“This is your Everest, Boys!” Part of Jim Telfer's iconic speech before the 1997 Test against South Africa – the last time the British and Irish Lions won a test series.
And their very own Everest is exactly what the class of 2013 are facing this weekend – for victory on Saturday will seal only the 2nd Tour victory since the famous undefeated tour of 1974 featuring Willie John McBride, JPR Williams et al.
So what of Saturday’s team?
Five changes have been made from the narrow victory in the 1st Test. That Geoff Parling and Mako Vunipola have been selected for the injured Paul O’Connell and Alex Corbisiero can come as no surprise to anyone, but the boldness of Warren Gatlands other selections may well do.
Whilst no one can claim anything other than a below par performance from Mike Phillips – his failure to tackle Will Genia costing the Lions the first try – many of the non Welsh supporters would have worried that Gatland would stick to his guns and go with the tried and tested formula.
In a somewhat confusing message, Gatland has stated that Phillips is not injured, and was 100% fit for this game…..but failed to name him among the replacements in order to rest him for the 3rd test in a move that is surely to appease and keep onside a Scrum Half who remains his first choice when he returns to his role with Wales.
Credit to him that he has been bold enough to make a decision to bring in Ben Youngs, and with it a change in the game plan. Youngs will offer a different type of threat to Phillips’ physicality and will keep the Australians on their toes at the breakdown, with his ability to snipe from the back of the ruck which will be vital if the lions are to make line breaks.
In order to secure the quick ball that Youngs will require, the Lions back row will need to up their physicality. There were undoubtedly some rather strange refereeing interpretations at the breakdown on Saturday, but rucks will need to be hit, and hit hard – and though Tom Croft can feel himself unlucky to be demoted to the bench, Dan Lydiate showed in Tuesdays warm up game that he is your more traditional blood and thunder style Blindside flanker who will put his body on the line for the cause. Croft meanwhile will provide an excellent option from the bench.
Similarly unlucky top miss out – and perhaps the harshest – is Alex Cuthbert, scorer of the Lions 2nd try on Saturday. But Tommy Bowe has been there, seen it, and got the t-shirt.
A starter in all three of the 2009 series tests, and probably one of the stand out performers on tour until a broken hand curtailed his involvement. Initially thought to have been ruled out the tour, Saturday’s game will be thee weeks to the day since the break occurred.
A hastily arranged operation later, and complete with three metal pins in his right hand, it is a testament to Bowe that he has not only the physical strength to overcome an injury, but also the mental aptitude to be able to put himself back into the most physical of arena’s.
But modern day Rugby is not just about the 15 players who start the match. More and more influence can be asserted from making the right changes at the right time, and the eight Lions on the bench will be just as vital. Many will point the finger at the wholesale changes to the front row coinciding with a slump in performance a the set piece, thus providing Australia a platform to nearly steal the game, but Gatland is a strong believer in sending on scrimmaging reinforcements around the hour mark.
With Dan Coles failing to perform to his usual high standards, and Ryan Grant coming into the squad on the back of one warm up match, he may well buck this trend to allow Adam Jones and Vunipola to carry on turning the screw.
The addition of Sean O’Brien to the bench is a welcome one, with many feeling he’s been unlucky not to make the test team, and with no recognised Lock on the bench, one can only assume Tom Croft will provide cover there. As the game reaches its final stages and begins to open up, Croft’s pace and guile will surely come into play – especially if the lions are chasing the game.
Connor Murray will cover the scrum half position, while Owen Farrell is again playing second fiddle to the impressive Jonny Sexton. It is interesting that an out and out winger has been selected in Alex Cuthbert, rather than a Maitland or a Hogg who can cover a number of positions, but for one of Saturdays try scorers not to have been involved would have been very harsh indeed.
So we know who we have going into battle, but what of the game itself? Win and the Lions have cemented themselves into history. Lose, and the Australians head to the third and final test in Sydney with not only a swing in momentum, but also the entire nation behind them.
As the players take to the field, the fate of their legend still to be decided, one thing is for certain – that across these 4 great nations, from the legendary Thomond Park, to the Highlands of Scotland. From Welsh voices echoing across the valleys, to the Pink and Grey confines of Olney - British and Irish rugby fans will be cheering you on.
Go and conquer your Everest boys!
image: © iancarroll