This normally features on the main HoR page but we keep a copy over here for archive purposes.
It seems an eternity since I was taking my seat in Shamrock Rovers’ home ground back on August 11 for Leinster’s opening preseason encounter with Gloucester.
For a Leinster, Ireland & Lions fan like myself, it has been a rollercoaster ride of a season…not my favourite cliché by a long chalk, but one that most definitely fits.
As that match in Tallaght kicked off, Joe Schmidt was the coach of Leinster, Declan Kidney had the Irish reins while Warren Gatland was beginning to form his strategies for the touring Lions.
By roughly 1pm on Saturday, all three of those situations will be no more.
And we’ll just have a few short weeks to regroup and prepare for the next campaign. Such is the nature of modern professional rugby – gone are the days when the Five Nations WAS the rugby season and everything else was a sideshow.
I’m not complaining about the long season, but perhaps it is time that its structure was looked at so it could make more sense, and this gives me plenty to write about over the coming weeks!
In the meantime, you could say I have plenty to write about for the final contest of the season, so what say I get on with it.
Saturday, July 6
Australia v Lions, 11:05am
The promos for this tour likened Warren Gatland to Captain Cook, sailing the Endeavour to the shores of Australia.
Definitely a clever marketing concept, but after his selection for the third and final test in Sydney, I’d be more inclined to compare him to Captain Ahab of the Pequod as his determination to harpoon the (forgive me) Whale-abies after several failed attempts seems to have clouded his overall judgement.
One man does not make a team whoever he is. And when it comes to selection, it is and always will be the coach’s call to make and nobody else’s.
So to extent I can appreciate the opinion held by many that the Irish are “over-reacting” to Brian O’Driscoll’s omission from the matchday 23.
Well, let me rephrase that…I can appreciate that opinion from everybody EXCEPT the Welsh.
Someone with a perceived bias makes a massive call that removes a proven game-changer from a crucial test match. Sound familiar?
Now I know that despite almost 10k likes on the Facebook page, the “I hate Alain Rolland” franchise represented a minority of the Welsh fan base, but still, it was a widely held opinion over there that sending off of Warburton was the wrong decision, whatever the arguments to the contrary.
So even though some have taken the whole “#JusticeFoBOD” idea as more than a simple tongue-in-cheek reference to the Horwill issue, to lump anyone who feels the four-time-Lion should play in with those extreme opinions is a hollow, lazy argument.
Now, to make my actual case.
As well as “Master and Commander”-style adverts, Sky Sports have frequently bleated on, and on, and on about the Lions tradition. How it’s more than just a team, rather a concept that spans 125 years. How everyone who pulls on the jersey now is standing with those who went before.
By selecting ten Welshmen to start the final test, Warren Gatland has flown in the face of all that.
On this, I actually don’t have much of a problem, but it doesn’t exactly represent joined-up thinking and makes me wonder just how permanent the Lions “concept” actually is. It would be like the Barbarians suddenly playing 10-man rugby.
But it doesn’t matter if it’s a decided 3rd test on a Lions tour or an Under 13s friendly…when a team loses a game and the coach leaves out players for the next one, the implication is clear that they were responsible for the result coming about.
Now don’t get me wrong…Brian O’Driscoll wasn’t exactly at his best in Melbourne, and while everyone is focusing on the coverage by him & Davies as the winning try was scored, few mention his poor open-field kick which ultimately led to the Wallabies’ attack on the Lions line.
So fine, he has made an error or two. But if that is the reason we’re dropping players, to then replace him in the 13 jumper with Jonathan Davies, who was if anything more prone to second test errors, takes the decision beyond insulting.
We all know Warren’s intent with his selection…batter the Wallabies into submission. That’s fine. But what’s ironic about the whole thing is that Brian O’Driscoll’s defensive excellence is one of the reasons he came up with that strategy in the first place!
Now he actually has BOD at his disposal, it makes a lot more sense for him to use his abilities in tackling, leadership and overall inspiration, all of which are still evident in his game even at 34.
And this is what makes it such a hot topic…I guarantee you NOBODY would have questioned his inclusion. Most of us assumed he’d be captain, let alone not starting, let alone being left out of the 23 altogether!
But I could write all day about why he should be in the team. He isn’t, and there is precious little I can do about it. I do feel an equal amount of sympathy for Jamie Heaslip but I feel if I make a case for him as well I won’t leave much room for my actual preview!
Now is the time to make one thing perfectly clear…I will be wearing my Lions jersey on Saturday morning just as I did for Tests 1 & 2. It’s ironic that George Hook is in agreement with Gatland because he is usually the one who is so negative going into a big contest that you almost think he wants his team to lose. Well you won’t be able to accuse me of that.
Looking at the 23 who will be wearing red for real in Sydney, I feel no differently about what they need than I did after the second test…they must put points on the board early, and they must do so by way of tries. So it could be said that by increasing the brute force of the side, you also increase the chances of doing just that…Jonathan Sexton should have a lot more “front foot” ball to get his offence moving.
However…that “score early” premise is based on a solid defence, and with BOD & Warburton out of the equation, the pressure to reproduce the tackling numbers from Brisbane and Melbourne is also increased.
When it comes to the Irish who are playing, I am of course delighted to see O’Brien finally starting but the delight comes with a large helping of “careful what you wish for” given all that has happened. As for Murray, it would have been a brave call for Gatland to start three different 9s in the three tests and perhaps he felt he used up all his “brave call” chips!
So to summarize, this is a massive, massive gamble that Gatland has taken. The Wallabies for their part will not change much…sure, while we’re leaving out someone who played in the 2001 series they are adding one, and indeed George Smith will bring a lot of bite to their back row that was missing in Melbourne.
But the basis of their approach won’t change…when presented with even a millisecond of an opportunity, they must be ready to pounce.
And one of the best ways to create those opportunities will be to attack the “Warren-ball” strategy head on - if they can’t stop the likes of Roberts, Davies & O’Brien crashing through, they can at least try to wrestle the ball free as they do. All it takes is one bounce in their favour and they have the Genias, Beales and Folaus at their disposal to provide what could be a decisive 7-pointer.
As for the set-pieces, I have a feeling they will cancel each other out. We can probably count on Roman Poite to make a call or two that will leave us scratching our heads, but over the course of the 80 minutes I will be extremely surprised if there’s much between these two sides on the penalty count tally.
But this is meant to be a preview, so I suppose it’s about time I put my head on the block and say how I think the only tally that really matters will turn out.
With all the debate over BOD it’s hard not to factor it into my prediction. But anyone who knows the complex sport of rugby union will tell you that there won’t necessarily be a direct path from the result to Gatland’s decision. Hopefully that will be appreciated by my readers when I predict a win for the home side!
The bookies shade it to the Aussies by a point. I feel it will be a little bit more than that, though there should be a few more tries than last week and we will be on the edge of our seats all the way to the final whistle.
Please, please believe me when I say that I hope I am totally wrong. Australia by 4
Hurricanes v Highlanders, 8:35am
Cheetahs v Blues, 1:50pm
Southern Kings v Stormers, 4:05pm
Bulls v Sharks, 6:15pm
Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP