Belfast Telegraph

Australia down but far from out

By Conor George

The exaggerated words of praise that were bandied about Brisbane on Saturday night and Sunday morning must be consigned to the past in the most ruthless fashion in Melbourne this weekend if the Lions are to have any hope of securing the Series.

The quality of their performance in the first Test victory will not suffice this weekend against an Australian side who have come across as relaxed and confident this week despite coming off second best after the opening salvo.

Ironically it's the manner of their loss that has infused the Wallaby squad with confidence.

A conservative estimate suggests they left 14 points behind them at the Suncorp Stadium and despite this they were still within one successful kick of winning the game at the death. They will also have their first choice kicker – Christian Leali'ifano available this weekend.

The centre lasted less than 60 seconds of Saturday's game after being run-over by a refrigerator named Jonathan Davies. Astonishingly he has been cleared to play this weekend despite his concussion and will, presumably, be their dead-ball expert on Saturday.

Ironically Australia, despite losing a number of their backline, will be in a far better position this weekend as a result of actually playing a match.

They have also been boosted by the unexpected availability of James Horwill after he successfully came through a citing hearing. This is in stark contrast to the fortunes of the Lions who have lost their irreplaceable talismanic leader Paul O'Connell.

The magnitude of O'Connell's loss has, understandably, been downplayed by the Lions and he is staying with the squad.

Privately they know they have lost one of their principal advantages and one of their more potent attacking platforms.

O'Connell actually called very few line-outs on himself in the first Test, possibly so as to hold something in reserve for the second and/or third Tests when the Series will be decided. We'll never know now but no matter how you look at it the Lions have been weakened.

In a roundabout way both Warren Gatland and his forwards' coach Graham Rowntree acknowledged that massive improvement is needed this weekend and also gave the broadest hint they have learned from the experience by suggesting changes would have been inevitable had one of Kurtley Beale's kicks been converted.

"We asked ourselves would we be looking at changing things up had we lost and the honest answer is we probably would have," said Gatland.

So what have Gatland and his coaching staff learned?

Pre-determined substitutions are dangerous

Both props were replaced after just 51 minutes. It's been suggested that Alex Corbisiero's tight calf might have been a reason for his substitution but it's probable this was a pre-ordained decision. It back-fired on the Lions.

They had comfortably been the stronger scrummaging side and certainly were controlled, calm and comfortable in the first half. They were second best in the last 30 minutes as the Australian front-row savaged the Lions' new trio.

Dan Cole was also poor on Tuesday night which will result in Adam Jones staying on the pitch this weekend far longer than last.

Change for the sake of change can be counter-productive

The Wallabies have Mike Phillips' number.

He was poor in the first Test. Ben Mowen made his life miserable by harassing him into making mistakes. And when Mowen wasn't doing it Will Genia was. The Australians know Phillips intimately at this stage having faced him so often.

He is a world-class scrum half but whether it's because of the Wallabies' familiarity with his game or because of his knee injury he was off the pace. Can the Lions afford another off-day from their scrum-half? Genia's influence has to be diluted.

The Lions cannot afford to continue to marginalise Sean O'Brien

One of the reasons for Tom Croft's inclusion was the option of having him jump at the tail of the line-out.

Australia cut this option out by squeezing the Lions on their own darts which negated the primary reason for Croft's inclusion. He is a rangy back row who is gangly and leggy like an unfinished colt when when running with ball in hand.

He is highly effective in open spaces. Saturday's game is going to be a tighter affair and a carrier whose legs pump more like pistons will better suit their needs ... which is where the dynamic ball-carrying of Sean O'Brien comes in.

The Lions' breakdown work has to be sharper

Brian O'Driscoll suffered badly in this department after being penalised three times in a row early in the game. For the remainder he was, Gatland told us, afraid to contest for fear of drawing a yellow card.

Saturday night's referee Craig Joubert's interpretation of the breakdown could be similar to that of Chris Pollock.

If that is the case the Lions' players have to be absolutely perfect in how they contest at the breakdown.

The Wallabies are going to run the ball

James O'Connor kicked just 7% of his possession, ran 29% and passed 64% on Saturday night. By comparison, Jonny Sexton kicked 23% of the ball he received, ran none of it and passed 73%. If O'Connor is at 10 he will run the ball. If Kurtley Beale is at 10 he will definitely run the ball!

The Aussie game plan is based on their handling ability and their running game.

There will be changes in the Wallabies' personnel but the game-plan won't change. And when they do kick their defence will push up quickly and force to close the Lions down.

The challenge is for Lions' attacking coach Rob Howley to find a way to break them down.

Will there be changes?

Yes. The Wallabies have to change their team because of injuries. Joe Tomane and Kurtley Beale should start and there may well be positional changes to accommodate Beale at 10, which would result in O'Connor going to the wing and Israel Folau moving to full-back. Otherwise Beale will slot into full-back with Tomane replacing Digby Ioane.

George Smith is likely to come onto the bench for them.

The Lions will start Geoff Parling in Paul O'Connell's stead. They may also opt for the power of Richard Hibbard over Tom Youngs.

Sean O'Brien must feature from the start or, at the very least, be on the bench. Tommy Bowe will come into the mix too. He will either come into the team for Alex Cuthbert or replace Sean Maitland on the bench.

Richie Gray should come onto the bench while Simon Zebo and Conor Murray might also figure among the 23.

Belfast Telegraph


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