John Taylor Column
Phoney war is almost over
June 17, 2013
Will the tackle area decide the Test series between the Lions and the Wallabies? © Getty Images
Suddenly, it is game on - the experiments are over, we are beginning to see the shape of the team for the first Test and the dirty tricks have started.
Precisely on cue, a week before the series opener there is a story planted in a newspaper designed to try to influence the referee against the visitors. Bob Dwyer's accusations of cheating at scrum and breakdown (in Australia they love to use a respected former coach) were entirely predictable because these are the areas where the Wallabies know they are likely to lose out and perhaps lose the series as a consequence.
I have no doubts they came directly from the Wallaby camp but they are likely to be counter-productive because they highlight the areas where the Wallabies have problems. Every Australian pack so far has crumpled when the Lions put on the pressure and the assertion that the Lions front-row push upwards deliberately defies logic. Why would you go up when you are motoring forward?
They are also now concerned about the back-row. David Pocock and Scott Higginbotham are both major losses so, in an area where they had reasonable expectations of having an advantage, they are worried about arriving that split second too late - I am not alone in believing this series could well be decided by who can steal most ball after the tackle. Dwyer's final barb - that the Lions are obstructing every time they pass to a man running deep behind the front line - is laughable. This is the play that Australia pioneered and referees are well aware they have to tread a fine line - the Waratahs actually got away with murder.
I was a touch surprised Dwyer was the spokesman because I spent quite a bit of time with him last week and he seemed much more concerned about the way the Wallabies have prepared. His misgivings centre on the lack of match fitness because they have been wrapped in cotton wool at their training camp.
He was arguing there is a danger it will be the Wallabies not the Lions who will be going into the first Test 'undercooked' so players should have been released for the provincial matches - sure there is a risk of injury but, because you just cannot replicate match contact in practice, it is a risk worth taking.
Enough of the Wallabies' problems; it has been another difficult week for the Lions. The latest bulletin seems to indicate that Brian O'Driscoll and George North will probably be fit which is great news but the spate of injuries has been quite incredible and the news that Shane Williams is joining the squad for one match and will then leave again has made a few old Lions shake their heads out here.
There was a time when you were only allowed to have 30 players in the squad at any one time. That is obviously long gone but we are already up to 45 on this trip and who knows where we'll be by the end of the tour.
Assuming they are fit it looks as if we know the shape of the back division for Saturday - Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Brian O'Driscoll, Jonathan Davies with Alex Cuthbert or Simon Zebo on the right (if Christian Wade has an absolute blinder against the Brumbies he could force himself into the mix but I think he will be deemed too much of a risk in defence, that is why I am also ruling out Sean Maitland) with Johnny Sexton and Mike Phillips at half-back.
Things are not so clear-cut in the forwards. Mako Vunipola has looked surprisingly solid in the scrums since stepping-up to replace the injured Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy and is still making an impact in the loose but if Alex Corbisiero comes off the bench against the Brumbies and scrummages really impressively again he could start - depends on Warren Gatland's and Graham Rowntree's priorities. The same is true at Hooker; Richard Hibbard's extra weight could put him in front of Tom Youngs.
Adam Jones will start at tight-head and superlative displays from Alun Wyn Jones (I have never seen him play better) and Paul O'Connell against the Waratahs sealed their places if there was ever any doubt.
Sam Warburton and Tom Croft also did enough to persuade me they will be the flankers but I think Gatland could be persuaded to go with Toby Faletau instead of Jamie Heaslip if he has a stormer tomorrow evening. I had Heaslip ahead but I thought he was disappointing against the Waratahs where he slid off a few tackles.
Gatland cannot afford injuries to any more key players which is why he has chucked all the new additions in against the Brumbies even though they have had no time together - I just hope they can keep the momentum with a good win but it may not be easy - the Brumbies are the top Australian Super Rugby team.
Whatever happens we shall know the best or worst on Wednesday. There will be a few fingers crossed about injuries but the phoney war is almost over and I think the players and management are now ready and looking forward to the real thing.
Did former Australia boss Bob Dwyer's claims emanate from the Wallabies camp? © PA Photos
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John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist
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