Wallabies gamble on pace over power

Coach Robbie Deans has opted to counter the size and power of the British and Irish Lions with a Wallabies team of pace and mobility. Selection for the much-anticipated first test on Saturday evening has perhaps been influenced by relative success of the Queensland Reds’ high tempo approach in a close game at Suncorp a fortnight ago. It has almost certainly been shaped by the boilover victory of an inexperienced Brumbies side on Tuesday, who never dropped their speed or intensity for the full eighty minutes. Australia will attempt to run their bigger opponents off their feet. The inclusion of debutants Israel Folau and Christian Leali’ifano, making waves this season with their ability to create and finish scoring opportunities, indicates Australia will play an expansive game in keeping with the traditions of Wallabies teams of old.

 

The Brumbies proved on Tuesday night that enthusiasm and dynamism can knock a side even as battle-hardened as this Lions outfit off its stride. The young hopefuls tore into their vastly more experienced opponents from the opening whistle, ruffling feathers among the Lions’ hitherto dominant forwards and disrupting their anticipated smooth ball transition between pack and three-quarters.

 

Prior to the Brumbies game the Lions had emphatically debunked the myth that northern hemisphere sides are only capable of boring, ten-man rugby: wingers and full back have finished off flowing movements in the corner; centres have run attacking lines using inside balls and offloads; and powerful but mobile loose forwards and locks have rampaged into open space. In Canberra, however, the Lions’ were beaten at the breakdown, resulting in poor ball on their side and often Brumbies’ possession. When they did get supply to their backline the ferocity of the hosts’ defence produced uncertainty and errors so the Lions could create no pressure and were kept tryless for the first time on tour.

 

The Lions side for this game did have a couple of contentious selections in the backline. Christian Wade has only one previous international cap and Shane Williams was drafted in from Japanese club rugby having retired from the international game two years ago; Stuart Hogg is a winger or full back, not a ten; and centres Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees are only recent additions to the tour party as injury replacements. While these factors may go some way to explaining the poor performance, the loss of the forward battle will be a bigger concern to the Lions’ hierarchy. Rory Best is Ireland’s most capped hooker, and has therefore thrown the ball into line-outs in pressure situations more often than only a handful of others in the game’s history, but the Brumbies repeatedly won the ball against the throw on Tuesday night. Sean O’Brien had been so good at the breakdown in recent weeks that many felt he would push squad captain Sam Warburton for a test jersey, here he and his fellow back rowers were beaten at ruck and maul, and the Lions had no go-forward as a result. Even the usually reliable scrum failed to provide an attacking platform for the Lions, the smaller Brumbies pack solid on their own ball and disrupting the Lions’ on their own put-in at key stages of the second half.

 

The Lions will hope to return to the form they showed last Saturday against the Waratahs. They overcame the robust physical challenge posed by the home side and managed to maintain their fifteen man game, with tries coming from forwards and backs. The majority of that team will play this weekend, against Wallaby players raring to have their first go at the visitors: they’ve been in camp and were withdrawn from their Super Rugby franchise’s teams in the fixtures payed to date.

 

Saturday’s first test will likely be a better spectacle for the recovery from injury of key weapons on both sides. Digby Ioane is Australia’s most potent finisher, his ability to spot gaps where they don’t seemingly exist and turn defence into attack keeping opponents on notice at all times. At almost two metres tall and over a hundred kilos George North is a giant of a winger, very hard to beat to the high ball either in defence or attack, with speed to burn and an eye for line, averaging better than a try every three games in test match rugby.

 

The selection of Berrick Barnes at full back does indicate coach Robbie Deans has not eschewed all tactical considerations at the expense of throw-it-around-from-anywhere football. The unerring accuracy from the tee of Lions goal-kicker Leigh Halfpenny – he has missed only once all tour – and his ability to slot the ball between the posts from distance – anywhere in the opposition’s half is well within his range – means the Wallabies must try to play the game in the Lions’ half. Barnes’s kicking game will be crucial in ensuring the Wallabies do not lose the territorial battle, and their counter-attacking threat will have to be used judiciously to avoid players becoming isolated in possession, so providing the Lions with cheap penalties.

 

As the first of a three game series, and with so much on the line – the vanquished will have to wait twelve years for revenge, and few if any of this year’s combatants will still be playing next time the Lions come to Australia in 2025 – the opening stanzas on Saturday night are likely to be cagey. Both sides will kick for territory early and try to force their opponents into errors in their own half. Nevertheless, the attacking nature of the Lions’ rugby on tour to date and Australia’s selection of an exciting, quick fifteen, with game-breaker Kurtley Beale to come off the bench, will ensure the game opens up. The Sydney Morning Herald described the match against the Waratahs as a ‘stonking game of rugby’, with the atmosphere at fever pitch and the test teams finally let loose at each other after months of anticipation I expect even more on Saturday in Brisbane.

Comments

  1. Tim, welcome to the site, and thanks for this piece. I’ve always thought the Lions were a mobile highlights package as they are able to play freely, with no care for their ongoing selection. Does that account for their topsy-turvy form? Or was it the snow in Canberra which nailed them?

  2. Tim Ladhams says:

    Thanks John, very pleased to be here. Despite the unique and somewhat archaic concept of the Lions there is a hugely competitive nature to these games, as evidenced by the brutal incidents involving Nathan Grey and Richard Hill and Duncan McRae and Ronan O’Gara last time the Lions were here. The Lions will play a forward-orientated game and kick the hell out of the ball if they need to in order to win, so I didn’t see a devil-may-care attitude as a factor against the Brumbies. Neither, however, can they blame the conditions – Canberra on Tuesday was positively balmy compared to some of the stuff these guys are used to in the northern European winter. I think they were just rocked by a massively motivated opposition with nothing to lose who to tore into them from the off and gave them no chance to settle. Jake White is one of the world’s best coaches, so the Brumbies were very well set up, and the fact that a number of the Lions players that night had flown in from Japan, Argentina and the US in recent days took its toll. It does give the Wallabies some real belief and punctures the Lions’ hitherto serene progress through the tour. Bring on Saturday night!

  3. Kath Presdee says:

    Best analysis of the game against the Brumbies I’ve read yet.

  4. Now that the Socceroos have qualified and the cricketers are officially crap, for a moment the Wallabies are the vessel which holds the national spirit. So there may be quite a few watching. I reckon there will be plenty of interest in Folau and how he goes.

  5. Kath Presdee says:

    re Folau – my youngster is happy that he is allowed to cheer for Izzy again now he is a Wallaby and not just a Tah.

  6. Tim Ladhams says:

    Good call, as a committed Rebel I have to agree. At least now we get to watch him play a game he can actually play, and we should enjoy it while we can – he’s likely to bob up next year driving a V8 or trying to qualify for the PGA tour….

  7. Luke Reynolds says:

    Good stuff Tim, great to see some Rugby Union writing on the Almanac. Really looking forward to the game tomorrow night. The AFL has given this game a nice free kick with their scheduling this weekend, should get a big TV audience given it is also live on Channel 10.

    Interesting selections for the Wallabies with some underdone players including Barnes and O’Connor, Beale being brought back and Folau’s debut. Plus Quade Cooper’s omission/non selection, he clearly doesn’t fit into Deans coaching style.

    Go Wallabies!

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