The phoney war is over let the real war begin.
Let us make no mistake, the loss to the ACT Brumbies was simply not good enough and the Brumbies deserved to win. History will not care that this was the weakest Lions team of the tour against the strongest provincial opposition. Warren Gatland wanted to rest players in light of the mounting injury problems but you do not approach Lions games concerned about injuries – you approach them to win; you approach them to see who is in form and who wants that shirt the most. You certainly approach the last warm up game as a marker, a message to send. This Lions squad had a genuine opportunity to win every game of this tour including the three tests – History. That chance has gone. But win the test series and history will largely consign the loss to the Brumbies as a footnote.
If anything the Brumbies game did underline certain things (aside from being a strong indicator for who will be starting on Saturday), particularly that strength in depth is not balanced across the squad. A back row of Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau is good enough to start and certainly is a close match for Tom Croft, Sam Warburton and Jamie Heaslip. Tipuric, in particular, can console himself that Warburton’s place is not so much on form but on his standing as captain. One player who came out of the Brumbies game with credit is Rob Kearney, a stand out from the previous tour to South Africa. His return to fitness and form provide Gatland with some adaptability across the back three. It seemed that North, Bowe and Halfpenney were pencilled in before injuries. Cuthbert struggled against the Reds, Zebo did himself no harm against the Waratahs, while Wade’s time will not be on this tour; but Kearney’s performance, as ever defined by his brilliance under the high ball, might allow Gatland to push Halfpenney to the wing, especially if he needs to protect North. Defensively the lions have shown some fallibility and I imagine that the final selection will bear that in mind.
It is easy to forget that Australia also have some issues, certainly in terms of match preparation and selection. But Gatland’s starting team can expect two things; firstly that the Aussies will run the ball; secondly that, even without David Pocock they will be competitive at the breakdown. I have been an interested listener to some of the punditry surrounding Quade Cooper – “A gamble worth taking.” At the highest level if you are seeking to gamble then it smacks of desperation. Cooper is undoubtedly a talent and has also shown genuine leadership with the Reds but whereas he may produce a moment of brilliance that leads to a try in the same breath he will make a mistake that might lose a match. Robbie Deans knows this and that is why he wants a more traditional fly-half. This is high stakes rugby and if you cannot trust your fly half with the percentages then you are asking for trouble. Jonny Sexton is not a gamble in any sense of the word, he may not be as flashy as Cooper but he will produce as many moments of genuine world class play. Sexton has a quality that few players can imitate –that oft mentioned “time on the ball” – he has the brain, the timing and the technique to bring in the strike runners and exploit the gaps. With Sexton, O Driscoll, North and Halfpenney there is genuine guile to match the power of the pack and I expect they will all start the first test.
Iron out the kinks in defence, keep Sexton fit, and choose a cohesive back row rather than the three best individuals and I expect the Lions to be too powerful, too strong and too good for Australia.
The war begins now and history awaits.
Who I think Gatland will pick (not necessarily who I would pick):
Halfpenney, Cuthbert, O’Driscoll, Davies, North, Sexton, Phillips
Heaslip, Warburton, Croft, Wyn Jones, O’ Connell, Jones, Youngs, Vunipola