Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

British and Irish Lions: This is more like it

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 25:  Manu Tuilagi of the Lions breaks with the ball during the International Tour Match between the Melbourne Rebels and the British & Irish Lions at AAMI Park on June 25, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 25: Manu Tuilagi of the Lions breaks with the ball during the International Tour Match between the Melbourne Rebels and the British & Irish Lions at AAMI Park on June 25, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

What a difference a week makes. Seven days after losing 14-12 to ACT Brumbies, the Lions' second string looked an altogether better side en route to their five-try, 35-0 rout of Melbourne Rebels.

With that win following hard on the heels of Saturday's victory in the opening Test, now the force is with the tourists going into this weekend's showdown with the Wallabies at the Etihad Stadium where success would put them an unassailable two-nil up in the three-match series.

The Rebels were without Kurtley Beale, James O'Connor and Nick Phipps who are unavailable due to their involvement in Australia's Test squad. In addition they were minus injured flanker Scott Higginbotham.

Against that, they had Hugh Pyle and Jarrod Saffy back in their starting line-up, so unlike Western Force or Combined Country this was not a case of opponents so hopelessly denuded of their stars as to have been rendered impotent.

And the Lions, of course, had absentees a-plenty, too, witness the fact Ulster's Tom Court ended up making an appearance after Sunday's totally unexpected call to arms saw him become the third replacement loose-head to be drafted in.

With Paul O'Connell definitely out for the remainder of the tour and Alex Corbisiero unlikely to have recovered from his calf injury in time to be fit for the first of the two remaining matches, there were men with cases to make against the Rebels.

Scotland loose-head Ryan Grant certainly did his cause no harm in the course of a scrummaging performance which was better than any we have seen from England's Mako Vanipula in that crucial set-piece.

Ditto those in the Lions back row – captain Dan Lydiate, Sean O'Brien and Toby Faletau who wore six, seven and eight respectively.

The skipper's tackle count was phenomenal, while fellow-flanker O'Brien's performance was of the calibre of some of those which saw him named European Player of the Year in 2011.

The Leinster man was everywhere, ticking all of the boxes as he went – carrying, off-loading, winning possession from turn-overs in view of his physical strength or simply forcing the hosts into errors as a result of the ability to close them down, putting them under pressure and creating panic when they realised he had left them with nowhere to go. A try was the icing on his personal cake.

With 16 carries, man of the match Faletau eclipsed all others in that respect and, by so doing, really put it up to Jamie Heaslip.

Others put their hands up, too. Simon Zebo had flashes of brilliance on the win and after a shaky start in terms of his line-out throwing, Richard Hibbard came good in that particular area and in his game overall.

He made way for Rory Best and finally – in what, barring injury to Tom Youngs or Hibbard, will have been his last outing of the Lions' 2013 tour – the Ulster hooker showed the form of which we in this part of the world know him to be capable but others had not seen.

Best's line-out throwing was spot on and his work at the base of mauls was highly impressive. Indeed, but for Jordy Reid's illegal intervention which saw him yellow-carded and a penalty try awarded, Best would have had a 63rd minute touchdown.

All of the Lions' three second-half tries – impressively, each very different – followed line-outs, with Hibbard and Best in turn following on from Youngs left off at the weekend. Like the scrum, now the line-out is good, too.

Just as the throwing impressed, so too did the line-out work of Ian Evans and the all-round play of fellow-lock Richie Gray.

Both put their hands up for consideration, as did Leicester Tigers' centre Manu Tuilagi, though my gut-feeling was that he probably needed to do more.

But who knows what will pan out between now and the close of play on July 6?

After all, Court and Best side by side in a Lions front row? What odds would one have got against that a few days ago?

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