Test match time
The Lions lost their first match of the series against ACT Brumbies on Tuesday night, with a scratch team taking to the field and pretty much being played off the park by their Aussie counterparts. Although it would have been nice to sign off the warm up games with a win, this loss won’t particularly concern the Lions management and it was always going to be a tough game given how many injuries the Lions have had to contend with.
Attention now turns to the first test, and I thought I would spend one article selecting the first XV I believe will take to the field for the Lions in Brisbane.
With Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins forced to return home from the tour, it was always likely that Mako Vunipola would be the likely recipient of the 1 shirt, and I think it’s very difficult to look past him. The coaches may have slight concerns over his scrummaging, but given that his rivals Corbisiero and Grant haven’t exactly set the world alight, Vunipola’s ability in the loose will see him start at loosehead.
This is perhaps the most difficult position for the coaches to select, for the simple fact that none of the hookers are playing very well. Rory Best had a very disappointing game against the Brumbies and will miss out entirely, whilst it’s a toss up between Tom Youngs and Richard Hibbard for the starting jersey. I think it’s likely that the Welsh bias of Gatland will see him plump for the flowing blonde locks of Hibbard.
Despite the fact that Dan Cole is undoubtedly a good player, this one is no contest. The player starting at 3 will be Adam Jones. Cole will comfortably secure the bench spot, with Matt Stevens missing out.
Given that the lineout has been perhaps the worst aspect of the tour so far, Gatland will certainly want to put a couple of very capable lineout operators in the boiler room. I think that 2009 skipper Paul O’Connell has done enough, and following Alun-Wyn Jones standout performance against the Waratah’s, I think he’ll join the Irishman in the second row. I thought Richie Gray had a strong game against the Brumbies, and I’d stick him on the bench as an impact sub.
It certainly seems like a few players were wrapped in cotton wool ahead of the first test, and it definitely seems that the players not selected for the Brumbies 23 are likely contenders for starting spots when it comes to the first test. Once such player is Tom Croft who has looked good on tour so far. I think Croft is likely to start, although Lydiate is a Gatland favourite and could be a late surprise selection for the 6 shirt.
If we were selecting on form, the player in the 7 shirt would be Justin Tipuric, but given that he played 80 minutes against the Brumbies I think it’s fairly safe to assume that Tipuric will not be playing in the test, and most likely won’t even make the 23. This opens the way for captain Sam Warburton to start in his favourite openside berth, and even though I’m a fan of Warburton, I’m very disappointed in this. Tipuric is a player who can really spark a side, and he has earnt the right to start the tests.
Before the test began, most pundits were inking Toby Faletau into the test starting line up, but given that he too played 80 minutes against the Brumbies, it’s fairly clear that he won’t be a starter in Brisbane. Instead, it will be Jamie Heaslip lining up at the back of the scrum, and given how well he’s played, I think that’s a positive selection.
I think before the tour began we all knew who would be at 9, and nothing’s changed with Mike Phillips all but certain to be the starting scrumhalf. Given that Australia’s game revolves around the speed and brilliance of Will Genia, Gatland will want a scrum half who can exert himself physically against his opposite number, and Phillips more than fits the bill. Who acts as understudy for Phillips is a more difficult question, with both Murray and Youngs putting in some quality performances. My gut instinct is that they’ll go with Youngs as he can provide more of a contrast when he comes off the bench, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either.
I think this selection was clear from the opening game against the Barbarians. Whilst Owen Farrell has looked more assured since that game, the 10 shirt has always belonged to Jonny Sexton, and I fully expect to see him at stand off on Saturday. Farrell, rather than Hogg will be on the bench to cover 10 and centre.
Given the injury crisis, this is perhaps one of the most challenging selections. Tuilagi has not played much rugby, and it seems like he still isn’t fit, while Jamie Roberts has been ruled out of the first test. This situation seems to open the door for Jonathan Davies to partner Brian O’Driscoll, with the latter acting as the leader and outside centre. Davies has had a phenomenal tour, and in my mind, he would probably deserve the starting jersey even if Roberts was fit.
Injuries have made this selection quite a lot easier. Many believed that Tommy Bowe was a definite test starter, and his injury has opened the door for Alex Cuthbert to partner his Welsh colleague George North in the back three. Joining them will be Leigh Halfpenny, who is probably the first name on the team sheet and will kick the goals. I reckon that the bench cover on the back three may well be Simon Zebo.
So, the team in full:
Halfpenny, Cuthbert, O’Driscoll, Davies, North, Sexton, Phillips, Vunipola, Hibbard, Jones, AW. Jones, O’Connell, Croft, Warburton, Heaslip
Replacements: T.Youngs, Corbisiero, Cole, Gray, Lydiate, B.Youngs, Farrell, Zebo
Whilst it’s a shame that we’ve had so many injuries, I still think that that team retains enough quality to deal with the Wallabies, but I know it’s not going to be an easy game – the countdown has begun and I cannot wait!