Andy McGeady | British & Irish Lions vs Australia | First Test
The phoney war is over and Warren Gatland’s team to play the first Lions test has finally been named. Sam Warburton will lead out a side who start as three point underdogs to the Qantas Wallabies, a team formerly known as the infinitely simpler, and more geographically descriptive, Australia.
Due to injuries the back line mostly picked itself with the only realistic question being whether Simon Zebo or Sean Maitland had done enough to usurp Alex Cuthbert on the right wing. The Welsh giant, while a direct finisher, is not as strong defensively as his size would have many assume and Sean Maitland must be kicking himself after a glaring missed tackle in the Waratahs game last weekend.
Jonathan Davies’ massive performance against the Waratahs had done wonders for his chances of partnering Brian O’Driscoll even without Manu Tuilagi’s stinger injury; the Welsh centre ran for 141 metres with ball in hand in that win, a simply stunning number from the centre position.
A fly-half in the ointment?
Where fly-half is concerned there was no serious question that Jonathan Sexton would not be picked as first choice pivot but it’s interesting that the styles of Sexton and backup Owen Farrell have remained so remarkably different on tour.
Player – Minutes Played – Kicks from Hand
- Farrell – 204 – 24
- Sexton – 172 – 8
If Sexton were to pull up early, Farrell’s emphasis on putting boot to ball does not portray the look of a substitute who would provide a seamless transition in terms of unleashing a team’s running game. Unfortunate, when one thinks of the exciting potential of the back line outside.
At full back Leigh Halfpenny’s kicking has been purring along at a remarkable 96% rate on tour, knocking over 22 from 23 attempts. In comparison, Australia’s Berrick Barnes and James O’Connor have kicked 77% and 75% respectively in Super Rugby this year. While that seems a difference that’s hard to surpass, in club competition during the 2012/13 season Halfpenny only kicked 78% himself.
The helmeted one’s current form is a fearsome hot streak but if it continues it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Lions. And if it comes down to kicking making the difference, 9/1 on a red-hot Leigh Halfpenny being named man of the match in Saturday’s test might look very decent.
Alex Corbisiero, omitted from the original 37-man squad, makes it on the left hand side of the scrum in a choice of pure propping ability over potential in the loose. The weak point in Mako Vunipola’s game sees him relegated to the bench despite a barnstorming tour although his outstanding carrying and tackling numbers make it a certainty that he’ll be used as an impact sub by Gatland.
Lock and back row were always going to be fascinating choices for Warren Gatland and with Captain Warburton chiselled onto his team sheet at open side it became a battle for who would partner Paul O’Connell at lock and who he would pick at blind side. These two choices seemed inextricably linked; picking Croft provides an extra lineout option that puts Geoff Parling’s aerial trump card on a lower rank than Alun Wyn Jones’ carrying ability. However, if Gatland had plumped for Sean O’Brien the bearded figure of flight marshal Parling would have been perhaps more attractive.
Curiously Dan Lydiate is on the bench ahead of O’Brien, a player who can cover all three back row positions. Injured for most of the season, Lydiate was very much a “coach’s choice” pick and one who is very much a specialist blind-side, someone who sets the scene in a match by being a tackling machine.
The over/under for the game is 42.5 points. With Australia picking a back line filled with playmaking talent, Kurtley Beale ready to spring from the bench and the Lions picking a highly mobile pack (Adam Jones most honourably excepted) this could be a thrilling test match. With Lydiate on the bench it might reveal that Gatland heartily agrees with the match handicap of only three points so if it’s a bum-squeaker with ten minutes to go he’ll send in the good ship Lydiate as his destroyer to keep the game nice and tight and wait for Halfpenny to get a chance to pop over the winning points.
One final factoid – the Australians will start three debutants on Saturday. Researchers at Infostrada Sports have noted that the last two times a Lions team faced a test side with three new boys in either the starting lineup or match day squad were in 1989 and 1997, the last two series that the Lions went on to win. But is a few debutants enough to make the Aussies genuine 6/4 underdogs for the series?
Something upon which to dwell, to mull or to ponder.
Credit: all player stats are courtesy of Opta.