Former Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas and now tipping expert. He’s had 3 winning tips out of 4 so far on the Lions Tour and in an exclusive column for the Paddy Power Blog, he tells us why backing the Lions could make it a fab four.
The nerves, the expectation, the waiting. It’s nearly all over.
The boys in the Lions squad have all played international rugby before, played in big matches and handled pressure before, but playing a Test for the Lions is a different story altogether. By the time I played for the Lions, I was an experienced international, but I was prepared for the pressure and what it meant.
The history, the passion, the importance. Even when you play for your national team – whether it’s England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales, you have your comfort zone. You know the media, you might have your family nearby, there’s a familiarity to it that you don’t get with the Lions.
The lads have been together for a few weeks now, but it’ll only be in the last few days that the significance begins to dawn on them. After moving from hotel to hotel, they’ve settled down in one location and the intensity begins to build. You see the locals, all the Lions fans and you start to realise the enormity of this thing you’re involved in. There is nothing like it.
I’ve no doubt that in two weeks’ time, we’ll be heading into a winner takes all game to decide the Lions series. Whoever wins the first Test, the opposition will learn so much from the game, they’ll win the second and that leaves us with a mouth-watering prospect in a fortnight’s time.
How we get there, I’m not entirely sure, but the Lions are good enough to win the first Test. It will be tight, but I expect a narrow Lions win by about a three or four point margin. The first 15 minutes will be a bit of an arm wrestle as the players get into their stride, but once they get up to the pace of it, things will start happening for the Lions.
George North being passed fit is a huge boost for the Lions and he could make the difference. He comes off his wing, he looks for work, he can pick up and go from the ruck, he pops up all over the pitch. He’s the Lions’ main threat in my opinion and he’s capable of grabbing a try on his Lions Test debut.
Gareth’s 1st Test bet:
The Lions are going into it a little underdone. They’ve done all the homework and preparation they can, but the only thing that can prepare you for Test rugby is Test rugby. Tour matches will always fail to match that intensity. Even Heineken Cup doesn’t quite prepare you. In big club games, you’re playing with a smattering of great players, but you know you can get away with a couple of mistakes here and there. It’s not the same at Test level. You know almost every player on that pitch is a brilliant player who has played on the biggest stage and you have virtually no margin for error. Knowing you can’t afford a dropped ball or a missed tackle generates that pressure.
A timely kick in the Brum
I called the defeat to the Brumbies a long way out and it has no negative impact on the first Test and maybe even be a slight positive. Knowing what it’s like being a Lions camp, before the first Test, the players who are named in that team are just so deflated, it was bound to happen. I don’t care who you are, it’s a good thing to be upset at not playing in the Test team. It’s natural to a rugby player. There’s an added bonus too because the guys who are starting in the Test, they’ve got a little less pressure on them now. If the midweek side battered the Brumbies, the players starting on Saturday would know they’ve got rivals breathing down their neck for that jersey and that could create its own problems with nervousness and pressure. There’s already enough pressure with it being a Lions Test, trust me.
I’ve enjoyed the way the Lions have played with determination and professionalism throughout. We all know that bashing a bunch of postmen and dairy farmers from Queensland isn’t much of a challenge, but they’ve stuck with it and generally did everything that was asked of them. There were times when they could have got away with being lazy, but I didn’t see much evidence of that.
Scrum cause for concern
There are some issues that need to be ironed out however. The lineout hasn’t been as solid as you’d like. Once he got the call up, I thought Rory Best was nailed on to be in the team, but he’s played his way out of it. A faulty line-out isn’t always the hooker’s fault because it could be the lifters not doing their job or poor calls, but in this case, his throws have been an issue and the Lions can’t afford as many mistakes in the Tests.
For me, it’s the breakdown that is the biggest concern. I expected the Lions to be much more dominant at the breakdown. The Aussie teams have realised that the breakdown is normally a strength of ours and they’ve been throwing a lot of bodies in there and making it a shit-fight. They’ll do the same in the Tests and if it works, it could blunt area of the game in which the Lions should be far superior.
The scrum is all-important to this series. Tests can be won and lost on the scrum and although the problems with the Australian scrum are exaggerated, it’s still an area the Lions can capitalise on. If they control the scrum, they can control possession and that puts them in a strong position. Australia have a remarkable capacity to win games even when they don’t get the majority of possession so the Lions need to keep the ball away from them. They play with intelligence and take their chances very well, so we need to cut off the supply. Plus of course they’re going to have a very passionate home support on their side.
The umbrella defence is Warren’s preferred tactic for Wales, but not everyone is getting it on the Lions Tour. When you’ve got a few players who haven’t played in it before, you get some issues. Strangely though, it’s actually Alex Cuthbert – who has plenty of experience playing in the system – who has been caught wanting a couple of times. If you get just one player out of position or not doing his job, the whole system breaks down and that is a worry.
Whatever happens this weekend. I think it’ll be all up for grabs on July 6.