I don’t think there are too many surprises in the Wallabies and Lions team selections.
Of the 23 Lions players I predicted the week before the tour began in my Lions series, four are unavailable due to injury – Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins, Jamie Roberts and Tommy Bowe. Of the 19 remaining I predicted 17 so tour form has, in my opinion, reinforced positions for the Lions rather than thrown up too many bolters.
The two I missed with my Lions predictions were:
- Richie Gray who misses out on the squad for Geoff Parling – no surprise there as Parling has been much better than Gray on tour;
- Justin Tipuric who misses out on the bench spot to Dan Lydiate – I am surprised with this because Tipuric has been really good on tour and I thought the Lions would want to finish matches with two open sides but Lydiate adds more power so the Lions will obviously try to finish with strength as opposed to speed.
In terms of the starting team I correctly predicted 10 of the 12 that are not injured. The two I got wrong were Richie Gray and Richard Hibbard who I had expected to start at hooker ahead of Tom Youngs. This suggests the Lions preferred Youngs’ mobility and work rate to Hibbard’s size to start the match.
Of the 23 Wallabies players I predicted at the same time, two are out injured – Sitaleki Timani and Scott Higginbotham. Of the remaining 21 I predicted 19 (including my choice of Nick Cummins only if Digby Ioane wasn’t fit).
The two I missed with my Wallabies predictions were:
- Dave Dennis who misses out to Rob Simmons. I think the Wallabies are taking a gamble by selecting an out and out lock on the bench, particularly given Wycliff Paul’s knee troubles. Having said that, given what’s transpired since I wrote those articles I would have nominated Peter Kimlin over Dennis as the bench player offering the backrow / lock flexibility anyway;
- Luke Burgess who didn’t ever get a look in over Nick Phipps. I was very surprised when Burgess wasn’t named in the squad. I was never happy with the idea that a player could gain selection in the squad having just arrived from overseas so I’m happy I was proven wrong in this instance. I would have been much happier if Nic White had been named in the original squad and so had not damaged his shoulder playing for the Brumbies but given that he wasn’t available for selection, I’m happy it was Phipps over Burgess.
In terms of the starting team I correctly predicted 11 of the 13 that are not injured (again including my choice of Nick Cummins only if Digby Ioane wasn’t fit). The two I got wrong were Pat McCabe who I had expected to start at #12 and the other was Kurtley Beale who I thought would start at #15. I’m pleased I was wrong about both of those as I didn’t think either player should start even though I thought Robbie Deans would.
The injuries to both squads have had a major impact but which team has suffered the most?
I think the loss of Cian Healy and Jamie Roberts has the major impact for the Lions.
With Healy starting at loosehead I think the Lions would have dominated at scrum time. With Gethin Jenkins also ruled out the Lions have gone with Alex Corbisiero, who didn’t even make the initial touring party. The fact that he has won the starting position over Mako Vunipola suggests that the Lions were concerned about Vunipola’s scrummaging and they still want to target the Wallabies in that area. With the loss of Healy and Jenkins I don’t think the Wallabies scrum will be under anywhere near the pressure I had feared.
With Roberts starting at #12 in combination with Brian O’Driscoll at #13, I think we would have seen a lot of Roberts running the ball straight at James O’Connor and Christian Lealiifano to get the Lions going forward and lay a platform for their outside backs whereas with Jonathon Davies starting at #12 I expect we’ll see a much more diverse approach to the Lions attack. Roberts’ form has been solid on tour without being spectacular whereas Davies has been really good so I actually think the Lions are more dangerous as a result of this change.
The impact of the loss of Scott Higginbotham and Sitaleki Timani on the Wallabies is both a curse and a blessing for the team.
Higginbotham would have been the starting #6 for the Wallabies as far as I was concerned and his aggression would have been a major boost for the Wallabies. His form over the last couple of months for the Rebels had been fantastic – Hugh McMeniman is the only player in the Wallabies squad who can offer something similar so Higginbotham is a real loss and could have the most impact for either team.
The loss of Timani, whilst terrible for the player himself, has improved the Wallabies pack in my opinion. The inclusion of Kane Douglas offers a much better option in the lineout and more impact around the field. There is no loss of impact from this selection at scrum time.
So, overall I think the Wallabies prospects are better than they would have been without the injuries to both squads.
What about the tactics of both sides – have they changed since I wrote my original Lions series previews?
Despite being beaten by the Brumbies earlier this week I don’t expect to see much change in the Lions test game plan with the exception that Roberts won’t be crashing the ball up to start many of their attacks. They will be a very different proposition to what we saw against the Brumbies.
I speculated that the Wallabies would play a conservative game trying to eliminate risks and aim to grind out a win. We have been hearing this week that the Wallabies are looking to play an expansive game and the selection of Christian Lealiifano supports this but the selection of Berrick Barnes at fullback doesn’t as his inclusion likely means that his kicking may be a central feature. I hope I was wrong with my original prediction – I hope the Wallabies do try to attack the edges as I believe it’s their best chance.
Fortunately the time for talk and speculation is nearly over. I can’t wait for Saturday night – good luck to the Wallabies – wouldn’t it be great to see the Lions knocked off twice in one week.