/ Rugby

First Test preview: Australia v Lions

Updated: Saturday, 22 Jun 2013 10:59 | Comments

Eight Welshmen, four Irishmen and three Englishmen take to the field for the Lions against Australia
Eight Welshmen, four Irishmen and three Englishmen take to the field for the Lions against Australia

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By Brendan Cole

This series looks much more evenly matched now than it was expected to when then Lions set off for Australia via Hong Kong.

The assumption then was that the Lions concept would be re-invigorated by a first series win since 1997, but a sense that momentum stalled during the warm-up games after a good start, largely due to injuries to key players, means that Australia come into the first Test looking the more dangerous outfit despite the selection of three new caps.

It must be factored in that Australia’s preparations have taken place on the training pitch and they will undoubtedly be accused of being undercooked if they lose. Issues like Robbie Deans' 'un-Australian' style of coaching will become central if they lose they lose in Brisbane.

Robbie Deans

But the relative good health of Australian rugby at Super Rugby franchise level, and the refreshed looking squad that includes three new caps, and one potential new world star in Israel Folau, suggests they Australia will pose major questions to a Lions team that has not taken shape in the way many expected.

On the Lions front, there is an undoubted Welsh slant to both the tactics and the selection policy they have followed.

The danger is that the limitations of a Welsh gameplan which has admittedly proved unstoppable in Europe will be exposed by an Australia side that has had ample warning of what to expect. It is worth bearing in mind that Wales have lost to Australia in four recent Tests, albeit by narrow margins on three occasions.

Welsh players occupy several of the key positions though there is an Irish spine to the team in the shape of Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Jonathan Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll.

Of all the areas across both teams, half-back may well be where the Lions have the greatest edge and if Sexton and scrum-half partner Mike Phillips retain their fitness for the majority of the series, the Lions will have a huge chance of pulling off a series win.

Jonathan Sexton

But, as happened in South Africa in 2009, there is a suspicion that they may only arrive at their best XV as the series develops.

For this Test, the Lions have clearly targeted the Australian set piece. However, unlike Ireland at RWC 2011, they have not followed the logic of going after the pack and tight five fully by picking a back-row capable of maintaining pressure on the entire Australia pack in general play.

Even with Adam Jones as the Lions cornerstone, and the specialist Alex Corbisiero selected over Mako Vunipola at loosehead, it is difficult to see the Australian scrum crumbling.

They field their strongest front-row possible, and the selection of three relatively light lineout specialists at hooker, and in the second row by the Lions, give the Wallabies every chance of surviving.

With those strong lineout forwards, the Lions should be secure out of touch but this has a look of a match that will be decided on the deck.

Do the Lions have enough men capable of carrying with power into contact? Will they be able to protect their own ball on the deck when they do so? Can Sam Warburton win penalties when Australia have it?

Sam Warburton

That final question is crucial, as to bring the set piece into play the Lions must either force Australia to kick or turn them over.

Australia are without the freakish David Pocock, but they have an excellent replacement in Michael Hooper, who has the requisite disregard for his own safety to pose the Lions similar questions from openside.

On the carrying front, the Lions are badly weakened by the loss of Manu Tuilagi and Jamie Roberts and it remains to be seen how Jonathan Davies will handle playing out of position in this most-elite of levels. At 13, Brian O'Driscoll is many things and can cross the gainline, but he is not a tackle-busting carrier.

Brian O'Driscoll and Jonathan Davies will line-out together in the Lions midfield

Do he and Davies have the right chemistry? It has not been apparent so far.

In the pack, the decision to omit Toby Faletau and Sean O’Brien from the squad means there is an obvious shortage of strong carriers there as well. Tom Croft is quick down the wings but neither he nor Sam Warburton are particularly effective at carrying into contact. If the Lions do persist with allowing their back-rowers to roam, their ball security around the ruck will continue to suffer.

The core question for the Lions is whether there are there enough players in their team with the ability to put the likes of Hooper on his backside and out of the game in contact? The big wingers will be a factor but overall, they will not decide the game.

Australia have weaknesses of their own and the decision to play James O’Connor at out-half is a risk, though in Will Genia and Berrick Barnes there is plenty of support on both the playmaking and tactical kicking fronts for him.

Genia's ability to get a pack marching forward through phases around the fringes is a major asset and could yet be central to the outcome.

The conventional wisdom is that the Lions will be better prepared and closer to Test-ready after their five warm-ups. But the pattern in South Africa was for the Lions to make errors in team selection before arriving at their best team as the series developed.

If the likes of Sean O'Brien and Tuilagi come into the side by the second Test, the Lions may well improve their chances enough to level the series.

But Australia and Deans have a golden chance of an upset victory in this first meeting.

Prediction: Lions 12-19 Australia

British & Irish Lions starting XV: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales); Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), George North (Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales); Alex Corbisiero (England), Tom Youngs (England), Adam Jones (Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Tom Croft (England), Sam Warburton (Wales, capt), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland).

Replacements: Richard Hibbard (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Dan Cole (England), Geoff Parling (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Ben Youngs (England), Owen Farrell (England), Sean Maitland (Scotland).

Australia starting XV: Berrick Barnes (NSW Waratahs); Israel Folau (NSW), Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW), Christian Leali'ifano (ACT Brumbies), Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds); James O'Connor (Melbourne Rebels), Will Genia (Reds); Benn Robinson (NSW), Stephen Moore (ACT), Ben Alexander (ACT), James Horwill (Reds - capt), Kane Douglas (NSW), Ben Mowen (ACT), Michael Hooper (NSW), Wycliff Palu (NSW).

Replacements: Saia Fainga'a (Reds), James Slipper (Reds), S Kepu (NSW), Rob Simmons (Reds), Liam Gill (Reds) Nick Phipps (Rebels), Pat McCabe (ACT), Kurtley Beale (Rebels).

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