So here we are at last, the grand finale of the test series. Will the Lions win at last? Can the Wallabies spoil the party? All will be answered soon.
It’s hard to say exactly what this tour will be remembered for in years to come. Certainly the tour of 2009 was the most engaging since the great win of ’97, and much of the media has be drumming on about this one, but has it really lived up to expectations? Bizarre selections, lacklustre performances, and a general absence of off-field colour has made things a bit banal but it’s hard to argue that the first test wasn’t a great game of rugby. The second, one feels, left a lot to be desired, and it’s now up to the last to seal the legacy of the experience.
The stories this week centred around who was in, and who was out. James Horwill can count his lucky stars that he was again cleared of foul play after the unusual and seemingly pointless appeal by the IRB. For most observers the stamp appeared deliberate and at the very least reckless and deserving of suspension. Right or wrong the decision should have never have been drug beyond last week and the IRB, as usual, needs to take a good look at their disciplinary protocols.
Another boon for the Australians is the return of George Smith. Despite home fans insisting that Michael Hooper is a class performer, and indeed he is talented, the return of the prodigal son is a psychological boost that should not be underestimated. In the world of international rugby there are few who stand out as being truly world class, and Smith is certainly one of them. His return to Super Rugby after a siesta in Japan has been exceptional, and he will be hugely influential on Saturday both at the breakdown and simply by presence alone.
As one legend of the game rises for one last great tilt, another is taken from Lions supporters. Warren Gatland has made the extremely pragmatic, if you can call it that, decision to drop talisman Brian O’Driscoll in favour of Jonathan Davies. Jamie Roberts was always going to return when fit, but many had assumed that O’Driscoll would be called on to lead the side in the absence of injured captain Sam Warburton. The shockwaves heard around the world following the announcement were palpable.
There are arguments to be made for the inclusion of Davies. He is a bigger, stronger runner and has enjoyed a successful partnership with Roberts in recent times. Though he is partly to blame for Adam Ashley-Cooper’s decisive try in the dying minutes of the second test, he has otherwise enjoyed his tour. O’Driscoll is the superior distributor, however, and arguably a better defender, but it is in this area that might have swayed Gatland’s decision. The analysts will have noted that O’Driscoll takes risks at the breakdown and has been pinged three times already for staying on the ball too long. Davies is certainly not the sort to take those risks.
Of course his might simply be a tactical decision to play so-called “Gatland-ball”. That is, stuff it up the jumper and pulverise the opposition before ever thinking about sending it wide to the wings. If that is his plan, and there is everything to suggest that it is, then the selection of Davies makes sense. So too the additions of Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau, both more direct than the men they have replaced.
The scrum has clearly been identified as an area to target as well, and Alex Corbisiero and Richard Hibbard will be on orders to make sure Ben Alexander has a long day at the office. This was a decisive battle a week ago and Gatland has certainly not taken any chances here. Mako Vunipola and Tom Youngs will make an impact later in the match but not until the Wallaby scrum has been ground into the turf.
Robbie Deans has obviously anticipated this onslaught by including an extra forward, Ben McCalman, on the bench, and selecting the more street-wise Smith on the flank. It was a shrewd move, but one wonders if perhaps Sekope Kepu might have been a better option at tighthead. There is also the risk of injury to his backs, particularly the midfield where both Ashley-Cooper and Christian Leali’ifano have been battered already, and will be up for considerably more this time. If either go off early, it could be catastrophic for Wallaby hopes.
Analysis could go on endlessly but it’s clear that this will be a ferocious contest. The field-level microphones will be crackling with the thud of bone on bone, and the gasps of spectators and commentators alike. It won’t be the sort of game of the weak of heart, and glamour boy James O’Connor should be feeling very uncomfortable very quickly. On the balance, the scale tips ever so slightly in favour of the Lions, despite the insistence of the bookies that Australia are top choice. Team Gatland by 3.
Kurtley Beale; Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali’ifano, Joe Tomane; James O’Connor, Will Genia; Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander; Kane Douglas, James Horwill (capt.); Ben Mowen, George Smith, Wycliff Palu. RES: Saia Fainga’a, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Ben McCalman, Michael Hooper, Nick Phipps, Jesse Mogg.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS
Leigh Halfpenny; Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North; Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips; Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones; Alun Wyn Jones (capt.), Geoff Parling; Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau. RES: Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Richie Gray, Justin Tipuric, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi.