Lions identify Will Genia as the big threat as Tommy Bowe makes welcome return
Lions have little option but to go with their fourth-choice loosehead in Mako Vunipola, and Geoff Parling for their sorely missed enforcer Paul O’Connell
Tommy Bowe training with the Lions’ squad yesterday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Will Genia. Will Genia. Will Genia. It was the Irish mantra devised as a key part of the tactical masterplan for stopping the Wallabies in the World Cup at Eden Park, and having nearly witnessed the little maestro sucker-punch them in the first Test, there has been a relatively radical overhaul to the Lions’ line-up for Saturday’s second Test.
One game away from securing a first Lions Test series win since 1997, the Lions have evidently identified Genia as potentially their tormentor in chief, something they failed to do sufficiently in the first Test. Israel Folau may have landed two tries on his debut, but if it wasn’t for the genius of Genia, the winger wouldn’t have been afforded either opportunity in the first place.
The Lions had little option but to go with their fourth-choice loosehead in Mako Vunipola (imagine, for a moment, they were down to their fourth-choice outhalf), and Geoff Parling for their sorely missed enforcer Paul O’Connell. Restoring the fit-again Tommy Bowe, even though Alex Cuthbert took his try superbly last Saturday, also makes sense.
Bowe is simply a better as well as more experienced player, one who left an indelible impression on Warren Gatland and the Lions coaching staff when playing every minute of the Test series four years ago.
“He is a massive big-game player,” said Gatland. “He played in the centre in the third Test in 2009, and he probably didn’t have his best tour, but if you watch him at training and see how seamless he is, the one thing you can’t coach is experience. Experienced players just come in and are able to slot in really quickly, and he did that on Tuesday morning. You could see the experience and quality was there, and that will give a boost to some of the other players. It was like George North being fit last week. It was a boost for the squad and the players around him.”
However, as Ireland demonstrated at Eden Park in the World Cup, if you stop Genia you go an awfully long way to stopping the Wallabies. This is why, perhaps, the tree-felling Dan Lydiate has been called up to the starting line-up while Ben Youngs replaces Mike Phillips, with Seán O’Brien called up alongside the demoted Tom Croft on the bench, as well as the promoted Conor Murray.
Even against the Rebels, who had just over 40 per cent possession, Lydiate contrived to make 15 tackles, which would be a base total for him. Somebody get that man a chainsaw? No actually, he doesn’t need one. He has been picked presumably, among other things, to help close down Genia’s roving influence from the base, like Stephen Ferris at Eden Park, and as Ben Mowen did to the out-of-sorts Phillips.
After one training session last week, O’Connell asked Lydiate for a half-hour one-on-one demonstration of his tackling technique. With the wounded Wallabies fighting for their series lives and thus likely to throw the kitchen sink at the Lions in the enclosed Etihad Stadium tomorrow (kick-off 8.05pm local time/11.05am Irish), Lydiate’s selection is a fitting, horses-for-courses pick.
The same goes for the shuffling at scrumhalf and the promotion of O’Brien to at least the bench, thereby also giving the Lions badly needed cover at openside, and the option of a second openside as well as ball carrier. This Saturday, after all, the Wallabies may well play the last 20 or 30 with two opensides, with Liam Gill joining Michael Hooper in the backrow.
Lydiate has, according to Gatland, done some scrums in the secondrow but Gatland admitted having no specialist lock on the bench was “a calculated risk”, adding: “We just felt with the potential of Tom and Seán coming off the bench it gives us a lot of impact, particularly in the second half. We are well aware there is some risk involved, as with all selections.”
Phillips looked in prime nick in the Hong Kong opener and a nailed-on certainty to start the three Tests barring mishap. But mishap did befall him in the guise of a non-publicised knee injury which has prevented him training for the last four weeks and became sore and swollen during the first Test. It contributed to the space afforded Genia, and to the sight of Phillips backing off from Genia’s quick tap before being turned 360 degrees and left for dead.
‘Started the tour’
“Mike started the tour with a bang, and then got that knock and it set him back a little bit, and he probably wasn’t at his best last week in terms of certain aspects of his game. He is such a competitor, we want to make sure he is right for next week.”
That they can afford to do so is, as Gatland said, a tribute to the form of all their scrumhalves. Whether Tom Youngs has the mental temperament to steer the Lions in such a big game, especially if the pack are struggling or the ball is not being won cleanly, remains to be seen. But after an edgy performance against the Brumbies, he was much more his cocky self against the Rebels.
The management must have been tempted to promote Murray, but Youngs has more big-game experience and pace. Nonetheless, whether it’s the more rarified air of being among fellow Lions, and/or the influence of Rob Howley and the coaching staff here, Gatland believes that Murray is playing the best rugby of his career. Ireland’s first Lions scrumhalf since Colin Patterson started the first three Tests and John Robbie the fourth in South Africa in 1980 is set to become a Lions Test player on Saturday, and whatever else, Munster and Ireland are sure to have a much more assured scrumhalf next season.
All in all, the voluntary changes appear to make for a more balanced team, and one more equipped to negate Genia’s influence. The problem, of course, is that the Lions’s tight five has been seriously diluted by the loss of O’Connell and their first three looseheads, besides which the comparatively settled and ultra-smart Wallabies, having regrouped, are sure to sharpen their act too.