Buzzing Brisbane awaits Lions’ first shot at forever

If tourists are to win the series, they almost certainly have to win this opening Test


How to put this into context? “This is our shot at forever,” ventured Paul O’Connell this week, which re-invoked the immortal words of forwards coach Jim Telfer back in 1989 when he told his troops: “This is your Everest, boys.”

Yep, it really doesn’t get any bigger than this. Different and as big, yes, but bigger, no. Ian McGeechan having presented the jerseys last night, suddenly the first Test is upon us.

The Lions have only been waiting for this for four years, Australia and the Wallabies for 12, and the Oz Odyssey begins in the city where Brian O’Driscoll waltzed past Nathan Gray and Matthew Burke from his own half to announce himself on the global stage.

The invasion of the Lions’ Red Army and the speed and intensity with which the tourists hit the ground running in that first Test at the Gabba caught a team and a nation by surprise.

Forewarned is forearmed, and while the invading force is sure to swell this weekend, it’s unlikely it will be the same sea of red as when the pound was three to one with the Aussie dollar. But there’ll hardly be a supporter not bedecked in gold or red, and no less than a dozen years ago for all three seismic collisions, the sense of occasion will be epic.

Although the Lions stormed into a 29-3 lead that day, Jason Robinson scoring in the second minute and Rob Henderson amongst others who had blinders, the then World Cup holders re-grouped, as they do, and came storming back to win a magnificent series.

If the Lions are to win the series, and end a run of seven successive defeats in “live” matches, one ventures they almost certainly have to win this opener.

It’s no guarantee, but history has shown the under-cooked if fresher Wallabies are more liable to improve than the Lions.

But while the pressure to win is arguably greater on the tourists, and it’s hard to build a new team in four or five weeks while travelling via Hong Kong and crossing Australia, by rights the Lions ought also to be better prepared.

If the Lions shoot out of the blocks a la the Gabba, that will be further evidence of this. Then, they will need to maximise this advantage.

With Jonny Sexton pulling the strings, and George North the occasion’s likeliest gamebreaker, they look well enough equipped to do so.

Alternatively, the Aussies could lean against the ropes and soak up the pressure, as they did in the second Test 12 years ago, and sucker-punch the Lions. In which case the tourists will find it very difficult to come back.

The Wallabies are, as Andy Farrell admitted yesterday, the hardest opponents to predict. More than most, they like to go to the centre of the pitch and play from there, splitting their attack in two, with their array of playmakers – James O’Connor, Christian Leali’ifano and Berrick Barnes calling the shots.

“The main thing about a match of this magnitude is having no lapses of concentration throughout the game,” said Farrell. They could pull any type of rabbit out of the hat at any single time – that’s what they are about – and we have to be ready for that.

“We need to take our defensive game to them and I think our attack will talk for itself.”

For all O’Connor’s footwork and gamebreaking abilities, he’s had little rugby, least of all at outhalf and at this level. The Lions have a match-winner and supreme game organiser in Jonny Sexton, who appears to be arriving for his first Lions Test at the peak of his considerable powers.

“He certainly is a leader and I haven’t seen anyone as thorough in his preparation,” said Farrell. “He spoke well in the circle after training and he demands excellence, because that’s what he expects of himself. He is a big game player and the quality of any good number 10 is to make sure the people around you are ready to go.”

It would be something of a surprise if either side had a telling advantage in the set-pieces, with the tackle zone, as ever nowadays, key.

Good operators
The Lions have some good operators here, in Sam Warburton, Jamie Heaslip and Paul O’Connell, who can be expected to have good games.

But Michael Hooper is a potential match-winner there, and as with all bar one of Liam Gill’s previous eight caps, with his pace to burn, it will be no surprise if he joins the fray as an auxiliary openside.

The absence of another openside in the Lions ranks is a concern, and there is, apparently, huge surprise and relief in the Wallabies’ camp that Seán O’Brien isn’t in the mix.

For all this, the barometer to this game could very well be Will Genia and Mike Phillips. Not so much in terms of head-to-head, but which one of them will start exploiting any space, in their own different ways, or find gaps in the fringe defence.

Genia will be particularly sharp in attacking any space on the blindside and linking with Reds team-mate Digby Ioane or Israel Folau.

A critical factor in Ireland’s win over Australia at Eden Park in the World Cup was how the backrow – including O’Brien – closed Genia down, and one presumes Heaslip will bring some of that knowledge and execution to the party.

The Lions have never lost in Brisbane in seven previous Tests here, but Suncorp is the Wallabies’ favourite ground, and with good reason. In 20 games there, they have won 16, drawn one and lost three, with the latter four all coming against the All Blacks.

Something has to give. It’s almost time to rumble and how it will rumble.

British & Irish Lions (Australia): Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues/Wales); Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets/Wales), George North (Scarlets/Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Racing Metro/Ireland), Mike Phillips (Bayonne/Wales); Alex Corbisiero (London Irish/England), Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England), Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales); Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Paul O’Connell (Munster/Ireland); Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues/Wales, capt), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland).

Replacements: Richard Hibbard (Ospreys/Wales), Makovina Vunipola (Saracens/England), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers/England), Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers/England), Dan Lydiate (Dragons/Wales), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England), Owen Farrell (Saracens/England), Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors/Scotland)

Australia (v Lions): Berrick Barnes; Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali’ifano, Digby Ioane; James O’Connor, Will Genia; Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander, K Douglas, James Horwill, Ben Mowen, Michael Hooper, Wycliff Palu.

Replacements: Saia Fainga’a, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Liam Gill, Nick Phipps, Pat McCabe, Kurtley Beale.
Head-to-head: Played 20, Australia 5 wins, Lions 15 wins.
Series victories: Australia 1 Lions 6. Last series (2001): Australia 13 Lions 29; Australia 35 Lions 14; Australia 29 Lions 23.
Betting: (Paddy Powers): 6/4 Australia, 25/1 Draw, 8/13 Lions. Handicap odds (Australia +3pts) 11/10 Australia, 16/1 Draw, 10/11 Lions. To win the series: Australia 6/4, Lions 4/7.
Forecast: If Sexton, Warburton and North all last the 80, Lions to win.