Speaking about his choice of Alex Corbisiero over Mako Vunipola in the Lions front row, Warren Gatland mentioned the possibility that the Wallabies would have targeted Vunipola “technically at scrum time.” It’s fascinating that Gatland has made this concession in an area where the Lions have long been expected to dominate.
The Wallaby scrum has been much maligned in recent years but with 180 caps between them, Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander have been around the block.
For the Lions, the majority of the expectation of scrum supremacy rests on the broad shoulders of Adam Jones. He has dealt favourably with Robinson before. At hooker, the selection of Tom Youngs gives less scrummaging power than Richard Hibbard would have, another reason for Corbisiero’s inclusion. Gatland will expect his front row to earn penalties for Halfpenny to convert, but the Wallabies will have their own plan in that regard.
As always, the replacement of the front rows late on will have a big say in the outcome. Australia’s substitute trio have a slight experience advantage, but the Lions have a far heavier trio in reserve. A late scrum penalty could be the winning and losing of this first Test.
Clean possession is key to any game plan, but particularly the Lions structured attacking system. Against the Brumbies, a disrupted lineout meant poor quality possession and turned the game into a scrappy affair. The pack Gatland has selected means the Lions have four world-class jumpers in O’Connell, Jones, Croft and Heaslip, as well as a good option in Warburton at the tail. Furthermore, the choice of Youngs at hooker is heavily influenced by the Englishman’s reliable throwing so far on tour.
So how will the Wallabies counter that? Robbie Deans has placed his faith in blindside flanker Ben Mowen. The Brumbies man is making his debut at the age of 28, thanks to his superb Super Rugby form. Mowen will be calling the Wallabies’ lineouts and is their biggest defensive threat on Youngs’ throw. He reads the opposition very well and is likely to be a thorn in the Lions side. Mowen and captain James Horwill are the two main jumpers for the Wallabies, with Kane Douglas and Wycliff Palu providing further options. Defensively, the home side are likely to mark the front and middle of the lineout, forcing Youngs to throw to the tail. He hasn’t done much of that in Australia, and will need to cope with the pressure.
The Australian back row looks well balanced between the breakdown work of Michael Hooper, the defensive excellence of Mowen and the explosive carrying of Palu. Off the bench, Liam Gill offers intelligent linking play and a further turnover threat. Mowen is comfortable at No. 8 and Hooper can shift to the blindside if needed. All in all, it appears that Robbie Deans has selected well in terms of the different skills each player brings and for injury cover.
Gatland’s decision to exclude Sean O’Brien from the match day squad, much to the relief of the Australians, leaves the Lions in a different position. Dan Lydiate only covers blindside and his strengths are purely defensive. Surely the smarter option was O’Brien who covers all three positions and offers attacking impact? It appears Gatland is backing Croft’s ability to play at openside if Warburton gets injured. Jamie Heaslip will need to make the hard yards in attack and do the dirty work in defence. Croft should be his usual threat out wide in attack, while Warburton will have his hands full at the breakdown. The hope is that Gatland’s choice to omit O’Brien doesn’t prove the difference.