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Sean O’Brien strikes me as the sort of bloke who is never happy with second best. For example if I had a restaurant I certainly wouldn’t offer him a €30 steak if my menu had one that was worth 40.
Now I’m not suggesting for a minute that there’s a single player on this Lions tour that doesn’t want to be on the test team, but you can’t watch the Tullow Tank without being impressed by just how much it would mean to him for this not to be his last appearance of the season.
And that’s not just my blue/green goggles talking either…the commentary teams hailing from both England and Australia constantly remarked on it throughout this match at the “Melbourne Rectangular Stadium”. From the kickoff until his substitution on the 55th minute he was larger than life on the pitch and he fully deserved his try shortly before he took the bench.
But the question remains…does he fully deserve a spot in the matchday 23 in the Etihad next Saturday? Well you know what my personal opinion is, but when you look at it objectively and consider what has happened on the tour and who’s in charge, it’s not so simple.
First we need to look at his try more closely. Sure, there was no stopping him once he got the ball but let’s not forget how it got to him…first Faletau safely took the lineout then after Richie Gray shipped it on to Lydiate the skipper for the day displayed the quick hands that have been a trademark of this touring side to get it to O’Brien.
My point is that for all his obvious desire, the Leinster man is trapped in an equation that just doesn’t seem to be working out for him. And while you’d never wish a player an injury, if you’ll forgive the term he doesn’t seem able to “catch a break” since for all the players dropping like flies on this tour, all the back rowers remain healthy AND for the most part aren’t putting a foot wrong.
So even though Stu Barnes did his best to talk him up as he left the field and despite all the good will being projected towards Melbourne from back home, I’m still preparing myself to see his name left out of the squad for the second test. It’s just easier that way for me.
Overall this wasn’t a great contest as the home side showed some fight to befit their nickname but were never really in it. In the final series of plays I was even rooting for them to get the “silver doughnut” (classic Aussie commentator term) off the scoreboard but they couldn’t manage it. Gareth Delve in particular was impressive for them, and of course the former Welsh international had plenty of motivation.
But at least it was good to see the breakdown become a contest again as referee Glen Jackson re-introduced the “holding after the tackle” call which Chris Pollock seemed to have forgotten last Saturday.
Although O’Brien stood out, you could see that to a man this Lions team was focused on impressing the coaching ticket…and this eagerness produced mixed results. On the one hand we had the superb second try finished by Sean Maitland but superbly created thanks to a break by Tuilagi and several slick offloads.
On the other hand we had the ball going to ground at the worst possible moment more than once; the Lions were just fortunate in that this week they were up against a young franchise that couldn’t capitalise.
Throughout the Lions 23 you had performances that had much good tempered with a little not-so-good…but in each case the players can be forgiven the transgressions considering what was at stake. Owen Farrell was excellent from the kicking tee and appears to have come out of himself in open play, something that no doubt Stuart Lancaster will be quick to fix when he gets him back!
Of the rest of the Irish contingent, Conor Murray showed a nice pirouette for his try but in the end was outdone by his replacement Ben Youngs who’s late 5-pointer should keep him his bench spot. Although Phillips was poor in Brisbane I can’t see Gatland denying him a second chance at starting.
Rob Kearney did his best to get himself into the action but it just wasn’t happening for him. Barring injury I’d say his tour is done. Forgive me, but I’d be glad if that’s the case – it would be good for both Matt O’Connor and Joe Schmidt to have him fit to start the new season.
Simon Zebo is another one with the X-factor to make a case for test inclusion though I reckon he’s four years too soon to get his wish…with Tommy Bowe back in the mix for Saturday I can’t see the Munster man climbing the pecking order…perhaps their fans feel the same way about it as I do re : Kearney?
The Ulster front rowers on the bench had some good involvement towards the end…let me be sure and make it clear that the Ben Youngs try came from a pinpoint long dart from Rory Best! And Tom Court may have his Australian roots to thank in part for his call-up but certainly didn’t look out of place when he came on.
One more thing about that Youngs score…I hear Lachlan Mitchell has copped a 1-game ban for his dangerous tackle on Zebo, well perhaps the Rebel full-back Jason Woodward’s high shot on the Leicester & England scrum-half as he scored could have been looked at as well.
The one score I haven’t mentioned was the penalty try which was earned after it took the Lions pack a few goes to perfect the lineout/maul setpiece and sub Jordy Reid tore up the rulebook to manhandle Rory Best from the wrong angle and saw yellow as well for his trouble.
So…what do we now know about Saturday? Well, I for one couldn’t blame a coach for being reluctant to alter his gameplan especially since it is one he would have been working on for months prior to being able to so much as test it on the training ground. So apart from replacing injured players and accepting back those who probably would have started anyway, I can’t see him altering that much.
If Tommy Bowe does come back into the fold, given both starting wingers scored last week, it would most likely be to the bench, thus ousting Sean Maitland, who I must admit has gotten better as the tour progressed.
Should this happen, it will be interesting to see who gets the bench lock position. Evans and Gray both did well against the Rebels, but on overall form for the tour I’d be inclined to pick the Welshman for the bench. Is that the only factor though?
Assuming Maitland will be left out, will Gray get the nod because of his nationality, even though nobody would ever admit it? We’ll have to see, though that “token Scot” argument could be moot as Ryan Grant is likely to make the bench as the Last Loosehead Standing should something happen to Vunipola.
And so the midweek matches come to an end, as does the tour for around half the group. We’ll see tomorrow morning where Gatland & co landed on the Sean O’Brien dilemma.
I reckon I’m right to christen him the 24th Lion, but let’s just say I’m glad there’s a 24-hour flight time between the two of us as I do. JLP