WITH just 80 minutes of rugby standing between his Lions and a little piece of history, coach Warren Gatland has still made five changes to the winning side from the first Test in Brisbane, albeit two of them forced on him by injury.
Mike Phillips’ poor form sees the Welsh scrum-half dropped from the matchday 23, with England’s Ben Youngs at No 9 and Conor Murray of Ireland on the bench. Youngs joins hooker brother Tom in the XV for tomorrow’s second and potentially decisive Test in Melbourne.
Tommy Bowe’s miraculous three-week recovery from a broken hand sees the Irishman start on the right wing with Wales’ Alex Cuthbert dropping to the bench. Fellow Welshman Dan Lydiate, an old favourite of Gatland, swaps places with Enlgish blindside flanker Tom Croft, who is among the reserves.
Alex Corbisiero’s calf strain gives fellow England loosehead prop Mako Vunipola his first Test start and allows Scot Ryan Grant a place on the bench but Geoff Parling’s promotion to the starting XV did not see Richie Gray promoted to the 23 as many expected. Instead, Gatland has opted to bench two flankers and no locks.
That decision is a huge gamble, and an unnecessary one, with Gray and the Welshman Ian Evans both in excellent form against the Rebels on Tuesday evening. And the injury to Wallaby Christian Lealiifano inside the first minute of the Brisbane Test only underlined what can go wrong. Did Gatland consider the danger? “Yup,” was his one word reply before the coach explained: “We’ve done some stuff with Tom Croft. He’s an outstanding lineout forward so we feel we’ve got that covered. We’ve done some scrums with Dan Lydiate in the second row and, if we did lose a lock, we know it’s a calculated risk, but we just thought that, with the potential of Tom and Sean [O’Brien] coming off the bench, it gives us a lot of impact, particularly in that second half. We’ve had that discussion and we’re well aware that there is some risk involved as there is with all selections.”
Elsewhere, the demotion of Philips out of the squad altogether proves that there is some justice in the world after the Welsh scrum-half endured a forgettable match in Brisbane when his service, never quick at the best of times, could be timed with a sundial. What Youngs lacks in physical presence he makes up with in quickness of thought and deed and, at the end of the Englishman’s service, stand-off Jonny Sexton should have an extra half second to survey his options.
These Lions could become the first to win a series since 1997 and the Kiwi coach spoke at length about the enormity of the prize that is tantalisingly within reach of his squad. He offered his mantra, “we’re absolutely desperate to win this match, we’re desperate to win the series,” so often, almost as if repeating it would make it so.
However, when asked if his players were ready to write their names in the history books, Gatland’s response was strangely ambivalent. “To be honest this early in the week I’m not sure. It’s something we need to identify over the next 48 hours and talk to the players and make them aware because they are just young men. Winning on Saturday, for a lot of them, has the potential to change their lives in a positive way, and we have to make them aware how important Saturday and the Test series is because it’s that close for them.”
Gatland will get help from the veteran Brian O’Driscoll, the only man from either squad who played 12 years ago, in 2001, when the Lions lost a tight series 2-1. Back then O’Driscoll was an aspiring 21-year-old with his career before him, now he has a final chance to add a victorious Lions series to the Grand Slams and Heineken Cup wins that adorn his brilliant career.
“He’s a little bit worried,” said his coach, “because, having come over here as a young 21-year-old and having been part of a series that was close, obviously 1997 was fresh in the minds and he thought he’d get another chance and he’s on the cusp of this being his last chance of being part of a winning Lions series. He wants to communicate that to the players – don’t leave this opportunity behind because it could be that you don’t get that chance again. Don’t waste the moment, I think, is the message to the players.”
“We’re desperate to win the game and we’re desperate to win the series,” Gatland added, not for the first time. “We know how tough it is to pull a squad together in such a short time.
“Yes, we have some quality players and there is some size and some skill and some great athletes, but to pull a squad together in such a short period and to play away from home against one of the top three countries in the world is a tough ask.
“Australia will be absolutely desperate for this one, as we were four years ago. It was a brutal encounter four years ago in South Africa and this one is going to be brutally physical because they’ve got to throw the kitchen sink at us and we have to handle that and soak that up and move on as well.”
The Lions have a golden opportunity to seal this series in Melbourne, provided their twin locks can avoid the kitchen sinks that will be flying about the Etihad Stadium tomorrow morning.
Lions team v Australia (2nd Test);
Halfpenny, Bowe, O’Driscoll, Roberts, North, Sexton, B Youngs; Vunipola, T Youngs, A Jones, AW Jones, Parling, Lydiate, Warburton, Heaslip. Subs: Grant, Hibbard, Cole, Croft, O’Brien, Murray, Farrell, Cuthbert