British & Irish Lions 2013: Success & Warren Gatland go hand in hand
British & Irish Lions 2013: Oisin Gregorian previews the second Test which will see the tour head to Melbourne
From the London Wasps to the British and Irish Lions, Warren Gatland has enjoyed a trophy-rich decade of Grand Slams, Premiership titles and Heineken Cups before being named to lead the 2013 tour of Australia.
A month on from gathering in Hong Kong, Gatland and his touring party stand 80 minutes from completing an historic victory Down Under, a first series win since 1997, and potentially a first whitewash in their favour since the class of Willie John McBride all the way back in 1974.
His counterpart and compatriot, Robbie Deans, however has it all to do. Last weekend, the New Zealander was made to witness the cruel thin line between success and failure following Kurtley Beale’s unfortunate last-minute slip with the first Test there for the taking.
In all, 14 points were squandered from the boot that Saturday evening; a repeat performance here could be fatal, for both country and, potentially, for coach.
Australia and the Lions are still counting the cost of the previous weekend. Paul O’Connell’s withdrawal earlier in the week remains the second Test’s most notable absentee, while James Horwill’s slap on the wrist despite visibly stamping dangerously close to the eye-area of Alun-Wyn Jones has acted as a salt in the wound for the tourists, who felt the Wallabies captain deserved a three-week ban at least on precedent alone.
With the IRB set to appeal the decision to clear Horwill, there may still be chance that Deans could be without his captain by the time the tour heads to Sydney for the final Test. But by then, the damage may already be done.
While news of Horwill’s clearance to play will have naturally been welcomed, Digby Ioane’s run in with the law, Pat McCabe’s series-ending injury and Berrick Barnes’ concussion have left Wallaby selectors with plenty to mull over in a backline that’s been obliterated – with plenty of fingers rightfully being pointed at an Australian itinerary which hadn’t featured one single 80 minute warm-up match prior to the first Test.
It’s an itinerary which could yet prove the Wallabies’ greatest downfall.
O’Connell aside, Gatland’s injury worries from last weekend are considerably less stressful in comparison. Boosted by Tommy Bowe’s remarkable return to fitness – complete with hurling glove.
The majority of changes appear in the pack with Mako Vunipola, Geoff Parling and Dan Lydiate all making their Test debuts – the latter being called in to shore up at the breakdown which was guilty of being exposed more times than not the previous weekend, and it is an area that is perhaps needs the most improvement when Saturday comes.
Here, the tight five must brace themselves for a head on collision in the set-piece from the very first whistle. Minus O’Connell and Corbisiero, the Lions pack must quickly adjust to fill such an obvious void.
The Wallabies will be hoping to set up an all-deciding third Test and they will target the set piece from the very first one to try and underpin their opponents early on.
Key to this underpinning will be how Beale and James O’Connor respond respectively. Both having a point to prove from Brisbane, the latter much more so than the former.
O’Connor will be desperate to redeem himself at 10 following an anonymous 80 minutes in which he was given a thorough lesson in game management by his opposite number, Sexton.
As for Beale, how he will respond mentally to last weekend’s final ten minutes remains anyone’s guess, but it is just one more pre-match subplot for an Australian squad that needs to show the rugby world that three years of transition has all been worth the wait.
Whilst the Lions have no need to the show the world their credentials as a unit, the desire to reaffirm that country affiliations and rivalries can be put to one side in order to succeed remains a priority in preserving the tour for the foreseeable future.
In the past, people have often been quick to judge previous failings – pointing to how little time such a group of players have time to gel.
With no tour success in 15 years, and an opposition in disarray, this is arguably the best chance for any Lions team to finally make that point.
A get out jail free card remains should things not go their way in the Docklands stadium, but with a potential momentum shift going the Wallabies way should the series go to a play-off in Sydney, anything but a win will be seen as a failure – regardless of the fact that series is still there to be won.
Players to watch:
Australia: James O’Connor, Will Genia, Kurtley Beale, Israel Falau, Kane Douglas.
Lions: Tommy Bowe, Ben Youngs, Dan Lydiate, Geoff Parling.
Verdict: Lions by five points.
You can follow Oisín on Twitter @Oisgreg