Wednesday 25 April 2018

Tony Ward: Must-win mindset to give Wallabies edge as tourists plagued by set-piece fears

As ever, Brian O’Driscoll will have a huge part to play for the Lions
As ever, Brian O’Driscoll will have a huge part to play for the Lions
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Credit Warren Gatland for having the courage to recognise last week's crucial opening Test success for the hollow victory it was. I wondered would he change a winning team. Well he has, and how, with five switches, only two enforced by injury. That's the type of full-blooded surgery we on this conservative little rugby island have great difficulty comprehending.

Despite losing Paul O'Connell to injury, the Irish representation in the match-day 23 has increased from four to six, with Tommy Bowe returning to the starting line-up, and Sean O'Brien and Conor Murray being rewarded for consistently good form with bench spots.

You only change a winning team when there is every chance that change will make for an even better performance next time round.

The selection of Bowe, Ben Youngs and Dan Lydiate ahead of Alex Cuthbert, Mike Phillips and Tom Croft respectively is brave but realistic. Neither Phillips nor Croft made any meaningful mark on last week's game, while Cuthbert, despite scoring a trademark try, trails Bowe (and George North) in terms of pure presence on the wing.

EXCLUSION

With the possible exception of Jonathan Davies (in again for the not-yet-ready Jamie Roberts), this is as in-form a backline as the tourists could possibly field.

The loss of Croft could be felt at line-out time, but hooker Tom Youngs threw little beyond the front and middle in Brisbane. That may limit attacking options, but it is better to have secure ball at two or four than messy, erratic possession off the tail.

Win today and the series is done and dusted – lose, as in 2001 (remember Joe Roff's match and series-turning intercept?) and the tide will dramatically turn the Wallabies' way for what will be a winner-take-all showdown in Sydney. For the Lions that represents the nightmare scenario.

If the series is to be won, then today's the day.

Mako Vunipola, in at loosehead prop for the injured Alex Corbisiero, has a critical part to play. If the England man delivers in the scrum, then the goal of back-to-back success is up and running.

If he fails to do so, with respect to back-up props Ryan Grant and Dan Cole, it is difficult to see where mid-match reconstruction will come from. Ben Alexander and Benn Robinson will hardly put the fear of God in too many opposition front-rows, but if these two get the upper hand on Vunipola and Adam Jones, then that Sydney showdown could become a reality.

There are potential weaknesses in the Lions set-piece game; the trick for Robbie Deans and his Australian squad is in exploiting them.

Beyond that, Gatland's selection of Ben Youngs at scrum-half is a good move, providing he chooses rather than chases his moments to snipe. If he can do to the Wallabies what Will Genia did to the Lions, keeping the opposition back-row on red alert, then hallelujah from Jonny Sexton to Leigh Halfpenny.

But the real question marks hang over some in gold more than those in red. Can Christian Leali'ifano do for the Aussies what Halfpenny does seamlessly for the Lions and turn field position into points?

If yes, then it's game on. Leali'ifano's presence as first-choice goal-kicker frees up James O'Connor to concentrate on his regular out-half duties. O'Connor is an exciting talent, but I cannot see a measured Stephen Larkham or indeed an off-the-cuff Quade Cooper bursting to get out.

Given the right quality of possession, the Lions have in Sexton the complete playmaker to make the right calls.

Just like O'Connor, without the added burden of goal-kicking, he can focus on the other aspects of his game.

In Brisbane, Sexton, along with fellow Irishmen O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Brian O'Driscoll, was top notch. More of the same will be the call.

Can they do it? Yes. Will they do it? I have my doubts. I hope I am wrong but, unlike in Brisbane, I fear that fear could take control. Neither team can afford to lose.

In a war of attrition, even without O'Connell, the Lions may be better equipped.

If Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau get the space to do their thing, aided and abetted by long cut-out passes from O'Connor and Leali'ifano – then watch out Lions.

The decision of the IRB to appeal James Horwill's discipliary 'let-off' is to be welcomed but for now the Wallaby captain is in situ and he too will have a key role to play.

But if you want a steer early, then look to the scrum-halves and whether it is Genia or Youngs who is calling the shots and the greater overall threat. Ben Mowen bottled up Phillips at the Suncorp Stadium last week. Youngs is a different proposition entirely. Given the right platform, he could ignite.

Today's game might not have the classic ingredients of Brisbane last week, but on the basis that they have to win, I'm going for the Wallabies to seal the deal and keep the series alive.

Take Australia by a kick to send the Sky Sports hype-machine into overdrive.

Irish Independent

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