Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

British and Irish Lions can roar one last time

British and Irish Lions squad training
British and Irish Lions squad training

The Lions' prospects in today's decisive third Test against Australia will stand or fall on their capacity to find the spark of ingenuity that has been conspicuously missing from their play.

The Lions began the Tour buoyed with enthusiasm and ambition but their grand plans now teeter on the brink. They have lost two matches (one Test) and nothing but a convincing win and a stellar performance will elevate this tour above mediocrity.

Unfortunately it is impossible to predict where that elusive spark of genius will come from now that their most potent weapon has been prematurely decommissioned.

Brian O'Driscoll was not outstanding in last week's Test. He was solid and he made all his tackles but he wasn't at his magical best. When O'Driscoll hums he sparkles with effervescence of a soda-pop.

Any examination of his performance must include reference to the rudimentary game-plan that restricted him and denied him the opportunity to exercise his natural attacking instincts.

Warren Gatland is a coach who thrives on the pragmatic and doesn't trust creativity in his midfield players. He is a coach who covets dogma and industry above individualism and imagination. This Lions' team reflects his traits as a hard-nosed front-row forward.

Instead of turning to the creative genius of O'Driscoll and unleashing him at the Australians, he shackled him in the first two Tests by forcing him to honour a limited game-plan that simply does not work against the more creative Southern Hemisphere sides.

To make matters worse he finally has the perfect foil to complement O'Driscoll with the availability of Jamie Roberts. It beggars belief and the Australians cannot believe their good fortune.

Last Saturday, they very quickly realised they didn't have to honour Jonathan Davies' lines and could afford to defend from the outside in and close down O'Driscoll in the Lions' midfield. It stifled any hint of creativity.

The tactics of any team reflect the views of their coach. if Warren Gatland were building a house he would happily do so without including windows.

The element of surprise is one of the most influential factors in any and all sports contests. Difficult to see any potential of surprise from a Lions team that has played with boring predictability apart from the tries from North and Cuthbert in the first Test.

Australia know what's coming tonight. The Lions' back row will be deployed as battering-rams.

Sean O'Brien et al will come around the corner, take possession from Mike Phillips and seek to kick down the front-door of the Australian defence. "It (Lions' selection) gives them comfort in that they have that combination among themselves and confidence to play the way they want to play," said Will Genia.

Without explicitly saying so, Genia proved the point that has led to criticism of Gatland's selection. Australia know what's coming, they know what strengths the Lions have and, critically, they know how to defend against them.

Of the 10 Welsh players included in the Lions team only four of them were involved in 2008 when Wales last beat Australia. Jamie Roberts, Alun Wyn Jones and Adam Jones started the game and Richard Hibbard was on the bench.

Since then Wales have lost the last eight meetings between them Australia. What is also very informative is that in those last nine games Wales have scored 11 tries but of those ten players involved tonight only Jonathan Davies and George North were among the scorers.

In their head-to-head record with Australia, Wales have conceded an average of 23.17 points and scored just 14.89. What makes Gatland think those same players can improve on their return simply because the shade of red in their uniform is, perhaps, a little darker?

Australia are not represented by an exceptional team yet they looked possessed of more skill, more imagination and more ambition than a pedestrian Lions team in Melbourne.

The excellence of their defence kept the Lions alive last week. If they are to have any hope of pulling off an unlikely victory they desperately need their set-piece to provide them a platform, which neither scrum nor line-out has done on this tour thus far.

The need to find dominance – or at least consistency – in the scrum has been recognised with the selection of Richard Hibbard ahead of Tom Youngs. Hibbard is the most powerful scrummager of the three hookers on tour.

Crucially the Lions finally cottoned on to the benefits of hitting through the engage on the referee's "set" instruction. Instead of holding on the "set" they pushed through and won the next penalty.

Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree yesterday promised that the Lions "have been holding things back" and suggested they have some plays "up their sleeve" in preparation for a game they are desperate to win.

"That's the word. We're desperate to win. This is the biggest game of our lives for the players and the coaches," said Rowntree.

The hunger within the Lions' squad for a victory is not in doubt. What is, however, is their ability to deliver. Rowntree suggested that the emotional toll of last week could dilute their challenge – "their captain was crying afterwards" – but nothing in the two Tests so far even hints at that. If anything Australia are the better placed side.

They are not without their weakness, though. James O' Connor is not up to the level required at half-back. The Lions need to exploit and expose him in this game, something they have been unable to accomplish so far.

Unquestionably the Lions' back-row have been told to target him for special attention. The key to disrupting the Wallabies is, as ever, negating the influence of Will Genia, or at least restricting it.

The scrum-half is the player who makes them hum and unless Mike Phillips can atone for his first Test spanking by Genia the Test and the Series will be lost.

It is not a mystery as to where the Lions expect their points to come from. They will only score tries through a piece of individual magic from either George North or Tommy Bowe. Otherwise the responsibility for success will be entrusted to Leigh Halfpenny's boot.

Unfortunately there has been nothing in their nine games on this tour to suggest they have the wherewithal to do that.

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