As we prepare for the Lions tour of Australia this summer we take a look at the men charged with halting the Lions pride.
Now that Gatland has shown his hand for this summers tour, attention must turn to counterpart Robbie Deans as he looks at the players he will send out to take on the Lions. Recent form for the Wallabies has been somewhat patchy with a reasonable third place finish at the 2011 Rugby World Cup punctuated by a shock home defeat to a touring Scottish side in New South Wales and a disappointing 2012 Rugby Championship coupled with internal player wranglings. Despite this, and several calls for head coach Robbie Deans resignation, the Wallaby’s recorded an autumn clean sweep and retained third place in the IRB World Rankings.
With Deans squad announcement nearly upon us who is set to don the green and gold Wallaby shirt this summer and go into battle with the Lions.
Michael Hooper – with Aussie stalwart David Pocock set to miss the entire series it looks set to fall onto the shoulders of young Michael Hooper to go toe-to-toe with Lions captain Sam Warburton. Hooper had an impressive autumn test series, ably deputising for the absent Pocock and was instrumental in the Wallaby’s clean sweep. He offers an exciting attacking threat in addition to his fantastic work at the breakdown.
Hooper looks set to be supported by the equally able veteran George Smith who is impressing on a temporary deal with the Brumbies. Smith is one of the all-time greats in the 7 shirt having already been capped 110 times by Australia and often mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Kiwi captain Richie McCaw. Smith’s fantastic form so far this season is likely to see him in just ahead of the Red’s emerging talent Liam Gill who is having a fantastic season for the Queensland based outfit.
Quade Cooper – one of the most mercurial talents in world rugby, after a brief flirtation with leaving the sport to begin a boxing career Cooper seems to have finally settled down and his now displaying his undoubted talents for the Reds once again this season. Cooper will be a key component of the Wallaby’s challenge with no other genuine contender standing out in the outside-half position.
Christian Lealiifano is the only other genuine fly-half but his lack of experience, particularly at international level is likely to show against a team like the Lions. Other options include the likes of utility backs James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale but their undoubted talents are likely to be utilised elsewhere. I for one am desperate to see Cooper take to the field in the first test as I think it would be a travesty if a disagreement between Deans and Cooper resulted in one of the games most gifted play makers not playing a key role in the biggest tour in world rugby.
Israel Falou – despite a shaky start to the season for the league convert, Falou has begun to demonstrate for the Waratahs why he was so highly regarded before switching codes. The athletic full back has already crossed the try line 5 times this year and looks set to earn a call-up to the Wallaby’s this summer. Whether he is deployed on the wing or at his preferred role of full-back is yet to be seen but either way he should play some part in the tour.
Will Genia – the almost telepathic understanding between Cooper and Genia means the pair should be an automatic first pick in the half-back roles for the Reds and Australia. It is no coincidence that both the Reds and Wallabies suffered a slump in form when Genia was absent earlier this season. The scrum-half is a fantastic talent who exquisitely combines sniping runs with perfect game management and tactical kicking. Genia’s noted preference for playing alongside Cooper is likely to be key to the pair starting the first test together with several pundits suggesting Genia could be an option as captain.
Kurtley Beale – another Wallaby who has had a difficult season with off the field troubles, most notably of which was a fight with Rebels team mate Cooper Vuna. Despite this Beale has had another outstanding season on the field. His versatility also means he is likely to be involved come the first test as it would be near impossible for Deans to leave out such an undoubted threat ball-in-hand.
James O’Connor – an even more versatile option than Beale, O’Connor has already stated his intention of permanently pushing good friend Cooper out of contention for the test 10 jersey. O’Connor has performed admirably in just about every position in the backs, and at just 22 he still has plenty of time to establish himself as the top five-eighth in Australia. For now though I feel he should settle for a place on the wing or in the centres were he is able to grow his undoubted talents.
James Horwill – as the likely captain of the Wallaby’s this summer Horwill will have more pressure on than most. Gatland has chosen a Lions squad full of heavy hitters and big ball carriers so it will therefore be up to the likes of Horwill to put in the big hits and get his team on the front foot so that Genia and Cooper can unleash the skill of their impressive backs. Horwill is likely to have to curb his enthusiasm with referees and unleash his frustration on the Lions as he is often perceived as being confrontational with match officials which is likely to stand out even more against the calmness of Lions captain Warburton.
Digby Ioane – despite being set for a switch to Parisian club Stade Francais this summer, Ioane still has an important role to play for the Wallaby’s this summer. Ioane is gifted with both pace and power that has seen him score some truly magical tries. If Cooper is firing on all-cylinders then his ability to unleash Reds team-mate Ioane could see the Aussies score some memorable tries this summer.
Benn Robinson – fresh off the back of the Warratahs 72 – 10 demolition of the Southern Kings, Robinson looks set to go head-to-head with either Adam Jones or Dan Cole. A continued criticism levelled at the Wallaby’s has been their poor scrummaging which is likely to be exposed by a powerful Lions front-row. Robinson therefore has a massive task on his hands to try to steady the Aussie scrum and give the backs a decent platform to be able to play off of.
The contrast between the Lions and the Wallaby’s stars is beyond obvious. Whilst the Lions looks set to rely on brute force up-front and steam-rollering the opposition in the backs, the Aussies looks likely to attempt to win quick ball at the break down and unleash their backs to run around the opposition. It’s certainly going to make for an interesting series as two very different teams take to the field. I can’t help but feel that Deans selection of running backs and breakdown specialists will be much better suited to the firm grounds in Melboure and Brisbane, although the damper pitch in Sydney may work to the Lions advantage.