BEFORE the second Test, I was sure that if Australia won, they would go on to take the series. Now, having watched the match and seen how desperately close it was, I don’t feel nearly so despondent in defeat as I had expected to be.
Given that it came down to one last kick for the second week running, with the miss being in the Wallabies’ favour this time, the Lions selectors could be tempted to go for the same formula again for this weekend’s third and final Test. But I think their hopes of success will be significantly higher if they are more adventurous.
Quite simply, the tourists need to play more rugby. They played some excellent stuff in some of the warm-up matches, but they have been stifled in the Tests, particularly last weekend. They have not really managed to break free against some excellent Australian defence, so I think Warren Gatland has to take a look at how to do that on Saturday.
One area the head coach could think of changing is the wings. George North and Alex Cuthbert both scored in the first Test, but the Lions never looked like doing so on Saturday, which to my mind means there is a case for making a change there.
Leigh Halfpenny will obviously stay in the team because of his goalkicking among other virtues, but if we move him to the wing that would allow Stuart Hogg to come in at full-back. That would be a bold move, but it could produce results, because Hogg has that little bit of magic, that unpredictability, that can make a difference against even the best defences.
With Sam Warburton ruled out there will be a change of captain, and the honour would go to Brian O’Driscoll if he were selected. But I think there has to be a change at centre, and with Jonathan Davies playing so well it may not be him. Davies could move to outside-centre, with either Jamie Roberts, if he is passed fit after his hamstring injury, or Manu Tuilagi coming in to replace O’Driscoll.
Scrum-half is another contentious area where the selectors have a tough decision to be made. The dropping of Mike Phillips for the second Test was the big talking point last week, but did Ben Youngs play any better than the Welshman? I don’t necessarily think so. So could Conor Murray be in with a chance?
In the pack, losing Warburton is obviously a big blow. Some people will call for Sean O’Brien to come into the back row, but my preference would be Justin Tipuric, with O’Brien on the bench. Tom Croft, I think, should also return on the other flank.
In the front row, I think Alex Corbiersero will be back, and in the second row Richie Gray must surely have a claim. I don’t know if the selectors will accept the case for him, but I think he could really come into his own on Saturday if he starts. Geoff Parling has been one of the most impressive players in the Lions squad for much of the tour, but Gray is that much bigger and taller than the Englishman, so would cause different problems – and arguably more severe ones – for the Wallabies.
Five changes were made to a winning team after the first Test, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a similar number now. And I would not view that number of alterations as a negative thing: despite all the injuries, the Lions still have considerable strength in depth to draw on.
Whatever changes are made, I think in each case the overriding consideration should be the need to do something to upset the Australians a bit. At the moment, the Aussies must be thinking that if they play their own game, they can win. And they may well be right to think that.
So the Lions need to select a team to ensure that the home team cannot play their own game. Not merely by trying to negate anything the Wallabies do, though defence will clearly be of massive importance again, but primarily by attempting different things in attack.
In the first Test, the Lions matched the Australian try count and won. In the second, they didn’t, and they lost. Now clearly, it was close, and if that last kick by Halfpenny had gone over they would have won – and that could tempt Gatland into deciding to rely on his goalkicker to bring victory in a very tight contest.
You can win Tests that way – in fact the last time a Test gave the Lions a series win, in South Africa in 1997, they lost the try count 3-0 yet won the match 18-15. But you should not bank on something like that happening too often, and personally I would far prefer a match with two tries apiece than one that only had one try in total.
So to my mind Gatland should pick a team designed to score more tries, and tell them to go out and try and be more expansive. It’s going to go down to the wire like the other two Tests, and there will be someone on one side who will make a decisive difference: the Lions have to play in a way that gives them the best chance of having that player on their side.
I’m convinced that it was easier for the Lions to win in Melbourne last weekend than it will be in Sydney on Saturday. That doesn’t mean they are incapable of winning, but it does mean they cannot afford to play within themselves. If they are too faint-hearted, they will probably lose. But if they seize the initiative, the series can still be theirs.
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