Today’s Lions XV is very close to what Warren Gatland has wanted all along. He is a firm believer in power and size, and this is a team brimming with both. In the two Tests so far, it has been clear the Lions have been missing at least one focal ball-carrying presence. Jamie Roberts has been continually highlighted as that missing link, and now the pressure is on him to generate front-foot ball for Jonny Sexton to play off. Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau should add force in the carrying department too, and the theory is that the Lions will get over the gainline more often.
However, it is not just those three who need to step up to the mark in contact.
This team looks distinctly the most suited to the game plan Gatland has deployed so far. These 15 players have been chosen to overpower the Wallabies, who have looked comfortable in defending the Lions’ attacking system so far.
It is likely to be more of the same from the Lions, direct carries in midfield and around the corner, with an aggressive kick chase under the garryowens from Sexton and Phillips. Gatland has played the power card, and the pressure is on the Lions to outmuscle the Wallabies.
The scrum has been perhaps the decisive area of the Tests so far, whatever your take on the refereeing of Chris Pollock and Craig Joubert in the two games. Last weekend, the Wallabies got great reward from a collective effort to focus their drive to the left in the first half. That pinned Adam Jones down and prevented him from making a destructive impact, while also isolating Mako Vunipola at loosehead. In fairness to the English prop, he started to get a handle on Ben Alexander in the second half but Alex Corbisiero should be an upgrade nonetheless. Richard Hibbard adds extra power in the front row too, so Gatland will expect his pack to be more proactive than last time out.
The early scrums will set the tone, and it’s crucial that the Lions adapt to Romain Poite’s interpretation as rapidly as possible. Whether the Lions win or lose the first scrum, it is imperative that the forwards pinpoint exactly what Poite is rewarding or punishing.
A scrum without some form of illegality is rare and very often it is about figuring out what you can get away with. The Wallabies have performed better than expected in this area so far, but the Lions will be confident they can finish strongly.
The Lions are without four of their most effective players in this area due to the injuries to Sam Warburton and Paul O’Connell, as well as the omission of Jamie Heaslip and Brian O’Driscoll. While Sean O’Brien is underrated at the breakdown, the effort to slow and steal possession becomes a shared responsibility amongst all 23 players. Will Genia has clearly stated the Wallabies’ intention to play “some good running rugby and really have a go”, so it is imperative that the Lions focus on preventing the scrum-half from working with quick ball. The Wallabies are far fresher as a squad and if the tempo is high, you would fear that the Lions will be out on their feet in the closing stages.
In attack, the Lions will be well aware of the threat George Smith poses to their own possession.
The 32-year-old is intelligent and powerful on the deck and again, the Lions will need a uniform focus to prevent him from getting up to speed quickly. Smith played his most recent Super Rugby game in May; the Lions need to blast him off the ball with aggression in order to prevent an early, confidence-boosting steal.
Gatland is hoping the explosive carriers he has picked will get the Lions over the gainline more consistently; ensuring it is far more difficult for the Wallabies to make steals.