By Bernard Jackman
The phoney war is over, and Warren Gatland and Robbie Deans have shown their opening hands by naming their teams for the first Test in Brisbane.
Looking at both match-day squads, I expect the Lions to edge this game despite a couple of risky calls.
Gatland has selected 20 of the players involved against the Waratahs last Saturday in what was the Lions most complete performance to date.
It was a second-string Waratahs outfit but the Australian side played well, relishing the one-off opportunity to take on the Lions as the Reds did the previous week.
As a whole, the warm-up games have not been particularly useful, with three of the matches taking place against cannon fodder opposition. But the Waratahs game was exactly the type of match that Gatland’s squad needed a week out from the first Test.
It is true that the Lions go into the match on the back of a poor performance against the Brumbies on Tuesday. Coached by the South African Jake White, the Brumbies play the most European style of all the Super rugby franchises. They are very set-piece and breakdown focused and they gave the Lions second string a lot of problems.
It was understandable that the Lions backline didn’t click with four late arrivals playing. The surprising thing was the way the pack struggled, and there was a lacklustre feel to the performance of the entire team.
But the Lions have had a month to prepare and five matches together. On that basis, I see this game as being a must win for them as the Wallabies will almost certainly improve over the series.
What approach will the Lions take? The last time they won a series was in South Africa in 1997. That success there was built on a strong set-piece and kicking game and the unerring boot of Neil Jenkins.
Leigh Halfpenny has been consistency personified with the boot so far and with Johnny Sexton’s game management and the power of the Lions pack I expect the Lions to play a territorial game this weekend.
Set-piece is key for the Lions
The scrum and lineout are key areas and the Lions look set to make a priority of both.
They have decided to start with Alex Corbisiero, who lacks the impact of Mako Vunipola around the park but is an excellent scrummaging loosehead. He and Tom Youngs at hooker will really look to target the Australian tighthead Ben Alexander, who has question marks about him at in that area.
The battle out of touch is also key. The Lions like to use their inside-centre and big wingers to smash over the gain line in the vacuum between the tail of the lineout and the 10 channel.
If you can get over the gain line on that first phase the subsequent phases are much easier.
The Australians are likely to concede the front of the lineout to the Lions and try to make it difficult to win quality ball at the middle and back. The Lions have certainly struggled in that area so far on this tour.
If they can force the Lions to throw to the front, the pass from the scrum-half is in the air for longer by the time it gets to the strike runner. That will mean the Aussie defence can close that vacuum between the tail and the 10 channel and – possibly - win that particular battle of the gain line.
The Lions have gone for Tom Croft, which gives them a really good jumper at the back and I expect lineout caller Paul O’Connell to begin with trying to punish the Wallabies through drives at the front before balancing that with winning calls to go towards the back as the match develops.
If the Lions can generate that type of ball, it will bring Jonathan Davies and Brian O’Driscoll into the game more effectively. Davies was impressive against the Tahs but his distribution from right to left is erratic at times.
Unsurprisingly, O’Driscoll been outstanding on tour and his vision and skill could yet turn out to be crucial to unlocking a Wallaby defence which is well organized and aggressive.
Warburton selection is a big gamble
The back-row is the other key area. The biggest gamble the Lions have made selection wise is with the captaincy and the fact that Sam Warburton starts ahead of Sean O’Brien.
Warburton is a class player and made an impact against the Waratahs, but he has had an injury and there are question marks over his form.
O’Brien has been the most impressive back-rower on tour, showing great hands and power and he is a player that the Australians fear.
Losing out on the bench spot to Dan Lydiate will be particularly hard to stomach but I will be very surprised if O’Brien does not feature in a Test match this tour. He could yet play a key role in deciding the outcome of the series.
The Australians bring plenty of dangermen of their own with wingers Israel Folau and Digby Ioane especially worth watching out for.
But there is an air of tension around the Wallabies camp with issues like the non-selection of Quade Cooper and the pressure that Deans is under to win this series potentially impacting their performance.
The match-ready Lions should just about shade this one.