Robert Critchley explains why the Welsh contingent will be crucial to the British and Irish Lions on their 2013 tour.
With the Heineken Cup destined for the Cote D’Azur, the Aviva Premiership set to be wrapped up at Twickenham at the weekend, and Jonny Wilkinson intimating that he may well be willing to be a replacement after his heroics in Dublin, the British and Irish Lions are in their final preparation stages before they step out in the Hong Kong Stadium against the Barbarians a week on Saturday.
Much has been made about the squad selection and whether the French based players would be available, but such is the fragmented nature of international Rugby Union, added to the vast wealth on offer in the Top 14, it has made planning an already complex tour that much more difficult.
There is no doubt that the Lions head coach Warren Gatland has picked a squad strong enough to go over to Australia and compete. Has he though picked a squad which can come home from a Lions tour for the first time since the famous South Africa tour in 1997 with a series win?
Unsurprisingly, the squad is loaded with 6 nations winning Welsh players, who Gatland knows intimately also being their national boss. The storming four game winning run which ensured the trophy, and maybe, more tellingly the demolition of England in the championship decider has certainly gone a long way to getting the large Welsh contingent onto the plane.
However, before the victory at the Stade de France which kick started the Welsh revival, the same team had gone 8 test matches without registering a victory, four of them against the very same Australian outfit which they will be facing come June 22nd in Brisbane.
There were lack lustre performances against Argentina and Samoa, and a demolition at the hands of the All Blacks, and the start of their 6 Nations tournament got of to a less than auspicious start with defeat against an Ireland side who only avoided the wooden spoon on points difference.
And this is where Gatland’s dilemma is exacerbated. Scotland, while making a marked improvement are still weak, and a once formidable Irish side is now aging.
The likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell are, on their day still immense players, but their days are getting fewer and further apart, and whether this is one tour too far for them remains to be seen.
A huge weight of expectation is going to be on the shoulders of Johnny Sexton, not only in this Lions series but for Ireland as well when it is done and dusted.
The answer doesn’t lie with the Red Rose either. After the euphoria of the defeat of New Zealand in the last autumn international, and the opening 6 nations victory against Scotland, England have relied heavily on a favourable penalty count in their favour to secure unconvincing victories and gradually got worse as the international season progressed, culminating in that catastrophic defeat at the Millennium Stadium.
While Stuart Lancaster has instilled more discipline and structure, it seems Gatland still had England ill fated World Cup in mind when considering who would make suitable tourists for such a demanding and lengthy sojourn.
Having stuck to what he knows, and players he is familiar with, he will be hoping to avoid the situation Clive Woodward found himself in New Zealand in 2005, when in similar circumstances, Wales won the 6 nations and dominated the Lions test team selection, only for them to be blown away by a far superior All Blacks side.
This Australian side is no 2005 All Black team though. It is in fact weak in comparison to the majority of the Southern Hemisphere sides the Lions have taken on in the past.
There are a smattering of quality players, but injuries to David Pocock, George Smith, Pat McCabe and Tatafu Polaota-Nau and coach Robbie Deans decision not to select the mercurial, but defensively suspect fly half Quade Cooper further weakens the Wallabies. Kurtley Beale has also made himself unavailable, further reducing Deans' options.
Good news for the beleaguered Aussie coach however comes with the inclusion of Israel Falou, who, despite playing only 15 Super 12 games has made such an impact on the code he is viewed as a certain starter.
Falou previously played for the all conquering Australian Rugby League side before switching to try his hand at Australian Rules Football, demonstrating the talent and versatility which has made him an instant success for the Waratahs.
As the series draws closer, there could still be some movement in either squad due to injuries, and Deans’ option to add a further six players to his preliminary picks. This series though will be decided on by the preparation of each squad and this is where Gatland has shown his hand.
Deans is aware that with Super 15 games still to play, his squad will have a limited build up period but come 22nd June in Brisbane when the first test takes place two teams shorn of skill, but not lacking passion will come together for what promises three tight, intense and very physical test matches.
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