THE Lions have been suffering a high injury count in Australia – a bit surprising since only one of their four matches to date has been a genuine contest.
The games against the Barbarians (in Hong Kong), Western Force and the Country Districts XV last Tuesday were all exercises in not-quite-unopposed rugby, glorified practice sessions. How much Warren Gatland really learned from them must be doubtful. The Australian coach, Robbie Deans, has been criticised for withdrawing the players in his Test squad from the Lions’ warm-up games, but I can’t see why he should have been expected to help his opponents’ preparation.
What is more worrying for the Lions is that, in the one meaningful match before today’s game against the Waratahs, they were outplayed for most of the 80 minutes by Queensland Reds. The final score 22-12 was convincing enough, but the Reds scored two tries to one, and Ben Youngs’s try for the Lions looked decidedly dubious. Unless they are considerably sharper this morning, Australia will start as favourites next week.
The Lions’ preparation is not being helped by media speculation about their captain, Sam Warburton, with many suggesting Gatland should leave him out of the Test team. I would be very surprised if he did, because it was clear, well before the official announcement, that he intended to choose Warburton as captain. So, unless Warburton has a very poor game today, he will surely lead the team out next week.
That said, touring teams are usually in trouble if there are doubts about the captain’s form and a feeling that he is not an automatic suggestion. In New Zealand 30 years ago the Lions had the wrong captain in Ciaran Fitzgerald, nevertheless stuck with him as hooker instead of Colin Deans, and they lost the series 4-0.
The Waratahs match today will doubtless go a long way to determining the Test match side. If Sean Maitland has a good game, then he will be the Scot most likely to start next week. Tommy Bowe’s injury has opened the door to him, and he is certainly a more complete rugby player than the rival for the 14 jersey, Alex Cuthbert, powerful finisher though Cuthbert is. Stuart Hogg has done very well, but Leigh Halfpenny will be the Test full-back – unless he gets injured. Hogg, however, should get a place on the bench. His performance at fly-half on Tuesday has had some people speculating about the possibility of playing him in that position for Scotland. They should remember that the quality of the opposition was little, if any, higher than might have been offered by the Scottish club international XV. Hogg is our most dangerous running back, and in the modern game there are usually more opportunities for attack from 15 than from 10.
I suspect that, sadly, Richie Gray may also have to be content with a bench place, because it looks as if the forwards coach Graham Rowntree will want to have his fellow Leicester man, Geoff Parling, as Paul O’Connell’s lock partner. This would be quite reasonable; Parling dominated the line-out against the Reds. Depending on how things go, Ryan Grant may come into the reckoning for the second and third Tests but at the moment he seems to be number three in the loose-head pecking order behind the English pair, Mako Vunipola and Alex Corbisiero.
Of course the Waratahs’ game may change things. If the Lions struggle or lose, the players omitted today will all look a lot better.
On the Scotland tour, meanwhile, if you were plotting the country’s first-ever Test victory in South Africa, you would not start from where we are. The XV Scott Johnson has picked to start this afternoon is not quite a reserve side, but it’s not far off from being that. Lions calls and injuries have taken a heavy toll. Moreover, Johnson has chosen to omit Tim Visser, the most prolific try-scorer available to him. Perhaps this is a precautionary measure to be sure that he is fit to play next Saturday, probably against Italy. He has also, surprisingly to me anyway, left out David Denton, preferring to have the Glasgow number 8 Ryan Wilson take over at open side for the injured Kelly Brown.
There are three new caps in the team, and Scott Lawson at hooker is probably ranked number five in Scotland behind Ross Ford, Dougie Hall, Pat MacArthur and Steven Lawrie. So it’s a patched-up side that Johnson is sending out, and one might also remark that none of our four out-and-out number 7s – Ross Rennie, John Barclay, Chris Fusaro, Roddy Grant – was available for the tour.
Nil desperandum and all that, but it’s hard to see this match as anything more than an exercise in damage limitation. Most of us will probably be quite happy if the margin of defeat is kept within 20 points. To put things in perspective: if South Africa were playing the Lions, not Scotland, this afternoon, one would still expect them to win.