British & Irish Lions 2013
Lions salivating over weak Wallabies forwards
April 9, 2013
George Smith is the only forward that would have the Lions worried and he may not be eligible © Getty Images
A few years ago, the Wallabies were on a flight from Italy to London for the next leg of their end-of-season northern hemisphere tour. Everyone was relaxed, until the airline stewards started handing around copies of the London Sunday papers. As there was nothing better to do numerous Wallabies, chuffed by their grim win over Italy the previous afternoon, hurtled their way towards the sports section to find out what the UK doyens thought about them. They soon found out … not much.
In each paper, former England and Welsh Test forwards, as well as some of the most caustic rugby commentators going around were ripping into them. They were soft. The Wallabies forwards were a bunch of pillows. Scrummaging was a word that had apparently been erased from the Australian rugby dictionary. For them mauling was nothing more than spoiling. They were feeble inferiors to their northern rivals. All over the plane, heads dropped. A collective groan echoed down the aisle.
Then again this was nothing new. The Wallabies forwards had for years grown accustomed to being laughed at - not just by the northern hemisphere foes but also their Tri Nations rivals. No matter what they did, how manipulative they became, how many tight heads they achieved, their scrum was still regarded as a joke.
The Wallabies pack has constantly used this smear as a motivator, and at times it has worked. Under the command of John Connolly, Michael Foley and Robbie Deans, the Wallabies have at least worked harder in ensuring that the level of mongrel in the forward pack had improved. For some time, it has been a prime focus. The hard work has been done. Whether enough has been done to ensure that the Wallabies are not swept away by what is certain to be a highly physical, combative and large British and Irish Lions squad in two months involves an enormous question mark.
Northern hemisphere teams - in particular Ireland, Wales and even Italy - have discovered that not just up front but all over the park, if you adopt an 'in your face' attitude when playing the Wallabies, it can dramatically improve your chances. A confrontational approach can destabilise and disorientate certain Wallabies performers.
Warren Gatland, a long time observer of Australian rugby via either New Zealand or from Europe, is well aware of that, and will ensure that when he selects his Lions squad he goes for those with bulk and aggression.
So expect a large touring pack, a gargantuan scrum and a big midfield. And in these categories he has plenty of candidates to choose from. England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland all have their forward monsters. Even at scrumhalf he is able to select a giant in Welshman Mike Phillips.
Gatland would have also gained a great deal of confidence from watching several recent Super Rugby matches involving Australian teams, in particular the ACT Brumbies. As the Brumbies are the Australian conference front-runners, it was assumed that Deans would start looking at several of their forwards to be the mainstays of his Test pack. But that thought would now be wavering, with the Brumbies struggling to counter the physical approach of several South African teams.
While a dubious refereeing decision allowed them to beat the Bulls the previous week, there were wobbly moments up front. Last weekend, the Southern Kings, who were supposed to be no chance of getting anywhere near winning a game this season, achieved a mighty draw in Canberra, primarily because they frightened the Brumbies up front. The Kings' successful use of the driving maul and formidable scrummaging fragmented and exposed several Brumbies forwards. Due to that a rejigged ACT backline was forever scrambling.
While other Australian teams have been reasonable up front, none can be described as a forward powerhouse. There isn't exactly a bevy of Wallaby hard nuts currently primed for battle.
And due to that, the Wallabies selectors would have absolutely no idea who will be in their Test pack. No lock has put up his hand, and the form of the tight five fluctuates with the breeze. The only back rower showing any consistency is George Smith, and there remains uncertainty whether he will actually be eligible for the Lions series.
Gatland and his Lions cohorts will be loving this.
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand