The old adage goes ‘never change a winning team’, but someone seems to have neglected to inform Lions head coach Warren Gatland of this.
The chief selector has made five changes to the team that narrowly defeated Asutralia in the first test last weekend, of which only two are injury-enforced. These come in the front five, where Mako Vunipola slots in at loose-head prop for compatriot Alex Corbisiero, while Geoff Parling packs down in the engine room in place of Paul O’Connell.
These are two changes that would not have been made had Corbisiero and O’Connell not been injured. Last weekend Vunipola and Parling were part of the reserve scrummaging unit that came off the bench and endured a torrid final quarter, gifting Australia and Kurtley Beale two opportunites to win the game. No one will have been more pleased that these two that Beale opted for ‘mouldies’ instead of proper studs that night, but they will have to up their game if the Lions are not to come off second best in the scrum battle tomorrow.
In O’Connell the Lions also lose a vital source of on-field leadership. Parling is certainly experienced, but is not in the same league as the Irishman when it comes to on-field presence. This is the Munster lock’s third Lions tour, and anyone who has seen the manic aggression videos will know what a stirring presence O’Connell is in the changing room and on the pitch.
Then we come to the unenforced changes, and this is where it gets interesting. Tom Croft drops to the bench to make way for Dan Lydiate. In the first test the Lions seemed a little passive in defence, allowing the Australians to run at them. Lydiate’s selection points to a more aggressive strategy this time out, as no one is better than the Welshman at chopping people down behind the gain-line.
Mike Phillips drops out of the squad all together; supposedly to rest him for the final test, but anyone who saw how out-of-sorts he appeared last weekend will know there is more to it than that. Ben Youngs is his replacement, and where Phillips looks to run over a player Youngs prefers to run around him. His battle with Genia will be intriguing, as they are scrum-halves cut from the same cloth.
Finally, Tommy Bowe returns to the wing in place of the unfortunate Alex Cuthbert. Cuthbert did little wrong last weekend – he even finished a try very well – but it is the partnership of Bowe and North that has had Lions fans excited for some time now. They showed in the warm-up games how well they complimented each other, and despite breaking his hand only three weeks ago Bowe will once again line-up with the big Welshman.
So the scene is set for another belter of a test match. With the series on the line, it could be even tenser than last weekend – if that is possible. Can the Lions clinch their first series for 16 years? Here’s hoping.