Lions 2013: Australia's selection posers ahead of three-Test series

 

Call it a first taste of home advantage.

While Warren Gatland has already announced the 37 men hoping to gain a first British and Irish Lions series win in 16 years, his Australia counterpart Robbie Deans has an extra three weeks to decide upon the best men to oppose them.

Having weighed up Gatland's opening move, the Wallabies selectors will reveal their hand with an initial 25-man squad on 19 May.

Bob Dwyer coached Australia to World Cup glory in 1991, guided the New South Wales Waratahs against the Lions in 2001 and experienced rugby life north of the equator with spells in charge of Leicester and Bristol.

Here, he looks at some of the selection posers facing Deans and his colleagues ahead of the three-Test series which begins in Australia in June.

David Pocock's absence

The Lions forwards approaching the first breakdown of the series in Brisbane on 22 June will be relieved not to be confronted with the familiar sight of flanker David Pocock's broad torso clamped over the ball.

The 25-year-old open-side is one of the most stubborn, streetwise operators in the game, memorably infuriating South Africa in the Wallabies' backs-to-the-wall win in the 2011 World Cup, but has been ruled out with a serious knee injury.

Pocock injured his knee playing for the Brumbies in March

Pocock suffered a serious knee injury playing for the Brumbies in March

However, Dwyer believes that with 110-Test veteran George Smith impressing on a temporary deal with the Brumbies, the Waratahs' Michael Hooper ably deputising for Pocock during the autumn and Queensland's Liam Gill emerging from Super 15, the Lions would be wrong to think it is Australia's weak point.

"The three of them are world class without any doubt," he told BBC Sport.

"Pocock was not an especially good attacking player - most Australians got a shock if he ever passed the ball. I wouldn't think any of those players are a step down from him at all.

"Hooper is probably the best attacking player of the lot and, allied to that, he currently has the best work-rate of any Australia number seven by some distance.

"Smith is probably the most physical and the hardest to move over the top of the ball and is certainly the most experienced by a long way.

"He is probably the best guy under pressure; he just doesn't seem to get ruffled at all.

"One of the very well-respected newspaper columnists over here has suggested - if all things are equal - to start with George Smith and bring Hooper into the pitch later. That's a possibility."

Problems at 10?

Quade Cooper's surprising omission from a Wallabies planning get-together in April, coupled with previous apparent criticism of coach Deans' playing style,  raised the possibility that the mercurial fly-half could be sidelined for the series.

Lions down under 2013

  • Sat 1 June v Barbarians, Hong Kong
  • Wed 5 June v Western Force, Perth
  • Sat 8 June, Queensland Reds, Brisbane
  • Tue 11 June, Combined NSW-Queensland, Newcastle
  • Sat 15 June, NSW Waratahs, Sydney
  • Tue 18 June, ACT Brumbies, Canberra
  • Sat 22 June v Australia, Brisbane
  • Tue 25 June, v Melbourne Rebels, Melbourne
  • Sat 29 June, v Australia, Melbourne
  • Sat 6 July, v Australia, Sydney

However, the options behind Cooper are either inexperience at the top level - in the case of Christian Lealiifano - or in the number 10 shirt - in the case of versatile James O'Connor.

Dwyer believes Cooper should play against the Lions.

"He probably hasn't been at his most brilliant self this season, but I think there is more underlying strength to his game," said Dwyer.

"People think that he can't tackle, but I think, like a lot of brilliant fly-halves, it is not high on his list of priorities.

"It's whether he thinks that Quade fits the mix in the team, psychologically as much as physically, and Robbie sees him more closely than I do.

"Beyond Cooper we have not got any experienced world-class fly-halves.

" Bernard Foley at the Waratahs is playing well, but is two years away from playing for Australia.

"Christian Lealiifano has had a great season at inside centre and can play pretty well at fly-half - he is the only one who I could see who could do the job if it is not going to be Cooper."

Kurtley Beale's possible return

An ever-present for the Wallabies in 2012, Kurtley Beale went from Test probable to apparent international exile in a chaotic couple of weeks.

The 24-year-old was sent home from the Melbourne Rebels tour of South Africa and suspended indefinitely after coming to blows with team-mates, including former Gloucester and Wales number eight Gareth Delve, in late March. 

Rehabilitation for alcohol-related issues followed, but after a, presumably contrite, presentation to his team-mates Beale was included among the Rebels' replacement to face the Chiefs on Friday.

"At his best, there are not many better players; he does things on the field that are almost unimaginable," Dwyer said of Beale.

"Most other players couldn't do them because they are beyond the scope of their dreams.

"Who knows about the Lions? He still has maybe five or six weeks to get himself back together and he has been known to do that in the past.

"But I am thinking that although he is not out of the question, he is not in the question either."

Possible Test 'bolters'

The bolter is the player who comes from nowhere to claim a place in the series.

They have been a rare species in Warren Gatland's squad selection with the return of Matt Stevens, summoned from international retirement, the one genuine wildcard.

Might Australia chance their arm more freely?

"The Waratahs' Israel Falou is in his first ever season of rugby union after switching from rugby league and Aussie Rules football," said Dwyer.

"I had been a bit doubtful but in the last couple of weeks he has really played well and, if he keeps improving at that rate, he will give it a nudge either as winger or full-back.

Dec 2012: Wales 12-14 Australia - highlights

"He is very tall, extremely athletic and extremely good in the air with very good pace and reflexes.

"He can take an opportunity in the blink of an eyelid, with a run, change of direction or a pass.

" Joe Tomane, another league convert, has looked good on the wing for the Brumbies. He is big, strong and very quick. He has only played one Test so far but he'll be there or thereabouts.

If Wycliff Palu doesn't make it back to full fitness at number eight, then we will probably go to a newcomer in Ben Mowan, who is captain of the Brumbies and has been absolutely outstanding at Super Rugby level.

"He really keeps things under control and his discussions with the referee when playing for the Brumbies have been really good. He can add that maturity."

The captaincy issue

Second row James Horwill , who led the Wallabies to third place at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, returned from an 11-month lay-off in March and appears set to captain them for the Lions series.

"It probably looks like being Horwill, but I would like to see him handle the role with a little more circumspection," said Dwyer.

Nov 2012: England 14-20 Australia - Highlights

"For the Queensland Reds I don't think that he has always handled the negotiations with the referee nearly as well as I would have liked. He was more confrontational than I think you are entitled to be.

"If it is not Horwill, then we start to struggle. Will Genia could do the job but, from the outside at least, he has never shown no massive desire to do so.

"The Waratahs have tried Ben Alexander, who was OK but not terrific, Stephen Moore could probably do the job, but I don't really see any stand-outs."

Possible weaknesses

Bob Dwyer with Leicester

Dwyer went on to coach Leicester after winning the World Cup with Australia

So, what areas of the Australia team might Gatland and his team target?

"I would like to see a number eight and a blindside flanker in really good form because the Lions selection in those positions will not be easy with so many good players," said Dwyer.

"If Wycliff Palu can get back to tip-top form, that would be useful because he is such a big bruising guy who can wear down opposition defences.

"We have a few number sixes but none of them stand out as world class.

"I wouldn't like to see some of our first-choice players get injured either - if we lose James O'Connor we lose a bit of sheer brilliance and if Digby Ioane is not up to his best we lose a little of our attacking edge."

What hosting a visiting Lions side means

"A Lions team arriving is exciting, just because it doesn't happen very often," said Dwyer.

"It is a unique international team in bringing together a number of other national sides - there is no other team that does that.

"It has a certain sort of romance about it. I have been enthralled ever since watching the 1959 tourists practice as an 18-year-old and have been a massive admirer of them ever since.

"If there is pressure as hosts it is because Lions tours are so infrequent that it is a long time, beyond most player's individual careers, to square the account if you lose."