Wallabies legend John Eales in action during the Lions' last tour of Australia in 2001
Photo: Getty Images
British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland recently proposed that an Australian tour represents the Lions' best chance of a series win: the Hamilton-born rugby doyen deeming the Wallabies an easier proposition than South Africa and New Zealand.
And he's right. Australia does not present the hostile rugby environment and rabid fans of either of those countries, not even at the Wallabies' unofficial home, Suncorp Stadium. Scotland, Samoa and England have all won here in the last three years. Then there are the various shortcomings of the team, especially compared to the All Blacks.
But by the same token Australia will look at the Lions and see them as much more manageable a proposition than their two major Rugby Championship rivals. It all points to a series that will be contested by two incredibly evenly matched teams. The closest Lions series since ... the Lions were last here in 2001 and were edged out by a Wallabies side with its last vestiges of that turn-of-the-century excellence.
Up until England's shocking dismantling of New Zealand at Twickenham, the spring internationals did not bode well for the Lions. Woeful Wales were lacklustre and hesitant in losses to Argentina and Samoa, while Scotland lost to Tonga and England themselves showed their inexperience in losses to both the Wallabies and South Africa. The best moments for the four Lions nations were Ireland's big win over Argentina and then that surreal day in southwest London when the All Blacks were blasted away, which cast a slightly rosier complexion on the possible make-up of the touring party.
At this point, no immediate names leap out to demand Lions selection, rather there is a gaggle of fine players for pretty much all positions. Jonathan Sexton of Ireland probably has the running on the fly-half spot, with Manu Tuilagi an essential midfield pick. The awesome Irish back row of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Stephen Ferris will be on the plane, as will props Dan Cole and Cian Healy. But otherwise, the Six Nations will give Gatland his team.
If Australia can field their finest side, you would have them as current favourites. The Lions have nothing to counter the abilities of David Pocock or even Michael Hooper, while no Lions scrum-half will get the better of a fit and in-form Will Genia. Up front, the Wallaby scrum held its own against England and Wales in the northern spring, although one's mind does return, with some dread, to the pummelling by the Irish pack in the World Cup group match.
Let's not forget James Horwill may be back for the Lions series, while Quade Cooper could also be in the mix. James O'Connor will relish such a high-profile challenge - there's three hugely influential players who largely missed out on 2012's internationals.
A Lions team will always bring intimidating physicality, and the Wallabies can counter this with Sitaleki Timani and Scott Higginbotham in the pack and, if he finally finds the form he has occasionally suggested, Rob Horne in midfield. Problem positions at this point include inside-centre (Robbie Deans' insistence on Pat McCabe), hooker (Deans' insistence on starting with Tatafu Polata-Nau ahead of Stephen Moore) and a troublesome wing spot that could well go to Israel Folau.
A Lions series win is, as will be rammed down our throats between now and the first Test on June 22 in Brisbane, a once-in-a-career opportunity. It is now that all the "lessons learnt" from the thrashings in Auckland, Pretoria and Paris must be put into practice - and between now and then a way has to be found to score more tries.
The Lions tour could bring some meaning to Deans' patchy tenure and some genuine glory to Australian rugby for the first time in the best part of a decade. Australia has the makings of a side to overcome the Lions - potentially with some ease. But as always with these Wallabies, there are myriad causes for concern. The fact the Lions are in the same boat should make it a series for the annals.
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