By Brendan Cole
Australia v Lions, 11.05am
As they bid for a first series win since 1997, the Lions may just find they are still a step behind Australia despite their ultra-pragmatic selection.
The absence of Brian O’Driscoll from the starting line-up has, of course, been the major talking point and undoubtedly detracts from the match as a sporting occasion.
It is also an clear indication that instead of changing tack after scraping to 1-1 in the series, the Lions are set to go for the ‘same only more so’ in this decisive clash, albeit possibly with one or two minor variations.
At the outset, Warren Gatland and the rest of the coaching staff had two options - to graft a Leinster-style backline based around Jonny Sexton and O’Driscoll to a pack full of speed and ball-carrying and play positive rugby, or to rely on a mix of set-piece specialists, Sam Warburton’s groundhog ability and heavyweight backs.
Once the decision was made to go with the latter, O’Driscoll's place was always at risk. Sexton’s strengths have also been underused with his mix of smart running angles, quick passes and double-involvements in attack yet to be a factor in the Tests.
The diagnosis after the first Test is clearly that the Lions need to cross the gainline more and as a result, Jamie Roberts, Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau come in with Jonathan Davies shifting to outside centre.
It must be said that Australia are fortunate to be level in the series and probably would not be if Sam Warburton had stayed on the pitch for the final 20 minutes of the second Test. That said, they deserve plenty of credit for playing most of the good rugby.
They have taken a major selection risk of their own by selecting only one outside back on their bench in Jesse Mogg and a key injury could yet be their undoing.
Return of Smith a boost for Wallabies
Head coach Robbie Deans has, at least, played along with the romance by bringing George Smith back at openside after a four-year absence from Test rugby.
It is worth remembering that Smith is just 32 and only quit the international arena for Europe and Japan because of the emergence of the brilliant David Pocock (who has missed this series through injury).
There is every chance that he will do better than the lively but lightweight Michael Hooper at getting over the ball and disrupting the Lions possession. The great talents have a habit of hitting the heights when the pressure is on.
Smith will face a much-changed back-row with Faletau and O’Brien adding much needed ball-carrying power to the Lions pack and potentially changing the dynamic around the ruck. At nine, the return of Mike Phillips should give the Lions better poise, pace and service from scrum-half. Few scrum-halves look good behind a struggling pack and Phillips was not at his best in the first Test.
If the Lions do get on the front foot, with Jamie Roberts and the rest of the key carriers crossing the gainline regularly and put the likes of Smith and Ben Mowen on their backsides, Phillips and Sexton will suddenly become much more dangerous
That’s the positive slant, at any rate.
The Australians may also rethink their approach in some areas. Their forwards have carried poorly into contact in both Tests so far, frequently dropping short passes designed to create quick ball.
A switch to a safer approach may be needed.
But they will continue to hang onto the ball as, unlike most sides, they become more dangerous the longer they keep hold of it, with Will Genia giving them a potentially crucial extra dimension. The Queensland Red has been the player of the series so far, capable of turning structured play into broken field in an instant.
Australia running power a huge threat to Lions defence
Dual first-receivers Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor are not orthodox but offer plenty of threat in those situations and their best chance, as it has done all along, lies with testing the Lions weak defensive organisation through phases. With key turnover threats like O’Driscoll, Warburton and Paul O’Connell on the sidelines, they should find that easier to do.
O’Brien is a threat at the breakdown but at the speed the Australians will operate he may just struggle to get near the tackle area quickly enough.
If the Australians can get their heads up in space, they will find no shortage of targets for the danger men. The defensive decision making of Davies and George North has been poor so far, while the likes of Alex Corbisiero, Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard and even Faletau will struggle against the exceptional running ability personified by Israel Folau.
Aside from crossing the gainline more often, the Lions will hope to exert control through the scrum and lineout. Jones, Hibbard and Corbisiero have a chance of getting some traction in the scrum while the Lions lineout and driving maul could also exert an influence.
Can the Lions shape the game to their strengths?
Though they have played poorly and negatively for long stetches, it should not be forgotten that the Lions have had Australia on the ropes more than once during this series.
But this match is being played on Australian soil and the extent to which the Lions can shape this game to their strengths is open to question.
On the plus side, though this team is not the best Britain and Ireland is capable of fielding, the selection is arguably the Lions most coherent yet and Phillips and Sexton may well benefit. Manu Tuilagi could also exert a major influence when he makes his entrance.
But in the end, Smith’s return at seven, the genius of Genia and the loss of ground specialists and leadership figures throughout the Lions team may just tilt the decider Australia’s way in the final half hour.
Third Test Prediction: Australia 18-15 Lions
Live radio coverage of Australia v Lions from 10.55am on RTÉ 2fm and RTÉ.ie (RoI only).