The Lions Conundrums

LionsBadgeAustralia215_rdax_665x353As the dust settles on a second heart-stopping showpiece of international rugby union, the wounded Lions find themselves on the brink of failure.

The defeat itself should not worry Warren Gatland and his team. The experienced Lions coaching and playing teams have been around international rugby long enough to know that momentum will count for very little come eight o’clock on Saturday at the ANZ Stadium, Sydney. What should have cause for concern however is the manner of which the Lions fell just short in Melbourne.

The brilliance of Leigh Halfpenny from the kicking tee was always sought out as a possible deciding factor; the pivotal difference between the two sides. Yet what will worry this Lions class of 2013 is that Halfpenny’s boot has become the Lions main attacking weapon. Two tries in two matches is not an abysmal stat, especially in the pressure cooker atmosphere that is international rugby. However once one takes into account that the two tries scored have come from a moment of individual brilliance on a counter attack, and exposing a flanker playing at centre, you start to see the problem.

The Lions headed down under with the belief that their power and intensity throughout the side would enable them to bully their hosts on the game line. In truth, they have not come remotely close to such success as of yet. The most telling stat of last Saturday’s defeat was that Sean O’Brien, a substitute replacement for Jamie Heaslip in the 62nd minute , managed to carry more meters in his eighteen minutes on pitch than any other member of the Lions pack.

Of course such problems do partly stem from misfortune. The cruel timing of Jamie Roberts’ hamstring strain did not give Gatland the time to build an attacking game without a big, ball carrying twelve, especially once the fitness of Manu Tuilagi failed to fill Roberts’ void. It is a shame that after such a brilliant tour, Jonathan Davies is the man most likely to miss out next week, but the Llanelli man is not an international number twelve, and certainly not one in the mould that Gatland tends to build his side around.

One of the more puzzling aspects of the series so far has been Gatland’s use of the bench. By sheer rule of numbers, the Lions should possess far greater strength in depth than the Wallabies, and the impact from the bench should replicate that. However such an advantage has not, as of yet, come to fruition. With the exception of O’Brien and possibly Connor Murray in the second test, the Lions replacements have had little or no impact to speak of. The likes of Owen Farrell, Sean Maitland and Alex Cuthbert have all been selected but found themselves surplus to requirements by Gatland, and in a series as tight as this, that fact borders on bizarre. The refusal to use Farrell may have made sense before the tour, but Australia has brought out the best in the young Saracen. His display against the Rebels demonstrated a desire to stand flat and really challenge the defensive line. He may not have affected the outcome of either test, but a lot can be said for fresh legs and a fresh mind.

So what lies ahead for the Lions? The first event to take note of is the result of Sam Warburton’s cruel injury blow which has finished his tour a week early. Gatland now has the options of O’Brien and Justin Tipuric to fill the captain’s shoes. The obvious choice, for me, is O’Brien. There is little doubting that the Lions have been lacking in ball carriers, and O’Brien excels in this area like few other opensides in world rugby. Factor in that Tipuric has not played for over two weeks, and the fact he is yet to face a powerful, cohesive pack on tour and the answer to the Warburton question appears straight forward. Tipuric may fit the stereotypical model of openside better than O’Brien, but Ireland showed in the World Cup two years ago that such a player is not pivotal in defeating the Australians in the southern hemisphere.

To answer the desperate calls for ball carrying options, a fully fit Jamie Roberts should reclaim the twelve shirt he made his own twelve years ago. In the pack, the ball carrying of Mako Vunipola is sure to be held back as a sixty minute impact for the Lions as Alex Corbisiero’s all-around superior game should see the Northampton man start if his calf injury heals in time. Behind Corbisiero, the brilliant line-out prowess of Geoff Parling failed to influence what has become the Lions’ Achilles heel this summer.  As a result, the Lions should look for more dynamism with ball in hand and the blonde locks of Richie Gray provide such qualities in abundance. The final conundrum for Gatland lies at the number 8 position. Toby Faletau has widely been credited as being the most unfortunate man on tour. If the injury to Sam Warburton had been avoided ahead of this week’s showdown, then many would have been calling for Faletau to slip in alongside his countryman. However the loss of Warburton has left the Lions with a gaping hole in terms of leadership, and one which will only be augmented should Faletau replace the influential Heaslip. The Irishman may not have had the greatest series, but his role in the squad is undeniable, as is his work ethic

My Lions XV for Saturday 6th July:

Leigh Halfpenny, Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, George North, Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips, Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones, Richie Gray, Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip

Replacements:

Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Justin Tipuric, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi

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