Unless you’ve been living under a rock, Ayers or otherwise, you’ll know that the 3rd Lions Test in Sydney on Saturday is an all important Series decider. If the Australians win, they’ll have replicated their 2001 Series comeback after losing the 1st Test. If the Lions come out victorious, well, need I spell it out? Suffice to say history will have been made.
So, how does Warren Gatland ensure our boys take home that first elusive Series win this century? Here is TakeTheThree’s four-point plan to beating the Australians in Sydney. Bring it home, lads, please!
Play to win!
“Well, obviously,” I hear you say, but an extravaganza of free-flowing, running rugby the 2nd Test was not; the Lions might as well have brought out a 15man rolling maul for their lack of creativity. In fact wily old Gats even tried his old schoolboy tactic of flooding extra players into a lineout catch and drive, a move that worked for his Welsh side in the Autumn Internationals last year, when the whole team drove over from short range to bring them a consolation try against the All Blacks.
It didn’t work this time round though (perhaps because the Lions only committed 11 men to the lineout in question?) and just served to highlight their desperation in not being able to cross the Australian line.
Reliant purely on the metronomic boot of Leigh Halfpenny, the Lions seemed content in the second half to merely defend their 15-9 lead. Remarkably, Lions wingers George North and Tommy Bowe made a total of only 34m with ball in hand and no clean line breaks, a stark contrast to the previous week, when North and Alex Cuthbert made 200m. In comparison, exhilarating new Wallaby recruit Israel Folau proved almost unstoppable from his wing again, beating six defenders, making two lean line breaks and gaining 168metres with ball in hand.
As for the pivotal fly-half slot, with his opposite number James O’Connor struggling to find his feet in the Australian no.10 shirt, Johnny Sexton, usually exceptional at playing flat to the gainline, needs to do so in order to provide the platform for the Lions to play on the front foot.
Muscle-up in the centres
Young Scarlet Jonathan Davies is steadily moving through the ranks as one of the most talented outside centres in world rugby but therein lies the problem: he is an outside centre. He has looked out of sorts playing out of position in the no.12 jersey and been largely ineffectual on the crash ball. Harsh as it would be to sideline him, bringing the ballast of Jamie Roberts back into the inside centre channel, after his recovery from a hamstring injury, would provide more of the forward momentum that the Lions so desperately need.
Another tourist who has recovered from injury (shoulder) is Leicester wrecking-ball Manu Tuilagi, who could provide considerable impact from the bench. His partnership with O’Driscoll against the Western Force worked well, including a sublime mid-field link for O’Driscoll’s 2nd try of the day.
Kick and chase with more intent
Turning back to Sexton, the Paris-bound Dubliner’s kicking game in Melbourne was not its usually accurate self. Ben Youngs also seemed to kick both aimlessly and too long from the base of the ruck. The Lions were therefore unable to effectively defend against their counter-attack and, Tommy Bowe aside (he had a strong defensive game but that in itself speaks volumes for the impact a winger has made on a game), the kick chase was almost non-existent. The likes of Folau and the jinking, jiving reformed-alcoholic Kurtley Beale are dangerous enough in space (and out of it) as it is, so giving them time on the ball is like giving Muhammad Ali a free swing.
Dominate the breakdown
Confirmation that the injury to captain Sam Warburton’s hamstring has ruled him out of the final Test is a blow for the Lions. He was like a groundhog on heat on Saturday, clocking up three turnovers and 13 tackles, reminding us why he’s Gats’ go-to guy. It was testament to his performance that Australia came from behind once he’d left the field. While the experience of Lions talisman Brian O’Driscoll can fill the captain’s void, Warburton’s absence now opens the proverbial door for a new back row debate as to whether Sean O’Brien or Justin Tipuric should replace him.
Ultimately this will depend on Gatland’s gameplan. If he opts to tinker and take a more aggressive approach, Sean O’Brien is a destructive ball-carrier who offers the necessary grunt to take the game to Australia and get over the gainline. The farmer’s son from County Carlow, Ireland, had a huge impact off the bench on Saturday, carrying more in his 20min cameo than the rest of the pack. Conversely, if Gats sticks to his more conservative, defensive strategy, Tipuric is the natural replacement in the role of traditional scavenging no.7 and may well get the nod to keep Wallaby openside Michael Hooper at bay.
So who would be your pick for the Lions no.7 Jersey?
Stats from AccentureRugby – follow them for live stats during the final Test at @AccentureRugby.