By Brendan Cole
The Lions look set to go into their shell in a bid for a series-winning second victory that – as Warren Gatland said this week – could be a life-defining moment for this group of players.
The uncomfortable fact is that Lions should probably have lost the first Test, despite the quality of some of their attacking play and George North’s individual brilliance.
On the other hand, they will surely defend better than they managed to for the tries. Tom Croft and Mike Phillips have been dropped after both fell for Will Genia’s deception in the lead-up to the first Australian try. For the second, North came off his wing but failed to prevent the ball from reaching Israel Folau, while Jonathan Sexton was easily stepped by the Australian winger.
Both were far too good elsewhere in the match to be dropped for this Test, but similar errors will cost the Lions dearly if repeated.
Overall, the Lions’ occasional defensive disorganisation and poor decision-making in unstructured play will surely be a focus for Australia’s gameplan. As with last week, they will look to keep the ball and flowing through Genia and use twin first-receivers James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale whenever possible.
That makes the breakdown critical and the Lions have selected accordingly, with tackling specialist Lydiate brought in at blindside. The Welshman hits low and behind the gainline, giving anyone smart enough to follow him around a turnover opportunity and Sam Warburton could be the man who benefits most after contributing very little in the first Test. He simply must threaten the Australian ball more often this week.
He should have every chance with Craig Joubert on the whistle as the expectation is that Joubert will allow more of a contest.
It is a positive for the Lions that against Scotland in this year’s Six Nations and Ireland at RWC 2011, Warburton thrived under the South African, but that is no guarantee that his particular method - which involves placing the hands on the ground before attempting to strip the ball - will find favour this week.
Was last week’s referee Chris Pollock’s decision to insist players attempting turnovers support their own bodyweight a solo-run or evidence of a more general steer given to referees? Will it colour Joubert’s perception of the breakdown on Saturday?
It’s a key question.
Aside from the refereeing, the Lions may simply find they have less opportunity to get at the ball against an Australia team used to handling the likes of Heinrich Brussow and Richie McCaw, especially after losing their second breakdown specialist in the forwards Paul O’Connell missing out.
The Lions have problems elsewhere.
They got very little from their centres last week, with a block for Alex Cuthbert’s try and one release of Jonathan Davies by Brian O’Driscoll the main contributions.
After a quiet first Test, this match could be one in which O’Driscoll shines in but that sense of a lack of chemistry with Davies could limit both of their influence.
Neither of the centres are front-rank long passers and the Australians will know they can expect plenty of heavy traffic up the middle, though Jonny Sexton’s ability to loop around and bring in the wide men could help the Lions vary their play.
Alongside that limitation, the scrummage and the change are scrum-half are other potentially massive issue.
Ben Youngs comes in for Phillips and is capable of looking energetic but in reality is a classic Leicester scrum-half: strong, obdurate and with solid basics including a decent kicking game. But he struggled to execute his skills accurately when the tempo lifted in South Africa when England toured there last summer and could do so again in what is certain to be a frantically paced match.
In the scrum, the Lions are lightweight in the second-row and have selected in Mako Vunipola a player who they have already admitted may not be technically strong enough. They also have a lightweight replacement tighthead on the bench in Dan Cole. They will survive once Adam Jones remains on the pitch and Vunipola’s selection does at least bolster the ball-carrying up front.
But it is not a tight-five that will in any way intimidate the Australians.
The Lions have their strengths with two superb wings in Tommy Bowe and North and a top-class operator in Sexton, while Leigh Halfpenny’s goalkicking is another major strength.
A huge amount rests on Sexton to perform at peak and stay fit for most of the 80. Adam Jones must do the same.
The Wallabies are not without problems of their own – Berrick Barnes, Digby Ioane and Pat McCabe are ruled out and the fact Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor were out until after 4am mid-week is a reminder that all is not well in the relationship between Robbie Deans and his squad.
But the side as selected is arguably more dangerous than last week, with Beale’s ability to shoot in at first receiver certain to challenge to Lions’ defensive organisation.
Joe Tomane is a decent replacement for Ioane on the wing and the danger of Folau on the other side is not reduced for all that the Lions are forewarned.
In general, the Wallabies have the men who impressed last week with Genia, Ben Mowen and James Horwill in situ and a front five that largely proved durable and combative.
The bench is weaker, though the unorthodox outside-backs replacement Jesse Mogg has X-Factor and could be influential.
Overall, Australia should improve for their run out whereas the Lions combinations may not be right in the back-row, half-back and centre, while the tight five vulnerabilities could also home to roost.
A third Test in which the Lions unleash the likes of Toby Faletau, Manu Tuilagi, Ian Evans and Sean O’Brien, with a rejuvenated Phillips starting as well, could yet see them claim this series by taking them on in a physical confrontation, as the likes of Samoa and Ireland have successfully done.
This time, the Australians look best placed to claim a series leveller.
Prediction: Australia 25-13 Lions