AFTER two tight Tests decided in the dying seconds, British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland knew he had to be bolder in his selections and more definitive in his game plan against Australia to avoid what could be an image-battering fourth consecutive series defeat.
Gatland risked his reputation, and the ire of the Irish, by dropping veteran centre Brian O’Driscoll for today’s series decider in Sydney, and he’s leaning heavily on ten familiar Welsh faces as the Lions aim to win a series for the first time since 1997. He picked the biggest team available to him, with the aim of battering the Australians into submission.
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans also made a selection gamble by recalling flanker George Smith for his first international match since 2009, despite the 110-Test veteran spending the last six weeks sidelined with an injured knee. And expecting a massive Lions team to come out hard, he opted for a 6-2 split of forwards to backs on his reserves bench, leaving Australia potentially exposed if there’s a run of injuries like there was in the first Test.
The Lions recalled forward-sized Mike Phillips at scrum-half and reunited Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in the midfield, at the expense of 133-Test veteran O’Driscoll – who had been the sentimental favourite to replace the injured Sam Warburton as skipper and end his run of three straight Lions tours without a series victory.
In the first Test, Kurtley Beale missed a penalty as the siren sounded, allowing the Lions to hold on for a 23-21 win. In the second Test, Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny had a chance to seal the series with a stoppage-time penalty, but his attempt from halfway faded and Australia escaped with a 16-15 win. Both were brutal, tight battles, with injuries all over the field, setting the tone for the deciding match.
“I don’t think it’ll be that different,” Deans said. “Clearly, the frames they’ve put into the game are very much designed to dent your line.”
Lions forwards coach Graham Rowntree said his team was desperate to win the biggest game of their lives. “This is grand final rugby, last throw of the dice. Everything to play for,” he said. “Crikey, we’re ready for this battle. We saw the reaction from Australia after they beat us, especially their captain, Horwill – he was crying after the game. They threw everything at us in that game, and beat us by a point. We really didn’t get our game going. There’s loads more to come from us. The guys are desperate to win.”
The last time the Lions faced a fourth consecutive series defeat, they beat Australia 19-18 in the third Test in 1989.
The 1989 and 2001 series in Australia were both live going into the third Test in Sydney. Each previous time, the team which won the second Test went on to win the series. In ’89 it was the Lions, and last time Australia carried momentum from the second Test win into the Sydney decider, clinching it 29-23.
The Lions have won 16 of their 22 Tests in Australia, dating back to 1899, and have lost six. There’s never been a draw.
Winger Tommy Bowe, one of two Irishmen in an otherwise all Welsh backline, said the Lions squad for the third Test was “as big a side as we could have here.”
“We’ll be hopefully getting a lot of ball on the front foot,” he said. “A lot of the players we’ve got in this team, huge ball carriers there. If we can hold onto the ball, keep battering over the top of the Aussies, hopefully it’ll cause a bit of damage.”
Wallabies scrum-half Will Genia, one the stars of the series, thinks Australia have what it takes to repel the Lions and improve on the second Test win. “If you look at both games so far, they’ve both been physical. There’s not been many points scored, but there’s been a lot of intent,” said Genia, who denied a sore knee was hampering him “We’re very confident. We can honestly say we haven’t played our best footy throughout the series thus far ... We were able to do that in the last 20-30 minutes in Melbourne and will take a lot of confidence out of that.”
The return of Roberts at inside centre for the tourists, after he overcame a hamstring strain which sidelined him for two tests, means the Wallabies are anticipating plenty of crash ball. Roberts is anticipating “some brutal collisions” and is hoping his direct running can make the difference for the Lions.
The return of Alex Corbisiero at prop and Richard Hibbard at hooker is aimed at giving the Lions dominance in the scrum.
Gatland made six changes to the starting XV from the second Test, while Deans made only one, with 32-year-old Smith selected ahead of Michael Hooper at openside. He stuck with James O’Connor at fly-half, Christian Leali’ifano at inside centre and Beale at full-back, trusting that they’re building a combination.
“This will be our best performance without a doubt. That’s been coming,” Deans said. “Combinations started to kick in. You can see the understanding, the rhythm.”
Gatland has guided Wales to back-to-back Six Nations titles, but hasn’t had any success with the Welsh against Australia. Both camps say Australia’s eight-Test winning stretch against Wales has no bearing on this match. “It’s not surprising that Warren has looked to his Welsh players,” Deans said. “He knows them well and you only have to look at that final Six Nations fixture when they responded at the defining moment.”
Welsh lock Alun-Wyn Jones will lead the team after Warburton tore a hamstring in the second Test, getting the job because 2009 Lions captain Paul O’Connell (broken arm) and 2005 skipper O’Driscoll are not in the team. Jones was the alleged victim in a stomping charge against Wallabies captain James Horwill in the first Test. Horwill was cleared to play in Melbourne, but the International Rugby Board appealed the decision, and he had to sit through another hearing before being cleared to play in the third.
“I will just get on with it,” said Jones, who will be playing his sixth consecutive Lions Test. “And I am happy to shake his hand after the game as well.”