Monday 23 October 2017

Tony Ward: Ambition and flair give Wallabies edge over blunt Lions

Australia’s Israel Folau catches a high ball during the captain's run in Sydney
Australia’s Israel Folau catches a high ball during the captain's run in Sydney
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Talk about extremes. As one iconic centurion is resurrected four years on from last wearing the gold at Test level, another will never again don the red of the Lions.

For George Smith, the biggest stage imaginable beckons to see out an extraordinary career at the highest level. For Brian O'Driscoll there is no such opportunity to fill one of the few gaps from a near-complete career.

It is now three days on from Warren Gatland shocking the rugby world with his decision to omit the outstanding player in the northern hemisphere since the game went professional.

Despite Gatland's defence of that decision on the grounds that it was 'rugby driven', I am still none the wiser as to what it is Jonathan Davies brings to the cause, at this point in his developing career, that O'Driscoll doesn't.

If O'Driscoll had been playing rubbish – which he is assuredly not – and Davies playing out of his skin – which is also not the case – the decision to omit the Dubliner could be accepted by most fair-minded people. If Sam Warburton and/or Paul O'Connell weren't injured, you could, at a stretch, understand it.

But factor in all of the above and it is far from justified on rugby grounds.

If Gatland believes the Roberts/ Davies combination makes for a better, more dynamic centre pairing in the power-driven game plan, then why not say as much?

OUTRAGE

I suspect even Gatland has been taken aback at the near-universal outrage to what he perceives as a run-of-the-mill rugby decision.

That bombshell at the team announcement has overshadowed everything else in the build-up to the series decider and, in a strange way could, for the Lions, prove a blessing in disguise.

The scrum needs to lock, as distinct from dominate, and the line-out fire, specifically through Richard Hibbard, if the tourists are to have any chance at all in Sydney this morning.

Beyond that, if Roberts can do what Roberts does more consistently than any other player in the 12 channel, by crossing the gain line and providing that centrefield target with forward momentum, then it's game on.

Against that we have the human and psychological elements. The Wallabies, even allowing for Smith's inclusion and all the injuries shipped in the first Test, have what best resembles a settled side. The Lions, despite the 10 Welsh players, are betwixt and between.

To that add momentum, which is now very definitely on the Wallabies' side. The difference seven days ago was just a point, but the galvanising effect of that result has been huge.

There is too another factor and it relates to end-of-season touring anywhere, at any level. When you get to the final week thoughts turn to home, to that long-awaited flight, to that upcoming break. It is human nature.

So a good start for the Lions is essential. If the Wallabies get on top early and translate territory and possession into points, I'll be fearing the worst.

It's at times like this that you turn to your true leader and, on this must-win occasion, he'll be sitting up in the stand.

While both Tests to date have been fascinating in their intensity and competitiveness, the standard has been poor overall. The only attempt at constructive rugby has come from the Wallabies, specifically in the second half in Melbourne, when they showed glimpses of their high-tempo off-loading capability.

The Lions, by comparison, have retreated somewhat predictably into a shell.

Gatland calls it power rugby and, no doubt, if it gets the desired result the man will be declared a coaching maestro, with the Sky hype machine pushing for Sir Warren!

AGENDA

Irrespective of the outcome, it is a view I don't share. Forget the O'Driscoll saga for a moment and focus instead on the potential power of four nations against one country where rugby union struggles to stay the pace with Aussie Rules, rugby league, soccer and cricket.

We should be setting the agenda, and while performance is second to result, it shouldn't be like that.

From an Irish perspective Tommy Bowe, Jonny Sexton and Sean O'Brien will have key roles to play, possibly Conor Murray too.

But the sub-plot to everything is the dropping of O'Driscoll. It is unwarranted, unfair, untimely and unjustified. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, particularly on this island.

Therefore, my feelings are mixed about today's match. Regardless of the outcome, Ireland v Wales in the Aviva next February will be interesting. Get your ticket now.

Today, I expect the Lions to circle the wagons, Roberts to do his thing but the Wallabies to prevail. It still has all the key ingredients for a thriller.

Take the Lions to hit the ground running but Australia to shade it by six.

Irish Independent

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