The time is almost upon us, the squad for the first test has now been announced and the build up to that all important kick off is now on its way to reaching frenzied levels. There really is nothing like a British Lions tour to bring together 4 sets of supporters together as one and you can’t help but get caught up in the wave of emotion that sweeps across the game. I’ll be honest, I can’t wait either!
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Tuesday saw something of a blip when a makeshift Lions side lost to the Brumbies 14-12 in what was probably the most disappointing and frustrating performance of the tour thus far from the tourists, but I don’t think we can read too much into that match, if anything the game might have given the squad and the coaches a proverbial kick up the backside and made them realise that the task ahead is going to be anything but easy. Gatland called it a “reality check” and you will hope that the loss has galvanised the squad and they respond accordingly on Saturday.
So onto Saturday and the squads selected to fight it for that all important first test win of the series. Have no doubt, both teams will want to start with a win and with only two Lions teams ever coming back from being one down to clinch a series victory this match takes on huge significance. For Australia, coach Robbie Deans has named three debutants in his side. Israel Folau, a former rugby league international who also played Australian football before switching to union, starts at right wing. Christian Leali'ifano gets the nod over Pat McCabe at inside centre, while Ben Mowen starts at blind-side flanker. Another selection that stands out is Kurtley Beale starting on the bench. Beale has only played one game of club rugby since he received treatment for alcohol-related problems after punching two Melbourne Rebels team-mates but one wonders whether its written in the stars for him to have a major impact in the series. As a Lions fan, I hope not. The inclusion of Folau and Leali'ifano suggests an expansive approach from the Australians which could make for very entertaining viewing. There are certainly some questions around picking O’Connor at 10 with this being only his second start at international level in that position. Certainly you can see the Lions targeting this area with their big runners. The thought of North and Cuthbert running full pelt at you down the 10 channel would not be one anyone would be happy with.
The Lions have gone for a side which many predicted prior to the announcement apart from Youngs and Corbisiero in the front row who it appears has been brought in to ensure the Lions get the upper hand in the set piece early doors with Vunipola coming on later as an impact substitution. Having not been selected in the original touring party it is some rise for Corbisiero, lets hope he makes the most of it. Sam Warburton leads the team out from seven and you feel that he will have a key role in keeping the Australians honest at the breakdown, indeed those clamouring for Tipuric to start have been curiously quiet since Tuesdays match where the Lions were found out in this aspect of play. I believe it will be an area where the game could be won and lost with Australia’s Michael Hooper showing against England last year that he is every bit as effective as the injured David Pocock in dark arts of slowing and stealing opposition ball. In the backs Jonathan Davies has come in for the injured Jamie Roberts at centre which should mean the Lions taking a more subtle approach than they may have with Roberts starting. The back three is as expected with North giving Gatland a huge boost by passing a fitness test on Wednesday. A special mention must be given to Brian O’Driscoll, one of the best centres in the world over the last ten or so years. It was in this very stadium in 2001 that O’Driscoll announced himself on the international stage with a scintillating try for the Lions in the first test of that series. The Lions ultimately lost that series, but O’Driscoll will be keen to get a series win on his playing CV and I for one am expecting a big game from him on Saturday.
As for the result, well it couldn’t be closer in my opinion, the Lions will be match hardened after their warm up matches with the Australians potentially being somewhat undercooked after being in camp for some time and not having playing a match together since last December. The Lions also have the advantage of the metronomic boot of Halfpenny at fullback so I’m going to go for the Lions by 6 points. I’m going for Tom Croft to get amongst the tries again as he’s done so well for me thus far with Alex Cuthbert to show the devastating pace and power from the backs. My outsider would be Jonathan Davies, he may be out of position at inside centre but he’s been at the top of his game all tour and I have a funny feeling he may produce something special on Saturday.
Lions by 6-10 points – 5/1
Anytime Try Scorers – Tom Croft 9/2, Jonathan Davoes 4/1
British & Irish Lions starting XV: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales); Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), George North (Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales); Alex Corbisiero (England), Tom Youngs (England), Adam Jones (Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Tom Croft (England), Sam Warburton (Wales, capt), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland).
Replacements: Richard Hibbard (Wales), Mako Vunipola (England), Dan Cole (England), Geoff Parling (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Ben Youngs (England), Owen Farrell (England), Sean Maitland (Scotland).
Australia starting XV: Berrick Barnes (NSW Waratahs); Israel Folau (NSW), Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW), Christian Leali'ifano (ACT Brumbies), Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds); James O'Connor (Melbourne Rebels), Will Genia (Reds); Benn Robinson (NSW), Stephen Moore (ACT), Ben Alexander (ACT), James Horwill (Reds – capt), Kane Douglas (NSW), Ben Mowen (ACT), Michael Hooper (NSW), Wycliff Palu (NSW).
Replacements: Saia Fainga'a (Reds), James Slipper (Reds), S Kepu (NSW), Rob Simmons (Reds), Liam Gill (Reds) Nick Phipps (Rebels), Pat McCabe (ACT), Kurtley Beale (Rebels).
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