By Bernard Jackman
There were rumours circulating all week that Warren Gatland and his management were set to make changes they have proved to be correct.
Quite often you see coaches sticking with a winning team but Gatland has been ruthless and made the changes he feels can help the Lions win the series with a game to spare this weekend.
Two of those are injury enforced with Geoff Parling and Mako Vuniopola replacing Paul O Connell and Alex Corbisero.
While O’Connell will be missed on the pitch, the Lions have done the right thing by keeping him on the Tour in a coaching/advisory role. Paul is an iconic figure in world rugby and apart from the respect he commands through his actions, he is incredibly smart tactically in all areas of the game and particularly at the lineout. It might only make a 1% difference but there is nothing between these two teams and it could turn out to be a masterstroke.
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But the decisions to drop Tom Croft, Alex Cuthbert and Mike Phillips are based on form and suitability and give an indication of what Gatland thinks the Lions need to change.
Tommy Bowe is a player Gatland rates very highly and once he was kept on after his hand injury it was always likely he would feature in a Test if he regained fitness. Alex Cuthbert is a great athlete and took his try brilliantly last weekend but Tommy is a more all-round player and has proven himself time and time again to have a big match temperament.
I felt that last weekend the back-row played well individually but that the balance was wrong and the change they have made is to sacrifice Croft for Lydiate, another personal favourite of Gatland’s.
Dan Lydiate will improve Lions defense
It’s a change which will improve the defensive strength in the team as Lydiate’s main qualities are work rate and tackle completion percentage.
But it does not add to the attack and that could be a problem. When I analysed the first test again this week I felt that the Lions were very successful at getting their “mapping” (patterns) going, but they lacked an explosive ball carrier up front to hurt the Wallabies. I don’t see Lydiate giving them that and I still think Sean O’ Brien, who is included on the bench, would have been a better option.
Phillips, who has been carrying a knee injury, was very poor last week and has been left out of the 23 completely with Ben Youngs set to start and Conor Murray on the bench. Youngs and Murray have both been in good form on tour but they will be head-to-head against Will Genia, who is in my opinion the best scrum half in the world at the moment. It is a very tough head-to-head and could prove crucial.
The Lions big strength is their team spirit and that is what got them over the line last weekend in what was a brilliant test match and stood out again in their impressive midweek win over the Rebels on Tuesday.
But given the injuries that the Wallabies suffered during the first Test, their place kicking problems and the fact that they had no warm up games, it is obvious that the Lions need to be improve on Saturday if they are to win thjis second Test.
The big danger is the pace the Wallabies can play at. The weather and different refereeing styles in Europe mean the game is slower and more set piece oriented. For example, the stats show that players in the Aviva Premiership run an average 15 metres per minute less than those in Super Rugby.
Wallabies ability to up tempo is key
Like the Queensland Reds, the Australians really tried to speed up the game at every opportunity last week and while I felt the Lions were mostly well-organised both offensively and defensively last week, they had problems off quick taps and turnover ball.
If you are allowed to play at the speed that you are comfortable at then you rarely make an error. But if you think back to the first Wallaby try from last weekend, the Lions had attacked for a lot of phases in the Australian 22 before they conceded a penalty.
Genia tapped and went but the Lions had it covered until Mike Phillips bought a dummy from Will Genia which led to the break down field and the try. In my view, Phillips was at that stage “stressed” from the relentless pace of the game and that is what brought about the error.
The Lions also had problems in the scrum and with their box-kicking.
I think Gatland will keep Adam Jones on the pitch for longer as the scrum destabilised when he went off last week. Phillips’ inaccurate box-kicks allowed the Wallabies to counter last week. Youngs’ will need to land his closer to the touchline and make sure they are contestable.
As with last week, the referee is a key element for both sides.
There was a lot of dissatisfaction from the Lions camp with Chris Pollock. He was incorrect in the two penalties against Brian O’Driscoll early in the match when Brian was entitled to contest the ball and was supporting his own body weight.
Joubert should provide consistency at the breakdown
But Pollock has always been a ref that favours the attacking team at the ruck and I am surprised that the Lions were not prepped for that.
Gatland went on the charm offensive this week describing this week’s ref Craig Joubert as the best referee in the world. Joubert does have a lot of experience of northern hemisphere rugby and I expect there to be less confusion and frustration as a result.
He will allow a contest for the ball once the primary tackler rolls away immediately. It is also worth noting that he is not usually concerned with the offside line, so expect the Lions first defenders around the ruck to try and put more pressure on Genia by rushing forward.
What result will we get?
I think that the Wallabies would be more dangerous with Kurtley Beale at ten and O’Connor at 15 but they should have a better percentage from the placed ball this weekend with Christian Leali'ifano kicking.
They will really try to lift the pace of the game to another level and I think they will be able to do that enough to sneak a win in this week’s match and bring the series down to the final test in Sydney.