Lions Glory Hinges on Finding the Right Balance

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On Thursday Warren Gatland put months of speculation to an end by revealing the names of the 37 men charged with delivering the British and Irish Lions a series victory for the first time since 1997.

There were no real surprises (apart from the absences of Chris Robshaw and Rory Best) and as expected the core of the squad was dominated by the Six Nations champions Wales. Their 15 man contingent is the biggest in 36 years and is headed by skipper Sam Warburton, who at 24 becomes the youngest Welsh captain in Lions history. Warburton is a player who Gatland holds in high regard, he made him captain for the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the Kiwi clearly believes his leadership qualities are crucial to the Lions quest for glory.

It is worth remembering that during this year’s Six Nations campaign Warburton turned down the chance to lead Wales to concentrate on his own performance, a move which ultimately paid off as Wales claimed their second successive title. So it will be interesting to see if he will be able to handle the pressure and expectation that comes with captaining the British and Irish Lions.

While it is difficult to argue with the makeup of the squad, it does feel as though Gatland has decided to stick with what he knows and what he trusts. This is highlighted by the selection of Dan Lydiate; the flanker was named player of the tournament during the 2012 Six Nations, but has only recently recovered from a serious ankle injury, playing just a handful of games this season.

It seems as though Gatland wants to play a game very similar to the one which has brought him success with Wales – a style built around overpowering the opposition in the forwards, kicking intelligently and using big backs to smash over the gainline.

And while this gameplan has successfully dispatched the best the Northern Hemisphere has to offer, it is has consistently come up short against the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses. In fact, you have to go back to 2008 for the last time Wales notched a win against one of the “big three”, that was a 21-18 victory over Australia. Since then the Wallabies have recorded eight consecutive wins against Wales, including a 3-0 series win last summer.

During this period the other three home unions have all registered wins against Robbie Deans’ side. England have beat the Australians in Sydney and then at Twickenham.  Scotland produced one of the biggest shocks of last season by winning in Newcastle, and Ireland caused the upset of the 2011 World Cup by beating the Wallabies.

So the bare form suggests that the Lions will once again come up short if they play a game in the mould of Wales. Gatland and his coaching staff have to find a gameplan that doesn’t involve just trying to outmuscle the Australians for 80 minutes.

There is a belief that the Lions have the edge in the forwards and it is an area where the coaches feel they can dominate the Australians. They will look to blow the Wallabies off the park, predominantly in the front-five. The power of Adam Jones and co. will set the platform and tone for the rest of the side. Combining this power with the mobility and handling of players such as Tom Croft, Jamie Heaslip and Justin Tupuric will give the Lions great balance upfront, and also provides the coaches flexibility to change the gameplan at any time in the match.

The selections made in the backs have left Gatland little room for manoeuvre in terms of changing the way the Lions can play. Of the four centres only Brian O’Driscoll brings any sort of craft and subtlety to the midfield. That is why the link between Jonny Sexton and O’Driscoll is so crucial to the success of this tour. Should the Irish legend be unavailable then options outside of Sexton become very limited. The Leinster fly-half will be called upon to create everything for this backline, because sending the big runners at the Australian midfield will only work so many times. Using the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Jamie Roberts as decoy runners may prove just as effective as smashing them over the gainline.

As is always the case this test series will be decided by the finest margins and that is why finding that balance between power and guile is one Warren Gatland and his coaches have to find. Going for the all-power game will give the Lions a terrific platform but it is what the Wallabies are expecting. Conversely playing an open game will suit the hosts who have outstanding counter-attackers in Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor.

For now attention now turns to Hong Kong and the Lions opening game against the Barbarians. This game will give us the first indication of how the class of 2013 will play in their quest to reach the top of Everest and win a Lions test series.

Below is my side for the first test.

My British Lions XV 1st Test v Australia

  1. Cian Healy
  2. Dylan Hartley
  3. Adam Jones
  4. Paul O’Connell
  5. Alun Wyn-Jones
  6. Tom Croft
  7. Sam Warburton ©
  8. Jamie Heaslip
  9. Mike Phillips
  10. Jonny Sexton
  11. George North
  12. Manu Tuilagi
  13. Brian O’Driscoll
  14. Tommy Bowe
  15. Leigh Halfpenny
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