Gatland hopes his big gambles pays off for the Lions
Wallabies more likely to produce a moment of magic to win the series
Left to right - Owen Farrell, Jamie Heaslip, Tom Youngs, Alex Cuthbert, Adam Jones (under jacket), Ben Youngs and Sam Warburton watch the final moments of the second Test from the bench. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire.
So, not entirely surprisingly, it’s come down to this. It’s been that kind of season, that kind of tour. Both sides now have an 80 minute shot at forever, with the Lions either ending 16 years of hurt or the Wallabies sending them to New Zealand four years hence seeking a first series win in 20 years.
Another crackling occasion couldn’t have been set up much better, although Irish fans might provide one caveat. The margins have been wafer thin and it will be no surprise if, like the ’89 and ’01 series, this comes down to the last play of the match too. In that, there are a couple of ominous portents, in that on both occasions the team that rebounded from losing the first Test by levelling the series completed the comeback in game three.
Historically also, the Wallabies have risen to the occasion in do-or-die games, as the series winner 12 years ago against the Lions here in Sydney underlines. Their two World Cup triumphs in 1991 and ’99 were also built on handling big games.
Admittedly, this generation are comparatively unproven, but they have added some armour under pressure over the past 12 months. Under Robbie Deans they have tended to produce their best performances when under fire after their most deflating losses.
The value of experience and leadership has been a hot topic this week, witness Deans recalling George Smith, while Warren Gatland has jettisoned you-know-who and the Ireland captain on top of losing the Lions’ current and most recent tour captains, but in James Horwill, Will Genia, Stephen Moore and others, a real leadership group with a winning mentality have come to the fore.
This will tell a tale alright. Gatland has taken a huge gamble with an exceptional, trophy-laden CV in his selection, and if it comes off, then a Lions series win can be added to the honours his teams have harvested, and he would probably still be favourite to take the Lions to New Zealand. But if it doesn’t, he’ll have seriously jeopardised those prospects.
That merely underlines what a brave call Gatland’s selection was. It may have betrayed plenty of favouritism in this week of need, but to suggest it was vindictive or in any way a non-rugby decision is nonsense.
However, looking at a re-run of the second Test, it still looks wrong. It would be no surprise if Adam Ashley-Cooper has more space to work in the outside channels without O’Driscoll to close down the space, not to mention his superior tackling execution to Jonathan Davies. Just seeing the selection will encourage the Wallabies to do so too.
They have started only 18 players in three Tests. By first making five changes from a winning team, and then six changes, the Lions will have used 24 in three starting line-ups, even if four-fifths of the team is now Welsh.
In the process too, the injection of Jamie Roberts, Seán O’Brien and maybe Toby Foletau should generate some badly needed go-forward. But it all seems predicated on the Welsh game plan of bashing the opposition into submission via the collisions. It’s not making the most of Jonny Sexton.
However, in addition to now having the momentum, you’d have to think the Wallabies will improve exponentially again, that even James O’Connor might put the lessons of the first two games to use by playing flatter, keeping concentration and disrupting more accurately. And having belatedly twigged that Israel Folau is actually the game’s likeliest match-winner, one suspects they’ll bring him up the middle, and either work it wide or kick it wide to him more regularly.
In contrast to their build-up games (in which Davies was amongst those who revelled in more of a running game) the Lions failure to bring George North and Tommy Bowe into the game was indicative of their increasingly restrictive game plan. The one problem about having a world-class goal-kicker is that a team can become overly reliant on one.
The one time Sam Warburton went to the corner, and reduced the Wallabies to yellow card territory, he promptly backed off and threw the ball to Halfpenny. A la Wales, the Lions pack down for a scrum to win a penalty, not to use their backs, and even with wobbles the tactic yielded a 9-6 return last week. There’s also the Lions’ lineout troubles which the selection of Richard Hibbard and puzzling omission of Tom Croft doesn’t seem to rectify.
There’s also the Romain Poite factor, which is incalculable. But most of all there’s a feeling that if it requires a moment of magic – be it a quick tap or quick throw, a counter-attack, or the ambition, patience and composure on the ball which comes with broken play – the likes of Will Genia, Folau, Kurtley Beale or even O’Connor, will be more likely to deliver it.