THERE WERE A few eyebrows raised this morning when the Lions team was announced but it was more a case of those that didn’t make the bench than did make the starting line-up.
From an Irish point of view, I’m very happy that the four lads were named to start. Paul O’Connell, Jonny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll were shoe-ins but it’s a happy occasion for Jamie Heaslip as he had some heavy competition from Toby Faletau.
The big shock is that Sean O’Brien hasn’t made it into the squad in any shape or description. He hasn’t put a foot wrong and proved his versatility in the back row [playing blindside and openside on tour]. Warren Gatland has gone with Dan Lydiate, who, in fairness, is a fantastic player and a tackling machine. He doesn’t have that versatility and is very much a horses for courses selection.
The lineout has not yet sorted itself out and has misfired badly. That brought Tom Croft into the mix and, once he played well against the Waratahs, he was always going to get selected.
All the talk of teams holding stuff back for Test matches is guff. Of course, there will be new options tried but the Lions coaches are hardly going to say ‘Ah we’ll only use shite lineouts’. It contrasts to the Lions tour I was on, in 2005, as our lineout was working really well until we got close to the First Test and paranoia [about All Black spying] set in.
Best’s lineout success rate has hovered around the 50% mark on tour. (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)
The poor throwing that crept into Rory Best’s game halfway through the Six Nations has caused his game to fall apart and cost him a spot as Test starter. It is very much like the yips, in golf. It crawls in on you and you can’t shake it off. I have a lot of sympathy for him because he’s an excellent player and a huge leader of men. There’s still lots to go in this tour and he could still find himself featuring in the final Tests but he needs to sort it because his poor throwing is affecting the rest of his game.
Up front, Mako Vunipola is a more dangerous option around the park but Alex Corbisiero is the stronger scrummager at loosehead. Gatland stated from the start ‘We are going to disrupt your setpiece’ and Corbisiero’s selection backs up that thinking.
Sean Maitland is lucky to make the bench as he’s messed up a few times on tour and has been grounded a couple of times out wide. I thought that Simon Zebo might get a subs jersey but perhaps he needed half a game more to really stake a claim. The same goes for Rob Kearney but, regardless, either man would have been covering Leigh Halfpenny at fullback because he has been in dynamite form.
The selection of James O’Connor at outhalf is the main talking point in the Australian team selection. Quade Cooper’s non appearance is nothing other than a personality clash. No matter what he did in the lead-up, Robbie Deans was never going to pick him. Israel Folau, the rugby league convert, has rocketed up the ranks and will take a bit of watching in the Aussie backline.
The Wallabies have been locked in camp for three weeks and have not been exposed to much. They go into the First Test as an unknown entity but if the Lions can get on their pack and provide a constant supply of ball for the backs, they’ll win the series.