Brisbane. Suncorp Stadium. Venue of Quade Cooper and the Reds as they tried to run the Lions off the field earlier in the tour and now the site of the first 2013 Lions test. Instead of Cooper pulling the strings for Australia it's Genia, O'Connor and Lealiifano and only time will tell if the tactics that so unsettled the Lions on that drizzly Saturday will be used again, although if Robbie Deans hasn't had the nous to consult Ewen McKenzie closely for this one then he deserves to lose. And heavily.
The Lions side wandering out to face Australia features eight Welshmen in the starting fifteen, four from Ireland and three Englanders. The BNP in their wild intolerance might not be impressed to note that that in the Lions starting side for the first test there will actually be more Welsh players born in England (3) than English players born in England (2), a little gem of a fact plucked from trivia obscurity by the researchers of Infostrada Sports.
Although there are three players making their Wallaby debuts this Australian team will be the most experienced starting XV to take on the Lions with 519 test caps. Despite all that experience none of the current Wallabies faced the Lions in 2001 while Brian O'Driscoll played in all three tests.
At hooker, converted centre Tom Youngs has beaten Richie Hibbard to get the starting nod and has really got around the park on tour putting in 14.5 tackles per 80 minutes; that's the best mark in the squad ahead of (somewhat surprisingly) Tom Croft's 13. His throwing, often criticised, has been excellent on tour hitting 19 of 20. The bulkier framed Hibbard is on the bench ready to come in if required.
Adam Jones was always a certain starter at tight head prop although England's Dan Cole has had a fine tour so far. It's only responsible to note in dispatches that away from the scrum's coal face in over two hours of touring match action the hirsute Welshman has had one, solitary carry.
For one, solitary metre.
Any more than that would be a bonus really; Jones is there for one reason and one reason only - to prop. And he does that well. He's a throwback to the days of traditionally shaped propping gentlemen who were there to keep a scrum from falling down, keep the bar held up afterwards while trotting gently from lineout to scrum in between. This parish has all the time in the world for the Adam Jones's of this world, the anti-athletes. Long may they last.
In the second row Ian Evans and Richie Gray, despite their vast size, haven't really shown enough on tour to be considered as anything more than the engine room of the dirt trackers XV, a unit captained on Tuesday by Rory Best whose lineout woes against the Brumbies became hard to watch. Best has had some bad luck this season with throws being dropped but against Jake White's men his throwing was dreadful. It has the look of the yips about it and if it doesn't get cured fast it could be more than just his international career in jeopardy.
The lock choice of Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O'Connell provides both leadership and real mobility around the park. O'Connell has got stuck in to the tune of forcing six turnovers thus far on tour, just one behind the leader Justin Tipuric. Geoff Parling's entrance into the game at any point would probably mean a dropping in the amount of ball being carried but his lineout nous would probably make up for that by creating at least one extra steal.
Tom Croft has had a hugely effective tour, upping his carry and tackle numbers to the point of them being unrecognisable from the stats generated by the player of the same name from the 2012/13 season. And there's the rub with Croft; he's capable of great moments - soaring lineout catches and sprints from the half way line - but equally capable of being harder to spot on a pitch than a seagull with an unfashionably white beak flying against a white cloud as a backdrop. In fog.
Bearing that in mind, the non-selection of Sean O'Brien in the match day party is curious to say the least. If Warburton, only recently returned from injury, goes down then who plays at seven? Equally, if the mostly indestructible Heaslip were to step on some Kryptonite there's no natural fit to move to number eight. Lydiate is very much Gatland's soldier and there's obviously a plan of some fashion; perhaps it's a band-aid in case Croft has one of those AWOL days?
Indeed for all the Sky Sports cheerleading of the Sam Warburton show their lack of respect for Justin Tipuric, even to have in the discussion, has been distinctly odd. The man of the blue millinery had a quiet game against the Brumbies (he was not alone in that, not by a long chalk) but he's made the most tackles of any Lion on the tour (35) without missing a single one and has forced the most turnovers (7). Warburton's played over 80 minutes less than him y'say? Well Tipuric's carried the ball at the same low rate as Warburton while making more tackles per 80 minutes with the aforementioned bundles of turnovers. It's probably unworthy to question Sky's objectivity on this issue… after all it's not as if they've made Warburton the centrepiece of a Lions ad campaign.
In the backs, the Lions' lineup was mostly etched in stone with Alex Cuthbert doing enough to keep his place as one of Gatland's obligatory Big Strong Men Out Wide. The potential of Jonathan Davies and Brian O'Driscoll with ball in hand is exciting but as a defensive partnership it might be ripe for Australian plucking. Sexton's defensive responsibility will be enormous, something probably not mentioned enough with Roberts' unavailability through injury.
Mike Philips was a nailed on cert with Ben Youngs probably a touch lucky to get in ahead of Conor Murray who's looked a decent Phillips Mk II on tour. Leigh Halfpenny's kicking form has been sensational and his place was never in doubt.
On the bench, Owen Farrell joins Youngs with Sean Maitland the third back sub; the Kiwi-born Scotsman is certainly lucky to be in ahead of Zebo, Hogg and even Kearney who all provide more natural cover across the back three. Maitland had a trump card though; he's a Big Strong Man Out Wide and with George North having made a fairly quick return from his own injury scare this is probably Gatland's thinking.
The Australians have picked James O'Connor at ten; he might not be the threat of either an on-song Quaid Cooper or a sober Kurtley Beale but he's still a fantastic player in his own right. Multi-code wonder Israel Folau is the true wild card in this series with Robbie Deans hoping that his outrageous Super Rugby form carries onto the international stage. The successful recovery from injury by Digby Ioane will be welcomed by Aussie fans as he averages the most defenders beaten per game in Super Rugby this season (5.4).
If it's a dry track and both teams decide they want to throw the ball around this could be an absolute belter.
All player stats courtesy of Opta.
Team: 15-Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), 14-Alex Cuthbert (Wales), 13-Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), 12-Jonathan Davies (Wales), 11-George North (Wales), 10-Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), 9-Mike Phillips (Wales), 8-Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), 7-Sam Warburton (Wales, captain), 6-Tom Croft (England), 5-Paul O'Connell (Ireland), 4-Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), 3-Adam Jones (Wales), 2-Tom Youngs (England), 1-Alex Corbisiero (England).
Replacements - 16-Richard Hibbard (Wales), 17-Mako Vunipola (England), 18-Dan Cole (England), 19-Geoff Parling (England), 20-Dan Lydiate (Wales), 21-Ben Youngs (England), 22-Owen Farrell (England), 23-Sean Maitland (Scotland).
The success of the Lions tour of 2013 will be determined over the next three Saturdays in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. The tourists will either clinch a much-needed series win, or lose out on the best chance to do so in these players' careers. We'll cheer them on, particularly our own, but if the sought after victory is secured it will come in spite of, and not because of, their preparations of recent weeks.
If you were looking at how not to prepare a team for an intense series of games, then the past few weeks have had it all. Forget the injuries - they'll happen, and are out of people's control - but focus on the mistakes that have been made. Little, surely, was learned from taking on the Baa-Baa's in a Hong Kong sauna and no players were battle-hardened in the first four games in Oz, which were won by a combined 156 points. There's been one loss, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, only the starting XV which were beaten included a semi-retired Welsh winger, and players who had flown in from Argentina and America just days previously. Hardly what could be described as 'battle hardened'.
By not seeing his players in a true test, to gauge their current form, it has to be a worry that Gatland hasn't given his men a chance to shine and to challenge those who he would have undoubtedly pencilled into his preferred starting team before the squad ever met. That notwithstanding, he is a consummate coach and Lord knows he has had enough time to prepare for these games. One can only hope that this professionalism has been in evidence away from prying eyes, on training pitches, and that the evidence of this work will only be revealed when it truly has to be.
The Lions are the most talented team, even with the couple of odd selections in mind. Alex Corbisiero Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE is the player who's come from nowhere to start the first test, while Sean O'Brien and Simon Zebo can feel hard done by not to be looking forward to becoming super subs. That said, the team is strong, provided the various units can gel together. O'Connell and Wyn Jones are a formidable pairing, and while many would prefer to see the Tullow Tank in action, that selection debate is an exercise in the splitting of hairs, such is the wealth of riches. Halfpenny will hoover up any opportunities handed over by the homes side, while Phillips and Sexton will easily take care of their jobs. O'Driscoll then can marshal the remainder of the backline to ensure the power of North and Cuthbert is exploited out on the wings.
This near embarrassment of riches should be enough to see the Lions victorious on Saturday, and win the Tour. However, until that first test is in the bag, many will have grave doubts as to whether this team has been prepared well enough to fulfil this destiny. A disciplined, controlled and creative Wallabies would prove a stern test, but being weaker than the other Southern Hemisphere giants then the hosts have to be outsiders going into the tour. Let the games begin.
After what seems to have been an interminable build up, the first Lions Test is finally upon us. They Sky Sports hype machine has been cranked up to 'Hysteria' for about 10 months but all that can be ignored now and we can just concentrate on a couple of games of rugby.
Both sides went into spin mode in the wake of the Lions loss to the Brumbies on Tuesday. The Aussies are playing the underdog card with Brumbies coach, Jake White, saying it would've felt like an "uphill battle" to win the series but after the Brumbies win it will seem "do-able" to Australia. Meanwhile, Warren Gatland was playing down the loss, saying it might be that the Lions needed. We'll know at about one o'clock on Saturday whether Tuesday was a confidence boost for Aussie rugby or a kick-up-the-arse to prevent Lions complacency. Whatever the ripple effect
will be, it was a dispiriting day for the tourists who were out fought and out thought.
If there was any upside from Canberra it was the resolution of some of Gatland's selection issues. It wasn't a great sign for any of the starting
15, regarding their Test chances, but the limp display put to bed some players chances of making the Test squad on Saturday; Best, Evans, Gray,
Tipuric, Faletau all struggled to have an impact on the game or put serious pressure on their competitors for a jersey in Brisbane.
What has ultimately emerged looks like a set-piece focused selection with Corbisiero selected for his scrummaging, Tom Youngs the most consistent thrower on tour and Croft's lineout work required. Aside from the potentially explosive Vuinipolo, the Lions bench looks light on impact. If the Lions aren't winning with 15 mins to go, its difficult to see Lydiate, Farrell or Maitland turning things around.
The Australian's have been flying under the radar, so far, for the most part. Training behind closed doors and forgoing a warm-up game, very little has come out of Robbie Deans' camp over the last few weeks. Quade Cooper's omission was well flagged the ensuing kerfuffle was mainly dealt with months ago, down under. It helps that Deans has 3-4 other genuine contenders for flyhalf and the best scrum half in the world right now.
That quiet style could work well for the Wallabies who have a core of understated leaders throughout their team; Steven Moore, James Horwill, Ben Mowen, Will Genia, Berrick Barnes. None of them are exactly fire-breathers but they're strong characters in key positions through the spine of the team.
The Wallabies have a startling amount of versatility in their back division. Only Digby Ioane could considered a specialist. All the remaining named team from 10-15 play more than one position in the back line. Australia are in fact fielding 4 fullbacks, 4 wingers, 4 centres and 3 out-halves. In contrast only Jonathon Davies at 12 in the Lions three quarters could be considered to be playing outside his specialist position. And at that only one jersey in and in place of the injured specialist 12, Jamie Roberts.
BBC 5Live Rugby reported on Thursday night that debutant Christian Leali'ifano was only selected to start once Roberts was ruled out. The Wallabies are clearly more confident of defending Davies and selecting Leali'ifano at inside centre (who can also play 10) suggests that Australia are going to try to play ball. Not the meatiest pack in the world, they can play a fairly structured game under Deans and they are well attuned to competing with All Black and Springbok forwards.
At this juncture its hard to see a series whitewash. I'm leaning slightly towards an Australian series victory because of home advantage, a settled squad, more ways to play the game and an ability to eek out victories (see their series win over Wales last June). Having said all that I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised if the Lions pulled it off. There are intriguing battles across the side; O'Connell/Horwill the talismen locks, Philips/Genia the snipey scum halves and North/Folau the giant athletic wingers.
It's going to be tight and it is going to be thrilling.