Allan Massie: Momentum stalled in Canberra

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The other night I saw an interview with Willie-John McBride, greatest of Lions captains.

He recalled how when they won the series against South Africa in 1974, the 15 players on the pitch moved straightaway to applaud the other squad members in the stand. Willie-John’s point was that the Lions who didn’t make the Test team were also responsible for its success. The Musketeers’ motto held good for
McBride’s Lions: one for all and all for one.

The dismal performance against the Brumbies on Tuesday made me wonder if the same spirit is present in Warren Gatland’s squad. Failure on Tuesday was doubtless to a great extent the result of some truly dreadful forward play, but it was made probable by Gatland’s bizarre selections. Stuart Hogg was at 10 where he has scarcely played against meaningful opposition in his short professional career; the Lions No 2 fly-half, Owen Farrell, who hadn’t started a game since the Queensland Reds fixture, was on the bench. The centres, Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt, had just arrived as reinforcements. Perhaps, with Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilaigi injured, and Brian O’Driscoll sensibly wrapped in cotton wool. Gatland had no other choice. But what about the wing selections? Sean Maitland and Simon Zebo, neither in his Test starting XV, were available, but Gatland picked another late replacement, Christian Wade and, bizarrely, Shane Williams, who retired from international rugby more than a year ago.

His selection seemed an indication that Gatland didn’t think the match of much importance.

The justification of his selections was probably that the Lions were required to play three matches in eight days, and this is demanding certainly. On the other hand it is what was required of a number of teams during the last World Cup. But, since Farrell played only 20 minutes against the Waratahs and is not likely to play more than that today, he might surely have been given the first hour against the Brumbies – as indeed was Ben Youngs who is, like him, on the bench this morning.

Be that as it may, this defeat has checked the momentum which the Lions seemed to be developing last week. If they don’t regain it in Brisbane and win the first Test, then there is a danger that this will be remembered as another badly managed Lions tour. Gatland gave a hostage to fortune months ago when he said that Australia was the weakest of the three countries the Lions play. The Wallabies will remember this, and I shouldn’t be surprised if this first Test is a cracker. Both sides have exciting back divisions, but I think the Australians have the advantage at scrum-half, where Will Genia is the best in the world and Mike Phillips is, well, Mike Phillips, a player with as many detractors as admirers.

For many of us, however, Scotland’s match against Italy in Pretoria matters more than what happens in Brisbane. We look to have almost the best team available to us, though I would myself have switched Sean Lamont to the right wing and brought back Tim Visser on the left. Tommy Seymour did well against SA, and it would be harsh to drop him, but Visser is a natural finisher like Australia’s Digby Ioane. He has scored six tries in 11 internationals. Visser is like the predatory football striker who seems to contribute little till he pops up to score the decisive goal.

Scotland rarely find Italy easy, though we did beat them comprehensively at Murrayfield in the spring. We shouldn’t, however, read too much into that. Only six of the XV who started that game will do so again today. Scott Johnson has made it clear that he sees this tour as an opportunity to introduce more players to the international game. This is fine and sensible. Nevertheless the fact is that successful teams, at any level, are usually settled teams. Lions calls and injuries have of course made it necessary to make changes, but it’s very hard for a team that is always being changed to achieve consistency.

Italy have made changes too, partly because their results and performances in South Africa have been worse than ours. They have been thumped 44-10 by South Africa, 39-10 by Samoa. All the same it’s surprising to see Alessandro Zanni and Luke McLean, both outstanding in this year’s Six Nations, now demoted, like Tim Visser, to the bench. Nevertheless, no team captained by the great Sergio Parisse, who would be the first choice No 8 for a Northern Hemisphere XV, can be discounted.

For Scotland there will be much interest in Tom Heathcote’s performance at fly-half, and in seeing if David Denton, after a disappointing injury-stricken season, can play with the freedom and elan which distinguished his first international games. Nevertheless, the three key players are probably Euan Murray, to anchor the set scrum, and the captain and vice-captain, Greig Laidlaw and Alasdair Strokosch. If they all play as well as they did against the Springboks, Scotland should win.