The final-Test debate
- 02 Jul 2013
We asked senior sports writer RYAN VREDE and HSM sports editorial director GARY LEMKE: Who will win the final Test of the series between the Wallabies and the British & Irish Lions?
For a significant amount of time in the second Test, the Lions looked by far the better, more organised side. Their potency at the gainline on defence was particularly impressive and blunted the Wallabies' attack. The hosts weren't able to get the territory they needed to build pressure and the Lions appeared to be well in control of the match. Then their conditioning came into question and mistakes started to creep into their play, allowing their opponents a route back into the contest, which they duly took.
The momentum is with Australia and they'll reflect on the contest with more encouragement than disappointment. Their errors are completely remediable. The biggest of these was their poor ball-protection in contact and at the breakdown, which undermined their cause significantly. This is easily fixed and when it is, I can see Australia troubling the Lions' unfamiliar combinations.
The Wallabies have problems at flyhalf, with James O'Connor failing to impress in the two Tests he has started, but reports from Australia suggest that coach Robbie Deans will stick with him. I think it's the right call. O'Connor is a prodigious talent and will rise to the occasion.
The forward battle will be central to the result and there was enough in the Wallabies heavies' effort to stir optimism that they'll win this crucial facet of play (general and set phase). Furthermore, in Christian Lealiifano they have a goal-kicker to challenge the impressive Leigh Halfpenny's accuracy.
The loss of Sam Warburton is a massive blow for the tourists. The Lions' skipper was a force at the breakdown, consistently slowing the recycle or turning over ball. He is also a very competent lineout target, a powerful strike runner and brutal defender. He also strikes one as an inspirational leader, one that has the respect of the entire group. With former captain Paul O'Connell also absent through injury, there is a worrying leadership void and in a Test of this magnitude, that could be decisive.
You'd think the dice is loaded in favour of Australia. They could have nicked the first Test had Kurtley Beale not slipped while attempting the decisive penalty and then levelled the series with a performance that should have seen them win by more than the one point.
Going into the final Test with the series level at 1-1, Australia have the momentum and a nation behind them. They also have a new prime minister, where Kevin Rudd returned to lead the Labor Party after securing a leadership ballot over the Welsh-born Julia Gillard. So, even in politics, Australia beat Wales.
Throw in the fact that the inspirational Welshman – and British & Irish Lions captain no less – Sam Warburton has been ruled out of the encounter and the planets are aligned for the Wallabies.
However, the decision to have French referee Romain Poite in the middle, instead of South Africa's Craig Joubert or New Zealand's Chris Pollock, could prove significant.
The French love an arm-wrestle in the scrums and last weekend Joubert's interpretation at the set piece caused consternation in the Lions camp. They feel they have the better tight five and the ascendancy at scrum time. It might be only a small part of the game, but in a close series such as this one, where only one point separates the two teams on aggregate after two Tests, the referee's law interpretations will be significant.
Neither team will be lacking for motivation but the Lions might be more desperate. They have not won a series since 1997 when they beat South Africa and the next tour will be in New Zealand, where they've only won one series in 11 – and that was 42 years ago. Ultimately, the fate of the series could come down to who makes the fewest mistakes and who slots their penalties. Leigh Halfpenny is the best dead-ball kicker on the field and with a French referee, the Lions might just see themselves getting more pots at goal than Australia and that could be the difference.
Photos: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images/David Rogers/Getty Images
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