What difference a few days make. At the beginning of the week this fixture was looking like another speed hump for the Lions. Now, with the injection of four front line Waratahs – two from the sevens camp (Foley, Lucas) and two from the Wallabies (Dennis, Horne) – it’s looking much more like a banana skin.
So here then, are the key matchups.
No bullshit: Cheika vs Gatland
Just about everyone in Australia saw or heard Michael Cheika yesterday. I saw him at Laffo’s Long Lunch he spoke with the no-nonsense confidence we’ve come to expect, and that has been embodied in the Waratah’s approach to the game this year.
Would he have picked his best side in Michael Foley’s position? Yes, even if they had to play a game the very next day.
What drove Ewen McKenzie’s game plan last weekend? The desire to do the opposite to Robbie Deans!
How will the Waratahs play on Saturday? The same way we’ve played all year.
For those of you who’ve missed that gameplan, it’s a super high tempo, multi phase, ball in hand approach that even the Crusaders couldn’t stick with in the first half of their clash a few weeks back. If there are questions about the Lions ability to live with such pace, they should be fully aired this weekend.
Watching the Force / Waratahs match last weekend showed that it’s not just the first XV that can play to this plan – Cheika and his assistants have embued it into the whole squad. Will it crack the Lions open, or run itself into a standstill?
The battle to avoid the breakdown: Dennis vs Heaslip
As discussed in a previous article, the Tahs attack pattern relies on pods of forwards smashing and recycling quickly in midfield. This pattern works best when Dave Dennis’ involvement rate is up and facilitating this quick recycle. It also puts him into the role of leading from the front, which has largely worked well for the Tahs this year.
As well as offering his wide channel running power in attack, the Lions 8 Jamie Heaslip will be doing his best to slow this ruck ball and turn it into the sort of shit-fight his Ireland team mate and ogre Paul O’Connell loves.
On the toe: Foley vs Sexton
Of the names added back to the Waratahs squad, this is the one made the biggest difference. A few English hacks confused him as some sort of Sevens ring-in, when in fact he’s been the starting 10 for NSW all season (having played 1,107 of the 1,120 minutes possible) and instrumental to their style of play.
Foley has run more metres (869) than any other fly-half in Super Rugby and his first instinct is to take on the line. Over the season his distribution and tactical kicking has improved and it will be intriguing to see whether he can take advantage of the space the Lions back-line defensive structure leaves behind their wingers, as discussed in our latest podcast (below).
Opposite him will be the Lions test choice five-eighth Jonathan Sexton. This man does have it all when it comes to his attacking game – an uncanny nose for space whether it’s with ball in hand or off the boot. What will be more interesting will be to see how he copes with Will Skelton rumbling down his channel, and of course Duncan McRae off the bench….
As Cheika himself said, these additions now give the Tahs a shot. Reality is though that they’re still a sub-par version of a super team that won’t even be making the finals this year. Expect the Lions firepower to be too much for the blues in the second half. But if they’re within touching distance on the donger, you just never know…..
1. Jeremy Tilse (Sydney University, vc)
2. John Ulugia (Eastern Suburbs)
3. Paddy Ryan (Sydney University)
4. Will Skelton (Sydney University)
5. Ollie Atkins (Sydney University)
6. Jed Holloway (Southern Districts)
7. Pat McCutcheon (Sydney University)
8. Dave Dennis (Sydney University, captain)
9. Brendan McKibbin (Eastern Suburbs)
10. Bernard Foley (Sydney University, vc)
11. Peter Betham (Sydney University)
12. Tom Carter (Sydney University)
13. Rob Horne (Southern Districts)
14. Cam Crawford (Northern Suburbs)
15. Drew Mitchell (Randwick)
16. Luke Holmes (Warringah)
17. Richard Aho (Randwick)*
18. Sam Talakai (Sydney University)**
19. Lopeti Timani (Southern Districts)
20. AJ Gilbert (Northern Suburbs)*
21. Matt Lucas (Manly)
22. Ben Volavola (Southern Districts)
23. Tom Kingston (Sydney University)
* Indicates players from outside the 35-man squad
** Indicates uncapped players
24. Liam Winton (Sydney University)*
25. Terrence Hepetema (Randwick)*
British & Irish Lions
1. Mako Vunipola (Saracens / England)
2. Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers / England)
3. Adam Jones (Ospreys / Wales)
4. Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys / Wales)
5. Paul O’Connell (Munster / Ireland)
6. Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers / England)
7. Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues / Wales, captain)
8. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster / Ireland)
9. Mike Phillips (Bayonne / Wales)
10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster / Ireland)
11. Simon Zebo (Munster / Ireland)
12. Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues / Wales)
13. Jonathan Davies (Scarlets / Wales)
14. Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors / Scotland)
15. Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues / Wales)
16. Richard Hibbard (Ospreys / Wales)
17. Alex Corbisiero (London Irish / England)
18. Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers / England)
19. Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers / England)
20. Dan Lydiate (Dragons / Wales)
21. Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers / England)
22. Owen Farrell (Saracens / England)
23. Rob Kearney (Leinster / Ireland)