs are frighteningly good, even allowing for having a couple of debutants in the side, including three-code superstar Israel Folau.

Warren Gatland suggested that the Lions will look to test Folau defensively and under the high ball, but they will get little return if they try this tactic. The Brumbies player is still a novice in rugby union, but he has kicking and handling skills from his two years playing AFL and he will thrive on any ball sent his way.

Similarly, Adam Ashley-Cooper has the weaponry to destroy the Lions defence if he gets the ball in his hands with space to run. He has the vision of a full-back and has a great ability to instinctively know when and where to attack.

The Lions have to keep the Australians turning back on themselves by kicking intelligently. This is where they have an advantage, because, in Jonathan Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny, the Lions have two excellent tactical kickers.

What is particularly worrying from a Lions perspective is the lightweight nature of their bench. Gatland has compounded flaws in his initial selection by picking a specialist blindside flanker as the only back-row cover.

It's been suggested that Sean O'Brien – who covers all three positions – lost out because of a poor performance against the Brumbies. If that is so then Gatland has been inconsistent in selecting Ben Youngs as scrum-half cover for his only contribution to that game was to give the referee an ear-ache.

If the game is to be decided by the quality of the replacements that are introduced then the Lions have much to fear.

The presence of Kurtley Beale in the Australian replacements is formidable when measured against the rather limited pair of Owen Farrell and Sean Maitland.

They will, though, be hoping that it doesn't come down to that and that they have enough firepower in their starting line-up to sway matters in their favour.

Verdict: Lions.

Australia v Lions, First Test,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 11.05

Irish Independent

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