George Smith will line up for the Wallabies for the first time in almost four years in the Lions tour decider in Sydney. Coach Robbie Deans has decided Smith’s 130 test caps will provide the experience Australia will need in the cauldron that ANZ stadium will resemble on Saturday night. No doubt the big part the flanker played in Australia’s come-from-behind when the series was on the line at the same venue twelve years ago will have influenced his selection.
Smith has not played for six weeks due to a knee injury, and the hiatus since his last cap adds to some surprise at his inclusion. That is nothing, however, compared to the shock at the actions of Deans’s opposite number. It was taken as read by rugby fans from both hemispheres that Brian O’Driscoll would take over the Lion’s captaincy, as soon as it was confirmed Sam Warburton’s hamstring injury would rule him out of the game. Gatland’s omission of the Irish legend has sparked huge controversy in Britain and Ireland, with former players and coaches split as to its wisdom. What is agreed upon, by those who believe it is madness and the camp that say it is a brave but correct call, is that this is the biggest selection decision in Lions history.
Michael Hooper moves to the bench to make way for Smith in Australia’s starting fifteen, but is likely to get some game time. His pace could be pivotal late in the game, when both sets of forwards will be fatigued if the intensity of the first two tests is anything to go by. The breakdown area will be crucial in deciding the outcome of the game, with whoever wins that area controlling possession and likely to come out on top in the penalty count. Smith is widely regarded as one of the finest snafflers of opposition ball in the game’s history, and is not averse to “helping” the referee by pointing out the perceived sins of the opposition. Which way penalties are awarded at the breakdown is often a line call, and any decisions that Smith’s experience can sway in Australia’s favour could be pure gold. Goal kicking will be vital with the sides so closely matched. His teammates will also feel more at ease to see him in their midst playing in an atmosphere which only he has ever have experienced before.
Deans has made no other changes to his side, in the hope the Wallabies carry the momentum of the second half in Melbourne into this game. The forwards have gone toe-to-toe with their opponents, unexpectedly matching the Lions at the scrum. The backline will benefit from the continuity of selection, and are likely to improve going around together a second time. The combination between Christian Leali’ifano and Adam Ashley Cooper in the centres showed promise in Melbourne, and fans will hope they can combine to give Israel Folau more ball than he saw in Melbourne. The winger showed in the first test that he has the beating of the Lions defence, and the noise will reach a crescendo whenever gets the ball.
The Lions have made a number of changes, but others are dwarfed by the omission of O’Driscoll. He was exemplary in defence in the first two tests. In Melbourne last weekend he completed fourteen tackles and missed none. On the flip side he threw a wild pass straight into the hands of Israel Folau on the one occasion the Lions looked to have created an overlap. He repeatedly kicked away possession late in the game, setting the tone for a final quarter in which the Lions seemed intent on not losing the game rather than going out and winning it. Gatland has recalled inside centre Jamie Roberts now that he has regained fitness, and opted to pair him with his Wales colleague Jonathan Davies.
Roberts is a powerful, direct inside centre whose role is getting across the advantage line and putting his team on the front foot. He was central to the Lions’ game plan from the outset, and would have played in all three tests if fit. The surprise, therefore, is not his recall but that it is O’Driscoll who makes way for him. He would have been the only other survivor, along with Smith, from the 2001 Lions series decider. Having lost their captains from each of the first two tests, Paul O’Connell and Sam Warburton, Lions fans expected Gatland to rely on O’Driscoll’s vast experience to lead them out for this winner-takes-all finale. On the other hand Jonathan Davies has been the most consistent centre throughout the tour, and in that respect Gatland has stuck to his mantra that we would pick players on form over reputation.
The Lions’ other changes all reflect the obvious desire to create more go-forward. They did not make one line break in Melbourne: the selection of powerful ball carriers Shaun O’Brien and Toby Faletau in the back row indicates they will try to go through the Wallabies rather than around them. The recall of Mike Phillips at scrum half reinforces this, the Welshman’s size often seeing him considered as “ninth forward”. The Lions will play very direct rugby, hitting the line hard and looking to punch holes in the Wallabies’ defensive line. They will hope to keep their opponents on the back foot and control possession so the Wallabies cannot launch their dangerous backs.
It will be another ferocious battle, a clash of rugby cultures with the series and a generation of bragging rights on the line. And it is likely to come down once again to a kick for points after the final hooter has sounded. Stand up Leigh Halfpenny and Christian Leali’ifano, your continents need you….