It was a mixed first week on tour for the British and Irish Lions. With two easy first-up wins, some Northern Hemisphere commentators were trilling that anything less than a series whitewash would be a failure. Then, outscored by two tries to one in Brisbane, they had to dig deep for their 22-12 win over the Reds. Despite the complaining over the merit of those first two games, there is plenty to chew on as the first Test approaches.
A formidable set-piece
The Reds fielded a front-row, of Ben Daley, James Hanson and Greg Holmes, who all had Wallaby experience. That they were so easily dominated by what many saw as a second-string Lions scrum confirms that the Lions are technically and physically excelling in this area, and they can only get better as the tour continues.
We always expected the tourists to be superior in this way, but the ease with which they punished Queensland so often at scrum-time bodes ill for the Wallabies. And while the Reds were particularly poor in the line-out, the Lions seemed adept at being disruptive on their opponent’s throw, as well as rock solid on their own. Robbie Deans will need to think long and hard about how to deal with what will be a well-oiled set-piece machine come the first Test.
Wallabies width can unlock Lions defence
Quade Cooper ultimately didn’t do nearly enough against the Lions to earn selection in Deans’ final six squad additions. But he did suggest a possible way to threaten the Lions’ defensive line out wide. On several occasions, Cooper threw his trademark soaring long pass to outside backs in space – at these points the Lions seemed breachable and even scrambling, as their concentrated efforts in the tight left them a little vulnerable out wide.
Come the Tests, this could become an even more intriguing option when you consider that so much Lions attention will be focused on shutting down Will Genia’s sniping runs around the ruck. The question must be whether likely fly-half James O’Connor has as good a long-passing game, and as much vision, as Cooper. Such tactics may also make it a good idea to have a second playmaker at inside centre, be it Berrick Barnes, Christian Lealiifano or whoever.
Shaky ball security at the breakdown
For all their much-heralded physicality and aggression, the Lions were occasionally vulnerable over the ball against Queensland. Partly because of the frantic pace of the match, turnovers came thick and fast, and usually against the tourists.
This fact makes it all the more frustrating that both David Pocock and George Smith are unavailable, with much responsibility falling on the young shoulders of openside contenders Michael Hooper and Liam Gill.
As great a player as Lions number seven and skipper Sam Warburton is, he is perhaps not a natural in the strange art of ‘fetching’ – indeed the majority of Lions backrowers are ball-carriers first and foremost, making the wilier qualities that come more naturally to Wallaby forwards crucial to Australia’s chances.
Invasion from the North
There is probably no more threatening back in world rugby at present than the enormous Welshman George North. Replacing an injured Manu Tuilagi, he proceeded to slice through the Reds on several occasions, his breaks leading to what should have been finished off as tries by Owen Farrell and Warburton.
He is going to be a considerable problem for the Wallabies, with the fact he can easily slot in at outside centre offering new attacking possibilities for his team. Starving him of the ball, and space, demands an accurate kicking game, a smothering defensive line and again, a sound set-piece and preventing the Lions attacking from turnovers. He is set to be a menace.
Pressure on Aussie goalkickers
Had Cooper and Mike Harris been not quite so abject with the boot on Saturday night we may be celebrating a famous Queensland win. As it was, neither was up to the task, while the Lions’ Owen Farrell proved metronomic – and this coming after Leigh Halfpenny’s exceptional 11/11 showing against the Force during the week.
An ongoing problem for Australia, goalkicking could easily be the difference in the series. Apart from hoping James O’Connor, who seems likely to assume kicking duties, achieves more consistency than he ever has before, it is vital Australia look to somehow minimise penalties within Halfpenny’s considerable range. A clear area where the Lions have the upper hand, goalkicking must count as one of Deans’ foremost worries.
Spirit is good
The Lions’ match against the Reds was fascinating, played at chaotic pace by two committed teams, and with clear mutual respect. This came in a week in which we seemed to have officialdom-sponsored violence in State of Origin.
Despite the whinging over ‘disrespect’ regarding the Force’s weakened team for their match with the Lions, there is a fine sense of sportsmanship surrounding the on-field action so far.
This is doubly refreshing when you consider past tours. In 2009, Schalk Burger of South Africa sullied his team when he eye-gouged Luke Fitzgerald in the first Test. In New Zealand in 2005, we had the notorious spear tackle inflicted by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu on Brian O’Driscoll in the first moments of the first Test. In Australia in 2001, Waratahs fly-half Duncan McCrae chose to pummel Ronan O’Gara’s face in an unsavoury display of thuggery during a tour match.
As well as the fervent competitiveness, there is a calm regard between Lions and Wallabies at this stage. Long may it continue.
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