Sunday 17 December 2017

Untested Lions about to experience the type of pace and intensity that could leave them chasing their tails

Gatland's fit and polished unit will have to rise to unprecedented heights, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The human species has been evolving for millions of years – natural selection, Darwin and the constant streamlining of the human genome. How do you explain Adam Jones? I remember the first time I saw him waddle onto a pitch and I thought to myself, 'did they have to put down the rest of the herd?'

The upcoming Test series against Australia will be so tight that it is no stale remark to say that it will come down to the smallest of margins. People have pointed to a scrummaging hegemony held by the Welsh over their victims which can be firmly attributed to the man playing in the No 3 jersey. While this distinct advantage has worked against their northern hemisphere opponents, it hasn't been sufficient to discommode the Wallabies whenever the Welsh have played them.

You also have to point to the quality of the man on the other side of the scrum. As the song goes, 'you don't know what you got til it's gone'. Cian Healy's loss will only be felt when when he is gone. Alex Corbisiero or Mako Vunipola ain't going to muscle anyone out of it. You only get seven or eight of your own put-ins on a dry day and this writer just isn't sure that the legs of this 32-year-old woolly mammoth won't have been run off him by the break-neck pace of the game at Test level. I am certain that the pace that all these matches will be played at will be a level higher than most of the Lions have ever played at. It is important to remember that the Wallabies play against the All Blacks a minimum of three times a year.

One thing that has impressed me has been the skill levels in the recent set of international games. The All Blacks showed astonishing levels in their 30-0 demolition of the French yesterday and I don't think the Aussies, given what two of their hugely understrength Super XV sides could do, will vary hugely.

There was a 30-point margin yesterday and a 10-point margin against the Reds and the sheer scale of the Lions' intensity in the collisions and their ability to press forward and to take chances told in the end against scratch sides, but they have been opened and exploited by some pretty exceptional handling of second-string players.

On that basis I move away from the traditional strengths of scrum and lineout and point to the warfare on the ground. The ability to take a tackle on the ball-carrier's own terms, the speed into the breakdown and the want and need under duress and huge pressure to flood numbers into the breakdown to get quick ball – that is the key to the Test series.

Best player on the park yesterday was Drew Mitchell, the former Wallaby wing playing at full-back for the Waratahs. Ageing and surplus to the requirements of Robbie Deans, his vision and range of exemplar skills just showed the deficit between northern and southern hemisphere. The unheralded Bernard Foley at pivot displayed far superior distributing skills than the much vaunted Jonny Sexton's prowess in this area.

The Lions – even at this early stage – look organised, their combinations have clicked and they look very polished and kept their shape as their patterns became more fluent. They do look very fit and this will stand to them because they will be run all over the park by the Wallabies, who I feel know exactly what they have to do to win. A dry day, though, is imperative.

The difference between yesterday's match and the Reds game is the difference between 'ooh' and 'aah'. The central feature of the Lions' display was their lines and in this regard some of the Welsh three-quarters, Halfpenny and Davies in particular, looked very good – soft hands, subtlety and a broader range of vision than you would have given them heretofore. Up front the salad dodgers played with control and were in command in some of the more carnivorous exchanges at the breakdown. It was an authentic performance from the pack and the Lions can be proud of a display which was levels higher than last week. Flattery is OK unless you inhale and it is important that the Lions remain grounded while retaining an air of confidence.

Warren Gatland's job has been made an awful lot easier on the strength of some of the events that took place yesterday in Sydney. If we were certain about how much trouble Healy was in when he twisted his ankle in Perth, we can be sure too that Jamie Roberts' tour might have come to a premature end. Those in-your-face camera angles told you that a central plank in the Lions' offensive strategy will have to change. We're not sure about Manu Tuilagi's physical conditioning or how badly injured his shoulder is, but if he is fit to start against the Brumbies he gets a chance to play for a Test spot.

Gatland's gameplan revolves around getting over the gain line off huge one-off runners – Roberts does it eight times in a game and does it really well and he looked good off Sexton's promptings in the first half. He is gone now and there may have to be a fundamental reappraisal of the Lions midfield.

Jonathan Davies has been excellent in everything he has done, an understated catalyst and somebody who reminds me a little bit of Conrad Smith and the role he plays for the All Blacks at inside centre. He does the simple things brilliantly, very rarely makes mistakes and has a great chance to play in the first Test with Brian O'Driscoll, but it just might not suit what the Lions are trying to do and that could be a major issue in terms of how the Lions attack. We await medical reports, even those on O'Driscoll.

Even in a 30-point victory, some of the Lions players played themselves out of Test selection. Sean Maitland on the wing was awful defensively and never took part in any of the Lions' better forays, lacking conviction when on the ball. There will be no Scotsman-Kiwi in the Test side.

Jamie Heaslip had a shockingly ordinary game for a player who knew the rewards for a big performance. It wasn't that he lacked industry but he just seemed to be off the pace and was very ineffectual in his attempt to tackle Tom Carter on the line for the Waratahs' second try.

Tom Youngs looks to have played himself into the Test side with what was an assured if not virtuoso lineout performance. Ten very effective tackles and some very good lines and support running in the loose – he may well be the bolter. Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O'Connell as a unit were also forceful and commanding but will need to step up against far superior opposition next week.

One of the things Gatland will be relieved about is that his captain not only came through a very long 80 minutes where he was never far from the ball, he was always close as an auxiliary runner and managed three turnovers and a significant number of slowdowns at ruck time. He will be just right for the first Test.

I fancy the Brumbies to turn the Lions over in Canberra on Tuesday and we wait to see whether the Lions, who have had it easy at tight, will be able to either control the pace or deal with the pace next Saturday in Brisbane.

Irish Independent

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