Criticising the selection mistakes of fellow coaches is not usually the done thing but this is a Lions tour and Andy Farrell knows a soft target when he sees one.
If any one decision will define Robbie Deans's tenure as Australia's coach it is the omission of Quade Cooper from the Wallabies squad for the Test series, and Farrell reckons the home coach has made a major howler.
No one in Australia expected Cooper to get the nod, the fly-half having criticised the squad's atmosphere as "toxic" last year. Farrell, however, is fully aware of Cooper's popularity with the public and took the opportunity prior to the Lions' game against a Combined Country XV on Tuesday to question the omission of a man with the ability to ask defences serious questions.
"I'm pleased," the British & Irish Lions assistant coach said. "He's a bloody good player. If I was their coach I'd want him in my side. I don't know the background and the ins and outs of why he isn't selected but he's certainly a handful. I'm really pleased [he is not playing]. With Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor they've got a magnificent back line, but Quade adds something different."
In terms of stirring the pot ahead of next week's first Test it was absolutely inch perfect. Deans has duly added six players to his training squad, with Beale, the currently injured Digby Ioane and Pat McCabe being drafted in alongside the forwards Hugh McMeniman, Peter Kimlin and Scott Sio, but if his team lose in Brisbane, Cooper's backyard, a lot of sharp questions will be asked.
While the feisty McMeniman may just prove a pain in the posterior and the reappointed James Horwill is a proven captain, the Lions will look down the list and count themselves fortunate that some game-breaking figures – Cooper, David Pocock, Scott Higginbotham, George Smith, Lopeti Timani etc – are not around.
They also remain confident that Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney will both see Test action at some stage and have no fresh concerns over Sexton's sore hamstring. The fly-half, absolutely pivotal to the Lions' chances, is to be assessed again before the squad continue down the east coast to Sydney but Farrell has few worries. "He's fine, there's no strain there, no nothing. It's just a little bit of tightness … he'll be back in the next couple of days."
Kearney, who also has a hamstring problem, is expected to return to full training this week and could play at the weekend, with Tommy Bowe still not completely ruled out of the tour despite having had an operation on a broken bone in a hand. "He's coming down off morphine now and he's getting his head back together," reported Farrell, conceding that the Irish wing has little chance of playing within the next fortnight. "The medics will keep assessing him but it still could be a couple of weeks."
In the meantime the Lions have three games to negotiate in eight days before they can sit down and confirm their team to face Australia in Brisbane on 22 June. The first promises to be the easiest of the tour against a mixed bag of a Country XV, who are captained by the Melbourne Rebels No8 Tim Davidson, contain only seven Super Rugby players, and are expected to be blown away by the Lions' superior power and athleticism.
With Scotland's Stuart Hogg drafted in to start at fly-half and the props Alex Corbisiero and Ryan Grant only just off the plane, Farrell simply wants his players to treat it like any other game. "For the 23 guys that are going to come up against us it will probably be the biggest game of their lives … the first 20 to 25 minutes is always going to be a battle," he said.
"We're definitely expecting the unexpected on this tour. That's what you've got to do when you come to Australia. We've always said we want to play a fast, physical game but discipline is the key for us and that's shown over the last couple of games."
As for the spying saga, the Lions insist they will continue to keep a look out for camera-wielding strangers lurking behind eucalyptus trees. "You have got to get things right and leave nothing to chance," said Farrell, defending the team's use of security personnel to keep their tactics safe from prying eyes. "We are trying to do our best on the field … off the field we have to make sure nothing gets in the way."
Combined Country XV N Trist; A Gibbon, L Catt, T Siakisini, T Cox; A Roberts, M Snowden; H Hirsimaki; J Mann-Rae, T Metcher, P Battye, B Enever; R Stanford, J Butler; T Davidson (capt)
Replacements T Kearney, D Evans, R Abraham, R Arnold, T Dyer, A McCormack, S McCarthy, D Ahwang.
Lions S Maitland (Scotland); A Cuthbert (Wales), B O'Driscoll (Ireland, capt), J Roberts (Wales), G North (Wales); S Hogg (Scotland), C Murray (Ireland); A Corbisiero (England), R Hibbard (Wales), D Cole (England), R Gray (Scotland), I Evans (Wales), S O'Brien (Ireland), J Tipuric (Wales), J Heaslip (Ireland).
Replacements R Best (Ireland), R Grant (Scotland), M Stevens (England), AW Jones (Wales), T Faletau (Wales), M Phillips (Wales), J Davies (Wales), L Halfpenny (Wales).
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