Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 February 2018

Rachel Wyse: Aussie underdogs will have bit between teeth

Jamie Heaslip’s selection ahead
of Toby Faletau represents a big
vote of confidence
Jamie Heaslip’s selection ahead of Toby Faletau represents a big vote of confidence

Rachel Wyse

The Lions departed for Australia on May 27, but the tour only really begins at 11.0 this morning in Brisbane. Events so far haven't exactly thrilled us; games and scorelines have been predictable.

Headlines have concentrated on injuries and changes in personnel to the touring squad, while the matches to date have been very much a sideshow to the first Test.

Today is D-Day, the first Test and a must-win match for the visitors. Should the Lions be beaten today, it's very hard to see them still winning the series.

The Lions certainly haven't been overworked in the six warm-up matches and whether such confidence-building preparation has been beneficial or left them under-prepared for today's examination is simply speculation.

Only after observing exchanges in the opening 20 minutes at the Suncorp Stadium will we know the answer.

On their home patch in front of their own people, Australia will present a massive challenge and should there be fractures within the Lions camp they will be exposed very quickly.

Managing 42 players from four countries is a challenge in itself for Warren Gatland; keeping them content while picking a team to beat Australia in their own back yard is an unenviable task. Unsurprisingly, Gatland has turned to those he knows best for this opening Test.

FAMILIAR

His team is backboned by trusted Welsh players, men very familiar to their coach. Captained by Sam Warburton, Gatland's team selection didn't really surprise anyone.

I wonder will this be a problem for the Lions because if we all expected Gatland's selection, have no doubts the Australians will have done exactly the same. The home side will be suitably prepared for the men wearing red.

This tour hasn't witnessed midweek players forcing themselves into the Test selection to provide an unexpected twist for the opposition.

Injuries aside, today's team could have been picked two months ago. Considering there is a very real possibility the players are under-prepared in terms of match practice, it hardly makes for an ideal scenario before an opening Test in the southern hemisphere.

Gatland's approach to the game has been similar to the way he managed Wales. Expect the Lions to replicate this style, especially with so many Welsh players involved. Ball retention will be crucial to allow the Lions to go through their phases of play, as the selection of Alex Corbisiero would indicate.

The Lions go to war with two scrummaging props in the hope that their front-row will establish a foothold.

Irish involvement is restricted to four players, with Cian Healy and Tommy Bowe ruled out through injuries. For the Lions to win, all four of our representatives on the field must be at their absolute best.

Paul O'Connell's renaissance in the last few months of the season with Munster has been testament to his character and willpower, but today he needs to operate on a higher level again.

The Heineken Cup in Munster isn't comparable with touring Down Under in a Lions jersey, but O'Connell has been here before and he will know full well what is expected of him. The same applies to Brian O'Driscoll.

By his own admission, the career of Ireland's greatest player is coming to an end. Let's hope he and O'Connell can reproduce their brilliance and inspire those around them.

Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton are approaching the prime of their careers and Irish fans will be hoping their graph continues to rise.

Heaslip has been selected ahead of Toby Faletau at No 8, a selection that represents a big vote of confidence by Gatland in the Irish captain.

It is important for Heaslip to make things happen and impose himself on today's game and not get caught passively drifting through the match without having any real effect. His attitude must not betray his talent.

Sexton now has a serious backline at his disposal, men capable of doing real damage if they can get the ball in hand. Should the Lions forwards establish dominance up front, the sight of this Lions backline in full flow under Sexton's influence could well bring a smile to the faces of rugby fans from Aberdeen to Adare.

The presence of England's Owen Farrell on the bench will hopefully ensure Sexton brings his 'A' game to today's party.

Bookmakers make the Aussies underdogs for the opening Test. It's a brave decision making an Australian team outsiders, especially when they are competing in their own country.

They are a determined and fiercely proud sporting nation. Underestimating them is ill advised.

On paper it appears the Lions hold advantages all over the field – their ability to win possession at line-out, scrum and restart appears superior to Australia's. The Lions have ball carriers like O'Driscoll and George North in the backs and Heaslip in the forwards.

Sexton at No 10 should have the ability to manage a game better than his counterpart James O'Connor. The goal-kicking percentages of Leigh Halfpenny are superior to those of O'Connor.

In terms of experience, the Lions have a definite edge with a side containing former Lions captains and players who have captained their countries such as Heaslip and Alun Wyn Jones.

But Test series are not played on paper. The Lions might just learn that the hard way today.

Irish Independent

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