There for the taking
Stuart Barnes hopes the deciding Test in Sydney delivers in both drama and quality
Last Updated: 01/07/13 11:27am
The Lions tour teeters on the brink. Victory Saturday will see them acclaimed as heroes, winning a first series in sixteen years; defeat however will leave them rated amongst the poorest Lions parties of recent times.
This is, make no mistake, an Australian team there for the taking. Yes, they are Aussies and will not go down without a fight but they are struggling to find any shape to their game. Both sides are equally hampered with injuries - which has some bearing upon the scrappy technical quality of the first two Tests - but the lack of ambition in attack from the Lions was hugely disappointing, full stop.
If not now, then when? The Lions were fortunate winners of the first Test and second best in the second Test. We now know that had Christian Leali'ifano not been carted off within a minute of the first test, the series would now be over with the Lions left with nothing but pride to play for.
As it is they have what will doubtless be called 'a shot at immortality'. That will be wild hyperbole. They are simply not that good a side and the opposition they face are lacking the class needed to make victory an epic one.
Through no fault of their own the Lions have not faced down a full strength Super 15 team at any stage; this is not the stuff of heroes. But they are still level and still in their fighting with a great chance to win this series.
Given the fact that the Lions have not won since 1997, this Saturday is one of colossal importance for the Lions; the management has never hidden the fact that this tour is not about the heroic archaic nature of the tour but rather victory. Now we are six days from the final battle and any way, any how, will do.
The flip side of the technical mediocrity has been the raw drama. For both Tests to go to the final kick is quite something in terms of excitement. Purists might be disappointed but those tuning into the game as rugby virgins will be left gasping at the tension.
Had Leigh Halfpenny kicked the last penalty the Lions would have been the luckiest series winners of them all. As it is the shoot-out in Sydney enables them to elevate the entire tour with one magnificent effort.
If they play as conservatively as they did in Melbourne they will not succeed. The fear about Warren Gatland's inability to find a game to complement the power game is being realised. But that power game could yet blow Australia away in the decider.
The key man is Jamie Roberts. If the medical team can get him onto the pitch at 100% the Lions can turn the series around. In his absence the Lions have been stuck behind the gain line. Mike Phillips is a front foot player whose technical deficiencies are exposed with slow ball. A long back and a slow service makes life hard for those around him.
Yet with the forwards advancing over the gain line and attacking the breakdown, clearing retreating opponents out, he is deadly. He utilises his power and acceleration at the fringes and draws defenders to him. This creates space for Johnny Sexton and the so-far blunted Brian O' Driscoll to work their Irish magic. If Roberts starts, so should Phillips.
The combination of power and sleight of hand brings the power runners like George North onto the ball on the gain line, charging at defenders going backwards; game over. The power game is a sort of endless cycle with Roberts the man charged with the task of setting the wheel afire.
Back row conundrums
Another man who should play on Saturday is Sean O' Brien. Both flankers were excellent in defence but the Lions have to find as many ways as possible, not simply to slow Australia down but gather the initiative and force Michael Hooper and company to do the defending.
At the time of writing, the extent of Sam Warburton's hamstring injury is unknown. If he is ruled out, Gatland might be forced into starting the Irishman. It would be cruel on the captain who is a fine player and man of real integrity but the balance between attack and defence would and has to be better.
If the captain is fit the manager will not play O' Brien on the flank as Dan Lydiate was the better of the two flankers in a defensive, destructive capacity. It would be a gamble to throw him in as Number Eight but it would be a gamble worth taking. Gatland has shown the courage to make changes to a winning team, now he has to show the wisdom to get the balance right.
The line-out remains a major disappointment and the scrum could cost the Lions the series if Alex Corbisiero is unfit. Mako Vunipola played with great heart - like an Australian prop of old indeed - but technically he got away with constant boring-in. What an irony if a French referee blows the Lions out of the game against a superior Wallaby scrum. It is a real possibility.
Those are the worries, here are the hopes. That justice is served and James Horwill misses the final test. A one-match ban would seem about right for the crime with neither side happy but the judge a fair one (early Sydney Monday morning as I write and no verdict yet).
The skipper out would be a big blow for the Wallabies. He has played with great authority this tour. The other great hope that is not a matter of conjecture is that the James O'Connor experiment at fly-half will be continued. Robbie Deans is just about the only man in Australia who thinks this talented winger is a top notch fly-half and nothing is going to sway him from this judgement.
More than anything else, O'Connor's un-Australian depth in attack and his endless charging into traps set by the Lions defence, is holding Australia back. If the Lions win, he and Jamie Roberts have contrasting roles to play.
In Melbourne there were too many spills. It didn't deflect from the excitement but let us hope for thrills that accompany technical excellence. There has been nothing between the teams to date and another close call is likely. Wouldn't it be great if the game was high on quality and excitement...oh and it would be no bad thing if the boys in red won.
By lunch time Saturday (UK time) the Lions will be national heroes or soon to be forgotten failures. Knives are being sharpened even as garlands are being made. Saturday is win or nothing. For all the disappointments about Saturday's lack of quality there is nowhere on earth I would rather be than the Olympic Stadium, Sydney this coming Saturday. I am no believer but I shall be praying pre-kick-off; praying for a great game but, most of all for, well, you know what. I take the Lions to win by one point.