Many would have assumed on awakening to a Lions squad without Brian O’Driscoll in it that the great man had been injured or taken ill in the last 24 hours. They would have been mistaken.
The Lions’ biggest source of leadership and inspiration, with both O’Connell and Warburton injured, will not be taking any part in the final test on Saturday. It is a huge concern for the Lions.
It is not, however, their greatest concern. That comes in the obvious, one-dimensional game-plan that Warren Gatland’s selection clearly points to. When the initial squad was picked, the Lions were labeled in the Australian media as being ‘big slabs of red meat’ but to their, and Gatland’s, credit, for the most part so far they have looked far more adventurous than many were expecting.
This final test selection, however, smacks of Gatland getting back to how he likes to play best – power, power and more power. Mike Phillips has precisely zero subtlety to his game, and has usurped the far snappier Ben Youngs. Richard Hibbard is a lump whose line-out work has been vastly inferior to Tom Youngs, and yet he starts too.
In the centres there is no room for the guile and intelligence of O’Driscoll, where the brutish belligerence of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies has been preferred. Roberts is in on reputation alone, given that he has been out injured for weeks and only really impressed in the initial money-spinning game in Hong Kong. Davies was at fault for the deciding try last weekend.
The lack of a plan B from the bench is also a worry. There is no room there for Youngs, Hogg or Croft, all of whom have the attributes to change the game and offer a bit more pace and flair. Instead you have Conor Murray, Manu Tuilagi and Richie Gray, all good players in their own right but not exactly known for their sleight of hand.
Therein lies the major concern. If, after 60 minutes, the Lions are ten points down and the strategy of bashing the Wallabies into submission clearly isn’t working, what is going to happen? By the looks of things they will try to bash them just a little bit harder. It doesn’t really make sense.
It is not all doom and gloom – after all, it is a game-plan that has brought the Welsh considerable success over the past few years, but perhaps most tellingly it has not worked for them against the Australians. The Wallabies have beaten Wales in their last nine matches, and with ten Welsh in the starting line-up on Saturday that hands the psychological advantage firmly to the men in gold.
A final thought, which perhaps is not relevant but may turn out to be. If the Lions do try to out-muscle the Australians with a physical approach, it is worth considering how the most physically imposing side in the world, South Africa, have fared in recent times against the Wallabies. They have lost seven of the last nine.
Here’s hoping Gatland has something else up his sleeve.
image: © kenkuchih