Power play and place-kicking to yield series triumph
Gatland's charges can overcome injuries and stamp authority on first Test, writes Jim Glennon
Five games into the tour, six days away from the first Test, and to say that the opening games have been something of an anti-climax would be to put it at its mildest, particularly after 12 months of overdrive from Sky's hype-machine. The non-events have been a major disappointment.
That said, however, the fact remains that we are into Test week, with Brisbane on Saturday now in sharp focus, preceded by a possibly challenging outing in Canberra against Jake White's ACT Brumbies on Tuesday.
If the poor quality of the opposition has been a topic for discussion, so too has been the rate of attrition amongst the tourists, with both loosehead props, Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins, being forced to return home almost immediately, Tommy Bowe undergoing surgery on a hand injury, and debilitating fitness concerns over tour captain Sam Warburton and also Rob Kearney.
The injuries situation has exacerbated the perennial complexities of early-tour selection, most notably at loosehead, while the restricted game time afforded to Warburton, coming off the back of a season where he struggled for form and was a somewhat contentious selection as captain, has only heightened the pressure on the player and coaching staff alike.
The departures of both Healy and Jenkins have not only given selection headaches to head coach Warren Gatland and scrum coach Graham Rowntree, but also look to have deprived the tourists of what would've been seen in advance of the tour as one of their primary pieces of offensive weaponry – their scrum. Australia, for well over a decade now, have struggled at the scrum to the point that it has almost become part of their tradition and, in Healy and Jenkins, the Lions seemed to have two options with the capacity to inflict damage.
While the remarkable 22-year-old Mako Vunipola has acquitted himself well in their absence, he is at his most effective when coming off the bench, and may not be quite as strong as the injured pair at the set-piece.
Until yesterday, the backline selection seemed to be a much more straightforward affair with Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll expected to renew their 2009 midfield partnership. Roberts' injury is a major concern as Jonathan Davies, the likely alternative, lacks game time with O'Driscoll, a handicap that the tourists could have done without. The injury to Bowe is another cruel blow after what has been a season blighted by injury.
The omission by Robbie Deans of the mercurial Quade Cooper has been the major talking point on the Australian side. James O'Connor is his preferred option in the pivotal play-making outhalf role. Not unlike their opponents either, the interestingly titled 'Qantas Wallabies' have had some serious injury issues themselves, with the likes of back-rower Scott Higginbotham and wing Digby Ioane ruled out with shoulder and knee problems respectively.
A lot has been made of the move by the Lions towards a power-driven game, behind the scrum in particular, and while it may not be the prettiest, one only has to look at the success enjoyed by Wales in recent years, and the close-run nature of their series against Australia last summer, to measure its effectiveness, when executed efficiently. While there are still some question marks up front, principally around the possible permutations and combinations in the back row and who will line out at loosehead, I can't help but lean towards the Lions for the first Test, particularly with Leigh Halfpenny in such remarkable place-kicking form.
Yes, there have been issues with the lineout and the maul, and there is the chance that they simply haven't been tested strongly enough and often enough, but I don't believe Gatland has shown anything like his full hand in public.
In addition, they have delivered anything asked of them, and more. Indeed, they have impressed from the outset as a tight-knit and professional group with a very clear objective.
The first Test, in any series, is of paramount importance and particularly so this time for the Lions in the immediate aftermath of unsuccessful campaigns in South Africa 2009 and New Zealand 2005; a win is absolutely vital in terms of establishing momentum in the series and heaping pressure on the opponent and after those aforementioned two failed tours, a good performance would be a bonus.
I don't believe the Aussies have the quality in depth encountered by the Lions in either 2005 or 2009 and for that reason, injury difficulties notwithstanding, I'm going to stick my neck out and go for a series win for the Lions, maybe even 2-0, with leading roles for O'Driscoll, Jonny Sexton and Paul O'Connell.