ONE week ahead of the opening Test match in Brisbane, yesterday’s match was a thoroughly satisfying afternoon’s work for the tourists, who racked up a record score against New South Wales, even if it did little to advance the cause of the four Scots in the party.
Only one was playing – if you discount Waratahs scrum-half Brendan McKibben, who was born in Irvine, Ayrshire – with Sean Maitland filling the Lions’ right wing. He did himself few favours, arguably responsible for the first of the home side’s tries, a length-of-the-field effort in the first half when the Kiwi fell off a tackle on his opposite number Peter Betham. The big winger subsequently off-loaded to the supporting Tom Carter, who scored before adding a second in the second half.
It was a bad missed tackle, especially with Tommy Bowe sidelined with a crack in his hand and major doubts circulating over the ability of George North’s hamstring to propel him with quite the usual oomph.
If North does make the grade, Simon Zebo put his hand up yesterday to fill the other flank, even if you feel he might have done better with an early opportunity when a brilliant tackle by Drew Mitchell prevented a try after just 44 seconds.
When Maitland did get a couple of half-chances with the ball in hand in the final quarter, he could not quite steal a march on the defence.
Richie Gray did absolutely nothing wrong, if only because the big fella did absolutely nothing except look on helplessly from the sidelines where he had to watch an absolute masterclass in all-action lock play from Paul O’Connell.
The Irish veteran won three turnovers in the first half alone, carried, tackled and even flipped out a couple of slick passes which are something of a collector’s item. He is back to his very best and sewn into the No.5 shirt.
Alun-Wyn Jones could not quite match him but the Welshman may just have done enough to keep Gray bench-bound when the Test team is announced. When the Waratahs threatened to score a consolation try at the death it was Jones who dived on the loose ball to deny them. He needed a big match and that is what he produced in Sydney.
The lineout has been a major cause for concern right up until yesterday, when the Lions won almost every one of their own throws and stole a couple of the opposition’s to boot. It was a good time to produce some good arrows and Tom Youngs’ understanding with Tom Croft, his Leicester Tigers team-mate, may have done enough to nail down two positions, hooker and blindside.
Mako Vunipola did not look entirely comfortable at the set scrum, especially one which took place just five metres from the Lions’ own line, but his carries are as close to an unstoppable force as mortal man can manage.
His Test match opposition Ben Alexander will look forward to the scrum tussle because the Wallaby first-choice front row is a lot stronger than the Waratahs reserves and a lot better than most punters give them credit for.
Leigh Halfpenny was his usual immaculate self and accumulated a record 30-point haul which will surely confine Stuart Hogg to the Brisbane bench but Jamie Roberts still isn’t hitting his substantial stride and worryingly he limped off well before the end of the match.
While most assumed that the big Welshman would take his place inside Brian O’Driscoll, if the shirts were handed out on current form alone, Jon Davies would be worthy of a place somewhere in the midfield. If Roberts’ injury proves serious, Davies’ inclusion in the Brisbane Test XV would arguably strengthen the side rather than weaken it.
He scored one try yesterday but, more importantly, he manufactured a couple of others with his soft hands and his apparent 360-degree vision.
The Lions’ rush defence was still outflanked a couple of times by wide, accurate passes from the Waratahs stand-off Brendan Foley and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans will have surely noted this vulnerability because, albeit against limited opposition, the Lions have displayed all too few to console him so far.