Australia v British & Irish Lions, Brisbane, June 22
Wallabies side an 'odd' mix
June 20, 2013
Berrick Barnes' kicking game will be crucial to the Wallabies' chances against the Lions © Getty Images
What a hodgepodge. Some safety-first selections. Numerous gambles. Several given onerous responsibilities in their first Test appearance, while better players are not involved.
Also adding to the doubts about the Wallabies line-up for the first Test match is that none of them have been sighted in battle for weeks.
Let's just say that the official announcement of the first Test team would not have prompted too many Wallabies supporters to run through the streets of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne screaming: "Eureka. Eureka … we've got this Test series won."
Why? Simply because the Wallabies line-up looks odd.
While the debate over whether Quade Cooper should be in the Test No. 10 jersey continues, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, who can be so stubborn, has stuck to his commitment of making James O'Connor his chief playmaker.
O'Connor won't be daunted by the responsibility, as there is no more self-confident performer in world rugby. But the big concern is whether he possesses the required kicking game, understanding of depth, or defensive capabilities to convince all that he is the country's premier playmaker.
He is a relative newcomer in the position, with Cooper, Berrick Barnes and Kurtley Beale all having stronger credentials for the position. And all these added responsibilities put upon O'Connor could have a bearing on whether he takes the goal kicks or not in Brisbane. Goal kicking will be critical as the Lions' Leigh Halfpenny is, in this area, a match winner.
As well, one cannot expect a new inner-back combination of Will Genia, O'Connor and Christian Lealiifano to immediately gel.
This Test series will be determined up front, and most crucially at the breakdown. All this Test team announcement confirms is how much of a loss Scott Higginbotham, George Smith and David Pocock will be during this series.
For his first Test, Brumbies captain Ben Mowen has been placed directly under the griller. The new Wallabies blindside flanker will have no time to initiate himself to the far more overwhelming demands of international football because the Lions marauders will be coming from everywhere. Apart from a Bledisloe Cup decider, a newcomer could not ask for a more onerous first Test than confronting the Lions. This is the make or break moment for Mowen.
Mowen will be hoping that Wycliff Palu can show he is not in the final days of his international career. Palu's performances for the Waratahs this season have - at best - been fair to middling, and he can disappear in big Test matches. Palu's level of performance will be crucial in determining which way the Brisbane international goes.
At least you know Michael Hooper will be venomous and alert. So too Liam Gill, who will play off the bench. There is even the possibility of Hooper and Gill working in tandem during the second half.
Overall, the Wallabies boast a reasonable, rather than remarkable, back row. And this is the Test series where you need a remarkable back row. Not helping is that Hugh McMeniman has been overlooked for the bench. A bit of McMeniman menace would be very handy late in a Test match.
The other novices in the team - Lealiifano and winger Israel Folau - are bound to be targeted. It is known the Lions consider Folau susceptible to pressure, which is a bit surprising considering his background in high-level rugby league. But the Lions believe that, as was shown in his early matches with the Waratahs this season, his sometimes wonky defensive alignment can be exposed. So expect a great deal of the Lions attacking play directed towards Folau's wing.
While the choice of Barnes at fullback will irritate some, there are justifiable reasons for him being there. As the Wallabies are bound to play a territorial game similar to what the Brumbies have used all year and what Deans was accustomed to during his long reign at the Crusaders, the Wallabies need a reliable midfield kicker in their back three.
Ioane doesn't kick. Folau has only kicked occasionally for the Waratahs this season, and so Barnes will be required all game to boot the Wallabies well away from their own try line. Barnes will basically be the steadying influence, along with Adam Ashley-Cooper in an otherwise questionable backline.
One certainty is that the Wallabies third Test team will be different to what runs out onto Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand