Lions 2013: Experts explain how Australia can be beaten

 

A combined total of only three points has separated the Lions and Australia over the first two Tests.

Now it's onto the iconic ANZ Stadium  in Sydney for a titanic decider that promises to be just as tight.

We've asked a panel of experts to analyse what the Lions need to do to win the match and clinch their first series victory for 16 years.

Step forward Bath director of rugby Gary Gold, former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan, Northampton coach Alex King, Wasps head coach Dai Young and Bath head coach Mike Ford:

Style of play:

Australia have been true to their rugby roots in this series and where possible have tried to play expansively.

In contrast, the Lions have often struggled as an attacking force, particularly in the second Test.

Ford, the former defence coach for England and the 2005 Lions, said this is why Gatland has made six changes for Sydney.

Credentials of our expert panel:

Eddie O'Sullivan and Brian O'Driscoll
  • Eddie O'Sullivan (above, left): Won three Triple Crowns with Ireland
  • Dai Young: Only man to play for Lions in three separate decades - in 1989, 1997 & 2001
  • Mike Ford: Defence coach with Lions in 2005 and England in 2007 Rugby World Cup final
  • Gary Gold: Assistant coach for South Africa when they beat Lions in 2009
  • Alex King: Took Clermont Auvergne to 2013 Heineken Cup final

"The Lions need to score 25 points to win and have basically got a different side again. In an attacking sense the Lions play a very similar way to Wales.

"They go the same way until they reach the touchline and then come back through the backs. It's a simple game-plan. If they wanted to play a different game they needed to pick a different 12 [inside centre] - maybe Owen Farrell could have played there.

"But I think they play into the hands of the Aussies a little bit. They know what's coming; they just have to front up physically."

O'Sullivan, the Ireland head coach between 2001 and 2008, added: "There was talk of the Lions holding back stuff for the Tests - but to be honest everyone is still waiting to see it.

"The Lions have played to type all the way through. The plan seems to be to go after Australia physically. They want to dominate them into submission, build pressure by running hard lines and let Leigh Halfpenny kick the penalties."

But the full-time scoreboard on Saturday will not show marks for style and, for a pragmatist like Gatland, the scoreline is all that matters.

The O'Driscoll gamble:

Picking a Grand Slam-winning centre combination would ordinarily seem a good idea, but Gatland's decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll has bewildered many.

The Lions haven't seen the best of O'Driscoll as an attacker but O'Sullivan argues other areas of his game have been world class.

"He hasn't seen a lot of the ball," he said. "I think the centres have been starved by the type of game they're playing.

"But the other dimension that no-one else seems to be mentioning is his defending. Last weekend he made 12 tackles and missed none [in the first Test he made 13 and missed none].

Brian O'Driscoll

O'Driscoll: Will the Lions be vulnerable in defence without him in their ranks in Sydney?

"There's no doubt that Brian is the smartest defender in the 13 channel in the world. Jonathan Davies doesn't have that experience.

"He missed three tackles last week, including the crucial one for the Australia try, so I think the Lions are now defensively weaker."

Ford doesn't share O'Sullivan's view that the Wallabies will start finding gaps in Sydney though.

He said: "The defence Andy Farrell [Lions defence coach] is trying to achieve with the Lions is similar to the Wales defence. It's more of an 'up and in' defence and Davies will know it well."

An 'up and in' defence is often adopted in open play when the attacking team is close to the touchline and trying to work their way back in-field.

The second to last man in the defensive line is key. More often than not that man is the outside centre.

Ford explains: "The 13 will come up and in front of all the other defenders. So basically, if the opposition looked across their attacking line they would see a red shirt in among them.

"Australia's attacking threat is on the wings, so the system is designed to stop them getting the ball there. The Lions want to send them up the middle where their strong defenders are."

Ford added: "If you watched the Australians in Melbourne they were attacking from really deep because they were frightened of it. That's great to see for a defensive coach because your players then have more time to make decisions.

"You want them to try and come round you. What you don't want is for them to come up with plays that go through you. Australia should try and set up plays around the middle knowing that they can't go wide.

"I don't think they have quite worked out how to beat the defence in wide areas."

But the system is not perfect and with the right quality of ball Ford agrees that Australia's wide runners will create chances.

Ford added: "How quickly a team recycles the ball determines the defence that faces them. If they have front foot ball, it's very hard to organise an 'up and in' defence.

"If that happens the Lions might have to 'hold' or 'drift' or 'slide'. In those systems the inside man leads the defence, and they push the opposition towards the touchline."

Leadership:

O'Sullivan also highlights what O'Driscoll offers as a leader. In the absence of Sam Warburton and Paul O'Connell, the Irishman was widely tipped to lead the side out in Sydney.

Alun Wyn Jones

Wyn Jones "does not come close to O'Driscoll" when it comes to leadership, says Eddie O'Sullivan

The honour now falls to the Welsh second row Alun Wyn Jones and O'Sullivan argues: "If things get really tight, leadership could be a crucial factor and with the greatest of respect to Alun Wyn Jones he does not come close to O'Driscoll in that area.

"Brian's capacity to keep people calm under pressure and to make crucial decisions could be vital. James Horwill [Australia's captain] showed it last week when he opted for the scrum instead of the points [with 10 minutes to go and trailing by six points]."

Come in number 10:

Neither of the fly-halves - Australia's James O'Connor or the Lions' Jonny Sexton - have totally controlled a game yet.

Battle of the fly-halves

James O'Connor (Aus)

Jonny Sexton

(Lions)

Carries

17

13

Clean breaks

0

0

Defender beaten

3

2

Offloads

0

0

Tackles

12

10

Missed tackles

2

1

Passes

33

25

Kicks in play

6

16

Try assists

1

1

Source: Opta

King, the former Wasps and England fly-half who joins Northampton Saints this season following a successful playing and coaching spell in France with Clermont Auvergne, thinks Sexton has a point to prove.

He said: "He will probably be a little bit frustrated by his performance in the second Test. But the team lost some crucial set-piece ball so it is hard for a 10 to control the game when that happens.

"It's easy to target the nine and 10 but if people aren't doing their jobs around the half-backs it's very difficult. The team that holds their nerve in the last 10 minutes is going to win and I have got every confidence in Sexton.

"He is the best number 10 in Europe and has been for some time. And he's a proud man.

"If Gatland has questioned the team's game management he will want to prove this weekend that he's capable of delivering."

Kicking:

One of the defining images of this 2013 Lions tour will be the laser-like accuracy of Leigh Halfpenny's goal-kicking.

There is little doubt that kicking will once again be crucial in Sydney, but not just goal-kicking.

King added: "There are two principles in kicking. One is a kick to re-gather. That can either be a kick in behind or cross field or an up-and-under.

"The other option is to kick the ball long and turn a defence. The worst thing this Lions team can do is kick to the Wallabies back three [wingers and full-back] and give them opportunities to counter-attack because, as we have seen, the likes of Folau and [Kurtley] Beale can be very dangerous.

Christian Leali'ifano

Alex King is not convinced by the kicking technique of Australia's Christian Leali'ifano

"But the great thing about having a three-match Test series is that the teams can learn and develop. I will be very surprised if the Lions kick long into open field because they know they will get hurt."

And if it does come down to goalkicking? "We're in a strong position," said King.

"I know [Christian] Leali'ifano kicked all his goals last weekend - but if you look at the video they are all different heights, there's a different shape on the ball and they're all flying different distances.

"This weekend, when the pressure is really on, it will be interesting to see if his technique stands up. We know Leigh Halfpenny's will.

"His ball-striking is so true. There is such certainty on the flight of the ball and little margin for it go wrong.

"Neil Jenkins [Lions kicking coach] was obviously a similar sort of kicker. Jonny Wilkinson is the same.

"It's the way to go. If you get your body weight through the ball and keep your head down and your shoulders finish in the direction of the posts you're not going to miss many."

Breakdown:

Lions skipper Sam Warburton was outstanding in this area in the second Test, but is ruled out through injury. Meanwhile Australia have picked George Smith for his first Test since 2009 and he is one of the world's best technicians at the ruck.

Wasps head coach Young, who played for the Lions in 1989, 1997 and 2001, agrees Smith could be a problem.

"Obviously Australia have identified that Sam [Warburton] won the battle on the floor last weekend and there's not many as good as George Smith in that area," Young said.

Sam Warburton

Warburton: Outstanding at the breakdown in the second Test but will be missing in Sydney

"His game management is superb and he has an uncanny understanding of the game. He almost sees things two phases ahead of everyone else.

"The challenge for the Lions is to get Australia going backwards so Smith won't be as effective. And they have the back row to do that."

Gold, the director of rugby at Bath who was assistant coach for the Springboks during the 2009 Lions tour, agrees: "Sean O'Brien deserves his call-up.

"He has always been a handful when we [South Africa] have played against Ireland. But I think Deans picking Smith is a masterstroke."

Gold also admires the cuteness of the Wallabies, not least the way they capitalise on areas where the opposition think they are weak.

"It's all about rugby intelligence for the Australians and respectfully I think that is where Wales have come unstuck against them.

"If you take Australia's physicality lightly you will be punished. All of the guys in the front row have played more than 50 Test matches. In 2009, after we beat the Lions, they destroyed us.

"They get round the park really well, their line-out is good, they scrum well and they're clever at the breakdown - if you watch them they never commit too many [players to the ruck].

"Smith will have a go and [Stephen] Moore will have a go but the rest of the players are out, so you are always running at 12 defenders."

The breakdown is not just where scavenging forwards leave their mark. It is where the half-backs operate and the robust Mike Phillips will add a confrontational edge to matters when he renews his battle with the wonderful Will Genia.

Gold believes Andy Farrell [the Lions defence coach] will be "putting 60% of his time into stopping Genia".

He added: "From a defensive point of view he's a nightmare, especially for those three defenders around the breakdown because they will be the heavier, slower guys and when you have him running across the face of them they can't ignore him. He then either takes a gap, or puts people in a gap.

"The biggest thing for me is his decision-making. He runs when it's on, he doesn't snipe into a hole he can't get into and he kicks well and at the right time.

"He's George Gregan reincarnated. They just don't have a Larkham outside him at the moment."

Final verdict:

Gary Gold: "I actually think it's going to be a draw. The sporting gods have that in mind. I know that sounds like a complete fence-sitting decision."

Eddie O Sullivan: "I've been backing the Lions all the way because I think they have better players. But momentum is big. I think Australia will improve again and they will see some vulnerability in the Lions. Unfortunately, I think the Wallabies are going to get the job done."

Mike Ford: "Would I be surprised if the Lions won? No. I really hope we win - but I think the Wallabies have the momentum. For me Australia are favourites."

Alex King: "It will be tight - but I am going for a Lions win by between one to five points."