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Gareth Thomas Exclusive: Heroes, villains and why Paul O’Connell’s injury could offer Lions more variety

by Rob Dore | June 24, 2013

Gareth Thomas byline

Former Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas and now tipping expert. He’s had four winning tips out of five so far on the Lions Tour. In his latest column for the Paddy Power Blog, he discusses the first test win over Australia and why the game against the Rebels is more important than expected.

The Lions beat Australia, and that is always the most important thing. But they very easily could have lost so it’ll put them on edge. Is that a good thing? It should be because you know you can’t rest on your laurels. Also, performance-wise much more was expected from certain individuals that didn’t come which means Tuesday is a big game as well because people at this stage now are playing for places in the test side.

One place which is already filled is that of Paul O’Connell who is very unlucky to suffer a fractured arm in the very first test.

There’s no doubt Paul deserved a place in the Test side on the back of his performances on the tour up to then. However, I do feel he and Alun Wyn-Jones are very similar players. I believe the partnership Geoff Parling (who looks certain to take his place in the starting line-up) will form with Alun offers more variety for the Lions.

I don’t blame Chris Pollock

I don’t think the Lions did anything really bad, Australia just played really well. It surprised a lot of the public watching and probably surprised a few of the Lions players too. A couple of kicks could have gone over and they could have won but the fact that the Lions have played together for a while and have gelled helped them see it through to the end. Going in to the second test that the Australians will be a lot smarter.

One thing I don’t accept is blaming the referee, Chris Pollock, for how he judged the game.

As a player you analyse the referee almost as much as you analyse the guy you’re playing against. We all know what type of referee he is. He’s a southern hemisphere referee so of course he’s going to favour the way Australia play because that’s the way he’s been coached. Everyone in the Lions camp knew the insides and outsides of how that guy was going to referee.

600x80_MelRebelsVLions

I also don’t really agree with some of the criticism of Mike Phillips. Will Genia was outstanding and you match against your opposing number, which everyone does. Because Genia was such an outstanding player for Australia you then look at Phillips and question why he wasn’t as good for the Lions.

Mike made some kicking errors which individually at this level are unacceptable but we may be measuring him against the standard of his opposition who was probably the outstanding player on the field.

BY GEORGE: One scintillating try and a stand-out performance helped the Lions to a narrow win (pic: Inpho)

BY GEORGE: One scintillating try and a stand-out performance helped the Lions to a narrow win but other places are certainly up for grabs

The Rise of a North Star

The one player who stood out for the right reasons is George North. The finish for his try was exceptional. He’s the danger man going in to the rest of the tests. He was strong in defence, he was strong in attack. He poses so many threats.

For Australia you had Will Genia. He was another level and he attracted so many Lions players which created a lot of space for his team-mates. He was the catalyst for almost everything good the Australians did.

Also Israel Folau is a top player. Him against North on the wings is a mouth-watering prospect for the next coming test. You’ve got potentially two of the most dangerous attackers in world rugby going head-to-head on the biggest stage. If that doesn’t get the fans and the players excited I don’t know what will.

Unusually for this point in the tour, as someone from the outside looking, there are definitely spaces up for grabs. Alex Cuthbert scored a great try but he made a few errors. Warren Gatland is a big fan of Sean Maitland so he’s playing for a place.Then you have Owen Farrell and Conor Murray with definite opportunities after Phillip’s performance in the first test. Hibbard can definitely put his hand up for a starting place.

To be this far in to the tour and to have maybe four or five possible changes to a Lions test team through performance is probably unnerving for a coach but exciting for the players. It also makes the game against the Rebels on Tuesday a far more interesting prospect.

(By the way, 20 points on the handicap is very, very generous. At this stage of the tour when everything is so targeted towards the test winning by 20 points is very optimistic).

Rebels +20pts at Evens

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