The tour found the gear it needed Saturday night. After two fairly insipid matches, with the team never having to break out of training ground mentality, the Lions were made to sweat in Brisbane against a fully committed, if half strength, Queensland Reds team.
Much of the credit for the dazzling first twenty minutes has to go to Quade Cooper whose fearless approach to the game had the Lions turning and twisting as quick tap penalties from his own 22 and fizzing passes over Alex Cuthbert had the Lions in early difficulties. To the credit of the tourists they didn't panic and held their nerve, eventually winning with something to spare.
The slight worry for the Lions is that they won the game via the traditional European route of set piece play. Not that there is anything wrong with scrums and line outs; they are a foundation without which few teams will win games, yet it has to be acknowledged that the Reds were minus four of their front five. For all the talk of Australian weakness in the set piece the Wallabies are not going to be dominated like the Lions dominated the Reds gallant reserves.
Chief amongst the scary Lions at the moment is George North whose performance from the bench was brutal, belligerent and often brilliant.
Quotes of the week
The other major concern is the injury to the in-form Tommy Bowe. He was in the process of claiming one of the wingers test berths before a hand injury forced him from the field. He has been operated upon already but his tour return is now a hope and not an expectation.
Cuthbert was having a hard time of it with Cooper teasing him and Luke Morahan having an inspired night on the left wing against him. Few players would have enjoyed being on the right flank Saturday night. With Cooper ignored By Robbie Deans (according to every source and newspaper in Australia, it is not official as I write) the Lions wingers are not going to find themselves exposed to the brilliance of his passing game and speed of his mind.
Pressure on Deans
The Wallabies will be more structured and defensive minded which will suit the Lions just fine. Whilst Australia's pack will be better than the Reds, it is not going to win the series off the pack of forward strength. If Deans is more worried about containing the Lions power than he is with imposing his own game, the odds swing the Lions way.
Chief amongst the scary Lions at the moment is George North whose performance from the bench was brutal, belligerent and often brilliant. He caused Australia problems last summer and is certain to do so again with the Lions system encouraging wingers to blast infield from their respective wings and to counter attack when the opportunity is right.
In all likelihood James O' Connor is going to play fly-half. He is a world class winger but a rookie fly-half. For a man with no reputation whatsoever for gambling this hunch seems one of the wilder ones Deans has made; Cooper, after all, is supposedly ignored because of his risky style of play. The truth is somewhere else. Deans - having ignored Cooper for his own reasons has to win the series.
The ever more cautious, ball retention style of rugby played by Australia under Deans has not enamoured him to a land where back play has long thrived. Cooper had divided a nation but most ex Wallabies I have spoken to are all behind Cooper's return as the Test No 10.
Deans is as great, if not greater a divider of opinion now. Should they lose the series without Cooper throwing caution to the wind and giving it a crack, survival for the coach would be a shock; Cooper probably will not play international rugby until Robbie Deans departs from his job. Fascinating does not begin to describe the situation off the ball here in Oz.
On the field the Lions Test team is taking shape. At a guess I would say Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Mike Phillips, Johnny Sexton, Jamie Roberts, Brian O' Driscoll, George North and Leigh Halfpenny are certainties.
Alex Cuthbert is a probable despite Saturday and will be glad for a run against weaker opposition on Tuesday outside the likely Test centre pairing. The start at fly-half for Stuart Hogg is of considerable interest. With Johnny Sexton's hamstrings tightening most Lions fans are holding their breath. He will have to start on Saturday against the Waratahs to put him spot on for the Test match.
On the subject of next Saturday's opponents, the Waratahs, minus the core of their squad beat Western Force on Sunday. Force coach Michael Foley's gamble to rest his stars for the weekend and downgrade the Lions fixture has backfired. He is getting a right old rollicking from all and sundry here and deservedly so. Maybe there are rugby Gods because Foley got what he deserved.
As for the Tuesday game against the Country XV, the Lions will win. It would be the biggest upset in Lions history were they to lose to a team of fringe Super Rugby men, semi professionals and outright amateurs whose link is their place of origin. These boys from the bush will give it their all but it will not be enough. I watched them train Sunday afternoon and it is fair to say that the Lions centres should create havoc.
There is however a place for this fixture because the Lions should be taking the game outside the big cities and rugby strongholds - that is part of touring. The problem is that this tour is two matches light of serious opposition (make that three after Foley's faux pas) and selection is intensely difficult when the team is winning easily.
The team should beat the Waratahs comfortably but it was good news to see them beat the Force which suggests even a weakened team will make the Lions work hard on Saturday in front of a full house at the Sydney Football Stadium. By then the stadium will be red in many places as the fans arrive in their thousands and the first Test nears. Next week we will consider Brisbane and that first Test. The four year wait is nearly over for the Lions.
Stuart answers your emails...
Got a question for Stuart? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the feedback form below...
Stuart, should the Lions have had a penalty try when the ball was knocked from Owen Farrell's hands in the act of scoring a try? The player who dislodged the ball was the tackler, who was still in contact and had not released and got to his feet. So penalty try and bin? Without the foul play there was no doubt that a try would have been scored.
STUART REPLIES: Dennis, trying to knock the ball from Farrell's arms as he dived for the line and then fighting for the ball after it has been lost by Owen F was not a Penalty try in my book but a brave attempt to save a score. Have some generosity in your soul, even for the Aussies, my friend!
Stuart, do you think Robbie Deans has a point in not picking Cooper for the Lions Tests? Surely neither a coach nor a player is bigger than the game? I heard you debating the reasons why Cooper may not be in Deans plans with Greenwood during commentary but could you elaborate on that please?
STUART REPLIES: Si, it is we in the press building up Cooper not the bloke himself. He should play because the Lions will shade the forward battle leaving Australia having to more than just defend to win. Cooper can win a game from anywhere, Beale has that ability but O'Connor is a rookie ten and a wasted world class wing. Deans plays percentage rugby however; this and an aversion to someone calling the mood in the Aussie camp 'toxic' last season are the reasons he ignores a brilliant talent. Percentages are fine on the front but not the back foot, therefore I think Deans is playing into the Lions hands.
Stuart, I thought the Reds game was a great test for the Lions and I think George North really put his hands on the Test jersey, however do you think the Lions management will be concerned that the only try came from a Reds mistake?
STUART REPLIES: Andy, a greater concern is that the win was sealed by the set piece and the Reds had a second string set piece out.....there were a few concerns Saturday night but I'm still seeing more positives than negatives and I have the capacity to see my glass half empty!
Stuart, Mike Philips has started 5 of Wales' last six games against Australia. They lost all of them and he failed to score in any match. Given the Aussies have a history of nullifying his running game, is he the right man to start at 9 for the Tests?
STUART REPLIES: Mat, yes because Gatland is going to have a blend of power and precision. He and Sexton can be as effective a balanced partnership as BOD and Jamie Roberts were four years ago and hopefully this time around as well
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Ed Ocallaghan says...
Right Stuart, time to call it - neck on the line as you're making final call on starting 23 for 1st test, who do you go for? By the time of your next post you may have even had the Waratahs match for final tight selections..
Posted 08:09 13th June 2013
Iain Cowieson says...
Stuart, With a reliance on the scrum and the breakdown for the lions are we then in trouble if the referee views the area in a different way from us. It could mean constant penalties against us instead of going forward or creating a platform for the backs. Unless my memory is failing I think we had that issue in SA where the beast was left to do what he fancied in the scrum
Posted 12:45 10th June 2013
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