This normally features on the main HoR page but we keep a copy over here for archive purposes.
Next Monday is a day I call “Rugby New Year’s Day”.
July 1st is generally the date new Northern Hemisphere contracts come into effect – for example, Matt O’Connor should be officially taking the reins at Leinster then, though no doubt he has already begun behind the scenes.
Of course with this being a Lions year however, the previous season is still going on with the test series still in the balance. So what say we have a look at how I see things panning out.
Friday, June 28
Chiefs v Hurricanes, 8:35am
Saturday, June 29
Australia v Lions, 11:05am
Forming conspiracy theories is always a dangerous practice, because you leave yourself open to people questioning your sanity!
But as I look ahead to this Melbourne encounter I can’t help but focus on the constant reminders I see everywhere about just how important this tour is to rugby union in Australia.
The game is fighting a losing battle with the league code and Aussie Rules for the public’s attention…the mindset appears to be similar to that in the USA where people aren’t that pushed to see their nation compete against the rest of the world and are instead more than content to witness city v city contests within their own borders.
So with this in mind, a series defeat against the travelling Lions would do the 15-man version absolutely no favours.
Now before you call the men in the white coats…no, I’m not suggesting for a minute that the Lions are going to “throw” the series for the sake of selling a few more Super Rugby season tickets!
Still though…when it comes to this second test, I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world from the ARU’s standpoint for them to at least have an even series going into the third one so they could make full use of the media hype before what would be the Sydney decider kicks off.
All I’m saying is that it will be very interesting to see how this game is handled by the two sides and officials. Brian O’Driscoll said in a midweek interview that it was crucial to the Lions that they wrap up the series in two, here’s hoping that is the case.
Not that the Wallabies don’t have the ability to win this match fair and square of course! Even with the absentees from the Brisbane test.
One player who has been passed fit is Christian Leali’ifano. On purely medical grounds, I have my suspicions as to his readiness for this match…a blow to the head that has you stretchered off in the first minute doesn’t sound like something you can fully recover from in a week. But assuming he’s fine, he will be crucial to Robbie Deans’ plans and I’d say one of the reasons James O’Connor remains at 10 is that they haven’t had the chance to run the game plan they prepared yet.
Of course there were some enforced changes but they were in the back three and despite his slipups we still got a sense of what Kurtley Beale can bring to the table and the Lions will know that poor kicking from the hand will cost them dearly.
The tourists had to make some alterations themselves but the most interesting difference was at scrum-half where it seems Mike Phillips has been tossed overboard despite being an integral part of Warren’s original plans. This move really surprised me; not that he deserved to retain his place after Brisbane, I just thought the coach would keep faith with him. I guess I have to remind myself that it’s not Declan Kidney!
Ben Youngs is of course a different type of 9 but his attitude has impressed me on this tour and I think he can link up will with Sexton to get the Lions’ gainline breakers where they need to be. Plus, much like his opposite number, he has a good eye for a quick tap and go.
Elsewhere in the backline Tommy Bowe’s recovery sees him placed straight back into a starting role…with his try last week Alex Cuthbert may feel aggrieved but it’s the right call in my opinion. The Welsh winger can provide some bash off the bench in the closing stages against a weary home defence while Bowe is better defensively.
Now, to the forwards, and the biggest talking point has to be Horwill. I am still inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt re: his intentions, but still the IRB have made a mockery of the whole affair by wading in and “appealing” the citing commissioner’s decision. What if the appeal is upheld and he is found guilty? That would call his presence in this second test into question and would be worse if he played a key role in a triumph for the home side.
Anyway despite the controversy Wallaby pack lineup remains the same, while there have been a few pieces moved around the board on the Lions side. The loss of Paul O’Connell will be most felt, especially as I reckon his quick thinking & experience on our own line helped win us the first test.
His absence sees Geoff Parling join the starting XV…he will add pressure to the Wallaby lineout but it also means we will need a full 80 minutes from Alun-Wyn Jones. Tom Croft is officially second row cover but I’m sure Gatland would rather have him as a back-row option.
And speaking of back-row options…Sean O’Brien makes the bench! Of course I feel he should start but I reckon Lydiate/Warburton/Heaslip is as close as Gatland can get to his “ideal” 678 combo without courting accusations of Welsh bias. Still, he will certainly be chomping at the bit to get on and overall the Lions bench has much more of a “game changer” look to it than last week.
Basically this contest boils down to the ability of the Lions to respond when they are taken out of their comfort zone. A lot of prep work has been done by the coaches and they seem well drilled in set plays…but the Aussies are most likely to strike when things are more broken and it is here where we will be tested most.
So I suppose what I’m saying is that we need to keep those broken play opportunities to a minimum, and one of the best ways we can do that is to avoid getting on the wrong side of the ref as we did with Chris Pollock. I’m not as inclined to blame him as many are…he reffed the first test as he saw things and we could have been better prepared. If Joubert isn’t going to allow us contest for the ball, then we need to be able to adjust our approach accordingly, and fast.
Which brings me to my prediction. The bookies are shading it for the tourists much like last week, but this time I’m not inclined to agree. Whether it’s to keep the series alive for the public’s perception or whether it’s because the Lions were lucky last week and will be caught out this time around I’m not sure….let’s say I’m 70% in favour of the latter. Australia by 4
Women’s Rugby World Cup 7s
As far as I can make out, only Ireland’s third pool match is on the “main pitch” and thus will be covered by the IRB’s live streaming…the only problem there is that most people will be watching the closing stages of the 2nd Lions test at that point!
But don’t forget the girls and I’m sure there will be regular updates via twitter (@IRBwomens) for their opening fixtures earlier that morning.
Whatever they achieve in Moscow, their mere presence at the event is crucial for Irish rugby as we prepare for Rio in 2016 and as Cian Aherne says in his post on The Touchline blog, hopefully there is still time for a men’s team to be formed by then as well.
South Africa v Ireland, 7:06am
Australia v Ireland, 9:40am
Ireland v China, 12:58pm
Highlanders v Crusaders, 8:35am
Sharks v Blues, 1:50pm
Bulls v Southern Kings, 4:05pm
Stormers v Cheetahs, 6:15pm
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP