THE heady sense of anticipation and excitement that surrounds any Lions squad is supplemented by an air of expectation amongst the supporters.
Red-shirted fans will travel Down Under demanding the first series win since 1997, which is why a recent online poll in Australia makes such interesting reading. A full 72 per cent of those who responded picked out the Wallabies as winners. If the series is a foregone conclusion no one has told the host nation.
The Lions will get their tour up and running on Saturday when they face the Barbarians in Hong Kong, which is a smart move since they should prove an easier proposition than some recent opponents. Sir Clive Woodward’s squad kicked off their 2005 series with a fortuitous 25-25 draw against the Pumas and that match set the tone for the entire tour which resulted in a New Zealand “blackwash”.
The 2013 coach, Warren Gatland, has six matches before of the first Test in Brisbane on 22 June so, presumably, he will leave the 13 players who were involved in yesterday’s Premiership and Pro12 league finals in London and Dublin well alone.
But, even in the absence of so many key personnel at the start of the tour, Gatland has some interesting decisions to make.
Two players who have had little rugby in the past few months, Dan Lydiate of Wales and Scotland’s Richie Gray, will almost certainly start. The pair, especially the Scot, who hasn’t played since injuring his hamstring in Scotland’s Six Nations loss to Wales on 9 March, desperately need high-intensity matches if either is to challenge for a place in the matchday 23 for the Tests.
The other Scots in the squad also have every chance of an early starring role because there are only three wingers who were not in action yesterday for Leicester, Northampton, Ulster or Leinster. They are Scotland’s Sean Maitland and George North and Alex Cuthbert of Wales.
The only two full-backs left are also Scottish and Welsh – Stuart Hogg and Leigh Halfpenny.
Jonny Sexton was on duty for Leinster yesterday, so England’s Owen Farrell should start at stand-off on Saturday, although the choice of his half-back partner will be interesting.
With Sexton nailed down for the No.10 Test jersey, does Gatland throw the No.9 shirt to Ireland’s Conor Murray, on the basis that he will get plenty of game time alongside Farrell in the Wednesday Lions, or does he ask Mike Phillips of Wales to get to know Farrell, who will surely play some part in the Test team at some point on the tour?
England’s Mako Vunipola should get an early chance to lay claim to the loosehead prop role and, while Adam Jones looks the favourite to fill the tighthead berth he occupies for Wales, he may come under pressure from the more mobile Englishman Matt Stevens.
Gatland will have watched yesterday’s twin finals with his fingers firmly crossed that all his players emerged unscathed but he is not the only Kiwi coach endlessly mulling selection issues.
His Wallabies counterpart Robbie Deans has some issues of his own to sort out having come under sustained fire for leaving stand-off Quade Cooper out of his initial 25-man squad, with six more players to be added when the captain is named on 11 June.
Australian rugby is blessed and cursed in equal measure by having three hugely talented individuals who do not necessarily add all they could to the team environment, not that they look likely to get the chance in the immediate future. Cooper has been overlooked, which Deans insists has nothing to do with the stand-off labelling the Wallaby camp “toxic” last year, and Kurtley Beale is getting specialist help for alcohol issues. That leaves just one of the three amigos still standing and, in a bizarre twist, James O’Connor has been anointed by the coach as the man most likely to replace his close friend Cooper in the No.10 shirt.In a subplot worthy of the Sopranos, Cooper is being enthusiastically backed by his Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie, who just happens to covet Dean’s role as Wallaby boss. And Cooper is returning the favour, saying: “It’s a pleasure to play for the Reds under Ewen McKenzie.”
McKenzie has announced he is stepping down from the Reds post at the end of the season and will be the front runner to replace Deans should the Wallabies fall to the Lions. However, the ARU will find it hard to sack the Kiwi if the Wallabies win. There is a lot more than just pride riding on this Lions campaign and you suspect that Cooper will have his say before the fat lady sings.
Elsewhere, flanker George Smith, who played against the Lions back in 2001, has been omitted due to a knee injury, although he may yet recover in time. Deans has given a thumbs-up to the Brumbies’ uncapped inside centre Christian Leali’ifano, who can also fill in at No.10, and rugby league convert Israel Folau, who has been turning out at full-back for the Waratahs but does come with experience of playing on the wing in league.
But the Wallabies’ problems have rarely been in the back line. Deans and everyone else in the rugby fraternity knows that the Lions will be targeting the Wallaby front row, especially in the knowledge that giant hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau will miss the campaign after breaking his arm. Deans’ frontline troops Benn Robinson and Ben Alexander are an under-rated pair of props who dealt very comfortably with England’s set scrum last November. But no one is making any such claims for the Australians’ bench. If either of those men gets injured in the next few weeks, Deans will be tugging the collar of his shirt and gulping nervously as he watches his back.
Intriguingly Alexander spent a stint with the Bedford Blues back in 2005 after an illness deprived him of a entire southern hemisphere season.
He enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal, so he insists, and he also came across another young prop with high hopes. Alexander has been friends with England stalwart Dan Cole ever since.
Let’s hope they remain close, whoever emerges on top when the Lions’ carousel finally stops spinning.