Welsh wrecking crew look ready for a demolition job
The Lions are about to leave the land of the hypothetical and enter the harsh reality of what the tour is all about, the Test series.
The trouble with a Lions tour to Australia is that the limited worth of the build-up games allows more space for a theme of dissatisfaction to develop. What is learned from a game won at a canter? Grumble, mumble. How can Warren Gatland work out combinations that will perform under high stress when there is no strain? Growl, groan.
Here are the last of the "what ifs". What if the Lions had had half a dozen warm-up games of genuine value against teams that included in batches the entire contents of the Wallaby squad, released by Robbie Deans to play for their franchises? What if the Lions, and the Wallabies for that matter, had had no injuries – not a single bruise – in those matches? The answer would be that the Tests would still come as an almighty shock to the system.
The Lions could spend an entire season assembling themselves and acclimatising to the conditions and they would still not be entirely ready for what is going to happen in Brisbane on Saturday.
Neither can the home team, who have not played together since December, be entirely confident about Saturday. Twelve years is a long time to keep fresh in the memory and in those dozen years since the last contact with the unique style of the Lions the game has changed beyond compare. In the past four years alone, since the last tour to South Africa, the game has become more physical and, goodness knows, that 2009 tour shook bones like nothing before.
It seems that out of the preamble in Australia things weigh slightly the Lions' way in the scales of damage. They have lost Gethin Jenkins, Cian Healy and, for the moment, Tommy Bowe and, it seems, Jamie Roberts. The Wallabies have lost David Pocock, George Smith, Sitaleki Timani, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Scott Higginbotham and, for the moment, Digby Ioane. There are question marks about the fitness of George North and Brian O'Driscoll, but you can bet there are half a dozen in the opposition camp facing long sessions on the physios' slab before they are in a fit state to play.
So, for the mighty lurch into the intensity of the first Test, who might Warren Gatland select? At least he has not had the distraction of Quade Cooper, the slinger of blitz defence-cracking passes and the outside half who once described the atmosphere of Robbie Deans' camps as "toxic". Not surprisingly, the Australia
coach has kept the litmus paper Quade away. If ever there may be a case to be made for his inclusion, perhaps it is for the third Test, if it is to be a decider. Then, when the rhythm of the Tests and the intensity of the physical challenge are not such a jolt, there may be a place for an Unusual One.
On Gatland's side, the mantra from the start – of his coaching career and not just this tour – has been uncomplicated, extreme directness. For subtlety, Jonathan Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll may be granted a licence, but in general this is about Jonathan Davies and George North smashing over the advantage line and then big ball-carrying forwards – possibly not as big as the centre and wing – taking the ball on. It is said that tries rarely come after three phases, but the routines of crash and churn deliver penalty opportunities and take a toll on defenders.
But who are these ball-carrying forwards? Not really the second-rows. Paul O'Connell has gifts at the lineout and as a hitter of rucks. Alun Wyn Jones has a colossal engine and work rate but does not gain yards in tight space. Richard Hibbard does but not quite as well as Mako Vunipola. The prop has been catapulted from cameo-role replacement to starting loosehead. Adam Jones is precious for many things but not for doing a Mako.
The back row, then, becomes the all-important unit. Seán O'Brien is the most explosive of the runners but Gatland has a serious respect for the work of Dan Lydiate, an admiration based on how the Welsh blindside cuts down players such as O'Brien. Stopping Australia is as important as making the Lions move.
But what about Tom Croft? He brings something very different to the lineout, a spring that delivers at the tail, the best place from which to launch attacks, and at the front on the opposition ball. To throw over the stretch of the Leicester player is a grave challenge for an opposition hooker. Croft brings comfort to a set-piece that has not been the Lions' strongest.
Sam Warburton will play at No 7. It seems to be part of the Gatland process to say in public that his captain is as vulnerable as anyone and Warburton does not seem to mind the prod. But their relationship as coach and captain is tight. Justin Tipuric, remarkable as a link, will keep for a later date when the game has stretched beyond the suffocating.
Jamie Heaslip or Toby Faletau at No8? The Irish captain, who did not have a good Six Nations but who is rediscovering his form as a Lions foot-soldier, or the near silent Faletau, prone to the odd handling error but the most willing workhorse at any time under any conditions? For the first Test, when simplicity is the name of the game and directly ahead the only direction, it may be Faletau, in between Warburton and Lydiate, a Welsh back row to smash the life out of hypothetical rugby.