Gavin Hastings: Tough call to change a winning team

OUR HOPE, perhaps our expectation, was that the Lions would get on top of the Australians up front and win the first Test with a little bit to spare.

With Paul O'Connell injured, Richie Gray, above, has an opportunity to play his way into the squad for the second Test. Picture: Getty

In reality, they can feel very fortunate to be going into this weekend with a 1-0 series lead.

I was surprised by the ferocity shown by the Australians at the breakdown and in defence, and perhaps some of the tourists were too. The Wallabies played very well and gained parity up front, whereas I think Warren Gatland’s intention was to punish them in the forwards and build a winning platform from there.

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We thought the Australians might be a bit undercooked, as they had been rested from the warm-up matches while the Lions got up to speed and steadily coalesced into an impressive, powerful team. But the Australian sides have been going well in Super 15, and maybe the rest over the past few weeks was exactly what some of their most important players needed.

With Paul O'Connell injured, Richie Gray, above, has an opportunity to play his way into the squad for the second Test. Picture: Getty

Having played so well, they will be as disappointed with the result as the Lions were relieved. In particular, their return of four successful kicks from nine attempts is clearly not good enough in a professional age. Still, I’m sure that many Lions supporters, while celebrating at the end of the game, must have felt some sympathy for Kurtley Beale. I personally felt sorry for him, because I know exactly what it is like to miss a kick that would have won a match. It’s a hell of a lonely position to be in.

Actually, apart from that slip at the end, he did very well when he came on. There was a huge amount of pressure on him, and he coped extremely well – not quite taking charge of the game, but running things pretty competently. I would start him at stand-off this weekend, because I was not particularly impressed by James O’Connor.

Even after Beale’s first miss some five minutes from time, there was an air of inevitability about the Lions giving away another penalty. Cutting down on the penalty count is going to be one of the key aims in training this week, because the tourists simply cannot afford to be so lax in that regard.

The injury to Paul O’Connell means that Gatland will be forced into at least one change, but I would not expect him to make any voluntarily. It’s always a tough call to change a winning team, and it is clear that this particular side is capable of playing substantially better than they did on Saturday.

O’Connell would have been one of the first names to be inked into Gatland’s team, so his loss may initially seem like a big one, but the consolation is that the other second rows have been playing pretty well.

For example, I’ve been impressed throughout the tour by Geoff Parling, and I think he could maybe consider himself unlucky not to have been in the team for the first Test. At least, I was a bit surprised that Alun Wyn Jones got in ahead of him.

Parling’s withdrawal from today’s last midweek game has led to Dan Lydiate taking over the captaincy, and the Welsh flanker knows he has a chance of getting into the Test squad. If the Lions are going well enough he may only need to play a half or so, then be rested with the weekend in mind. The injury to O’Connell also means an opportunity for Richie Gray to play his way into the squad for the second Test. If he has a big game today against the Melbourne Rebels, Richie could do enough to be included on the bench for the weekend, and the same goes for his fellow-Scot Ryan Grant. But whatever happens this weekend, I’m confident that Richie has an excellent chance of playing in a Test match on this tour.

The problem in the back five, as it has been for some time, is the lack of players who are comfortable playing in either the second or back row. There’s a selection issue there that may enhance Richie’s chances.

When it comes to the backs, you can analyse each position and see that there were weaknesses, but I think the correct decision would be to say “same again”. Scrum-half Mike Phillips, for example, would possibly be disappointed with the way he played, but I don’t think they’ll drop him. Ben Youngs was not notably sharper when he came on. The centres should be the same, the wings looked good, and in the end, as I said, there will be a reluctance to change a winning side.

With three Wallabies having been stretchered off, their selectors will be forced into changes. It was a brutally physical match, and it will be interesting to see if anyone else is ruled out over the coming days.

James Horwill, the home team’s captain, might be a touch fortunate to be available for this weekend after being cited for stamping on Wyn Jones, but I’m glad he is still involved. I want the Lions to win the series against the strongest possible opponents, and there is no denying Horwill’s value to his team. And if the Lions are to win the series, they may well have to finish the job this weekend. If the Wallabies win, the momentum will be very much with them, and that will be a hard factor for the tourists to deal with.

Bear in mind that on the two previous tours the team that lost the first Test went on to win the series, and that in the last tour the Lions won, South Africa in 1997, they finished the job in the second Test before losing the dead rubber. Let’s get it done on Saturday, and hopefully in more convincing style this time.

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