Lions And Wallabies Renew Hostilities

Image courtesy of abc.net.au/David Rogers/Getty Images
Mike Phillips will be a constant menace to Australia from the back of the scrum. Image courtesy of abc.net.au/David Rogers/Getty Images
After a handful of warm-up games, the British and Irish Lions get down to serious business on Saturday with the first Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane. Despite a 2-1 series loss last time around, the Lions started the 2001 series in fine fashion with a dominating 29-13 win at the ‘Gabba in the opening encounter with Australia.

In 2001, the Lions beat the Waratahs 41-24 in the last lead-up match played by the Lions’ top squad prior to the Test series, and there was a similar result in last Saturday’s tune-up against New South Wales with the tourists winning easily 47-17 . The two-point loss to the Brumbies midweek with a patched together second squad will mean absolutely nothing when the teams run out on to the field on Saturday night.

As expected, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans named James O’Connor at fly-half, but opted for Berrick Barnes at fullback instead of Kurtley Beale, who has been very light on for game time due mainly to issues arising from various incidents throughout the year. The Waratahs and, in particular, the Reds, have stretched the Lions’ defence at times, and the selection of Christian Leali’ifano at inside centre. The absence of Welsh bulldozer James Roberts means the Brumbies utility will be defending someone more his size in the form of ageing Irish magician Brian O’Driscoll Former league star Israel Folau will undergo a baptism of fire at Test level starting on the wing, even though he has been playing in the No. 15 jersey for the ‘Tahs in Super Rugby.

O’Connor has started just one Test at fly-half for Australia. That was at the end of 2011 when he and Will Genia started in the halves as the Wallabies accounted for Wales 24-18 at Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. The 22-year-old has been the Melbourne Rebels’ chief playmaker this season, but he still lack genuine experience in the role at international level.

The breakdown will be crucial, especially if the Lions play tightly, as expected. With Australia’s best ball pilferer David Pocock out injured, plenty of pressure falls on rising star Michael Hooper. The youngster proved on the Northern Hemisphere tour in 2012 that he is a first-class scavenger, and his battle with Sam Warburton could well go a long way to deciding the match. He’s joined in the back-row by Wycliff Palu, who has overcome a knee complaint, while Ben Mowen makes his debut as blindside flanker.

As expected, Lions and Wales coach Warren Gatland named eight of his Six Nations-winning team to start, including five in the backline. It’s a decision unlikely to concern the Australians given the Wallabies have won their last six Tests against Wales. Alongside O’Driscoll, Jonathan Sexton is the only other backline player who doesn’t wear the Red Dragons badge.

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