A critical five days ahead for tourists

Finally the ARU have shown a bit of leadership and common sense.

A critical five days ahead for tourists

No doubt stung by suggestions that the lack of player depth in Australia could even call into question the viability of full Lions tours in the future, the Waratahs have had a handful of their players released from two Wallaby squads to strengthen their challenge against the tourists today (10.30am).

The Lions return to the scene of the one of the most controversial games in the history of professional rugby and one that made headlines, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons, 12 years ago.

With a week to go to the first Test, the New South Wales Waratahs took it upon themselves to take the fight, literally, to the Lions and soften up the visitors. Right from the kick-off of that explosive game, Tom Bowman, a World Cup winner with Australia two years earlier and a player who passed through the Munster squad almost unnoticed a few seasons later, set the tone by elbowing Danny Grewcock in the face. At least he got a yellow card for his troubles. Before the end, he would be joined by four others with Duncan McRae receiving the ultimate sanction for that appalling attack on Ronan O’Gara. At one stage 13 Lions faced 12 Waratahs. It was farcical.

The Lions dressing room afterwards resembled a battlefield as Lawrence Dallaglio, Will Greenwood and Neil Back all received injuries that put the first two out of the series and Back out of the first test.

Relations were soured even further when after the game Phil Waugh, the diminutive Waratahs captain, boasted openly about the injuries inflicted on the Lions. It made us even more determined to win that opening Test.

Most disappointing of all was the attempt by the Waratahs to somehow apportion blame on O’Gara for McRae’s actions and even worse was his failure to display any remorse or to apologise to the Munster man when they sat across from each other at a disciplinary hearing the following morning. I was in attendance with my fellow Corkman and was even more disgusted with former Australian and Waratahs coach Bob Dwyer, when he somehow tried to imply that foul play from O’Gara sparked the whole incident off.

Returning to the Sydney Football Stadium today for the first time since that incident, ironically I cannot help but wonder if a good old fashioned punch-up wouldn’t be any harm, such has been the passive and uneventful feel of the tour thus far. The game against the Reds was the standout contest so far but because of the brittle nature of the Queensland scrum, their challenge couldn’t be sustained.

The fact that the ARU have relented with chief executive Bill Pulver agreeing to Michael Cheika’s request for a release of half-backs Matt Lucas and Bernard Foley from the Australian Sevens camp, along with the return of captain David Dennis and Rob Horne from the full squad, will certainly help to strengthen their hand today and that is no harm as they are short up to 14 other squad members for one reason or another.

The Lions need a contest, especially at scrum time. Despite fielding a raft of different combinations up front in the opening tour matches, they have crushed all before them in the scrum with a little too much ease for my liking. Australia will start with a front row of Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander in the first Test and despite suggestions to the contrary, that trio will offer the hosts a compact and efficient scrum.

At present the Lions’ most formidable opposition is provided by themselves with plenty of live scrummaging the order of the day in training. However, constraints of time and a desire to build a formidable lineout means that compromises have had to be made on the training ground in order to make sure the players have some petrol left in the tank for the third test. The ideal scenario would be for the series to be decided in Melbourne by winning the opening two tests but I am yet to be convinced that will be the case. There are so many imponderables on both sides, not least the mounting injury concerns in the Lions camp and on the flip side, the shape the Wallabies will be in without the benefit of a warm up test.

Gatland has a few big calls to make over the next few days, not least who starts at loose head now that Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins have returned home. Mako Vunipola has had a marvellous tour so far but he has yet to receive any serious examination of his scrummaging. Still only 22, he has much to learn. He experienced a torrid time of it in Saracens’ last two competitive games of the season when they were beaten by Toulon in the Heineken Cup semi final and Northampton at the same stage of the Aviva Premiership.

I still think he may be better suited to an impact role off the bench when the Wallabies will be less focused on conceding nothing at scrum time and he is allowed to carry with the effectiveness he has displayed so far. That leaves the door open for early tour replacements Alex Corbisiero and Ryan Grant to stake their claim. Corbisiero was the man who destroyed the Irish scrum at Twickenham in 2012 and but for injury problems all season would have been an original choice for this tour, probably at the expense of Vunipola.

The Lion under most pressure to perform today is tour captain Sam Warburton, who was blowing heavy in Brisbane last weekend. I thought he performed better than he was given credit for, manufacturing countless turnovers with his trademark graft at the breakdown. I think Gatland will start him in the opening Test regardless but it would serve to ease a lot of pressure both on himself and the management if he could manage a more sustained effort today. The Lions have now arrived at the most critical five days of the tour with today’s outing and the one against the Brumbies on Tuesday in Canberra deciding the final few places still up for grabs on the Test side. Then comes the team announcement and that moment when some of the party have to come to terms with — missing out on the biggest games of the tour. How they react to that will play a crucial role in the success or failure of the entire exercise.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021

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