British and Irish Lions vs. Australia: 5 Key Battles to Watch in the 1st Test
The speculating is finished, the talking is done and on Saturday night in Brisbane the British and Irish Lions will meet Australia in the first of a three test series.
The Lions will be looking to end a run of defeats against the Southern Hemisphere nations that goes all the way back to 1997, while Australia will be looking to repeat their 2001 success.
Both teams have named the sides that many expected they would, but with a surprise or two in both lineups.
The Lions team is very close to the unit that took on the Waratahs a week ago, while Australia have handed out three debuts in a side trying to overcome injuries to key men.
It should be a rip-roaring affair in Brisbane, with both sides knowing that while you can't win a series in the first test, you can certainly lose one.
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It says a lot about the strength in depth the Wallabies in the backrow that they have weathered the loss of two key men, David Pocock and Scott Higginbotham, and still see this as an area they can dominate.
Michael Hooper is the man tasked with stepping into the shoes of Pocock, and while he's not quite as dominant a scavenger he is a much more rounded player. His primary focus will be to get the better of the Lions at the breakdown, but he is no one-trick pony.
He will be assisted by Ben Mowen, making his Wallabies debut, a player who thrives on doing the basics and getting the best out of the stars alongside him in the backrow.
At the base of the scrum is Wycliff Palu, a dynamic, powerful No. 8 when manages to stay on the field. There are already clouds forming regarding his fitness, so he may yet miss out.
The key man in the Lions backrow will be captain Sam Warburton. He's still finding fitness and his best form, but there will be no room for easing into the game on Saturday. His focus will have to be on the breakdown as the Wallabies will target that as a key battleground.
Tom Croft has been selected on the blind side, primarily for his work at the lineout, but I feel he will leave Warburton too exposed. He is devastating when he gets space out wide but will need to stay in close and graft with his colleagues in the backrow on Saturday.
At No. 8, Jamie Heaslip has edged out Toby Faletau, perhaps because he is more accustomed to doing the grunt work in contact. With Warburton prowling the breakdown and Croft loitering out wide, Heaslip will need to hit lots of rucks and carry lots of slow ball in close.
Point of Contact
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A key part of the Wales' game plan in recent years has been the ability of Jamie Roberts to smash holes in the 12 channel, providing quick ball and creating space out wide.
At 6'5" and almost 18 stone he is a human wrecking ball, and his loss will be keenly felt on Saturday, especially since his natural replacement, Manu Tuilagi, is also out injured.
These injuries have forced the Lions into rejigging the back line with the in-form Jon Davies moving from his favoured position at 13 inside one slot to 12.
While at 6'1", 16 stone, he's no shrinking violet, he is not a natural power runner. He's at his best playing off a target man in midfield.
The fact that the Wallabies have picked James O'Connor at 10 and Christian Lealiifano at 12 would have played into the Lions hands, as neither are renowned for their defence.
Because of the Wallabies selection, and the loss of Roberts, I expect to see lots of George North and Alex Cuthbert coming off their wings.
They will need to hit the line at pace, taking short passes off Jonny Sexton and crashing down the Australian's inside channel.
If they can do damage and secure quick balls, the Lions will be in pole position, but if the Wallabies can shut down this channel, the Lions will have a difficult time creating space.
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By picking Berrick Barnes, Lealiifano and O'Connor, the Wallabies sprung a bit of a surprise as all three are natural first five-eights.
It gives us a insight into how the Wallabies plan on approaching the game, placing a emphasis on a good kicking game and lots of variation in attack.
While all three are good kickers, none are kick-first players and all can cause huge problems with ball in hand.
I expect the trio to switch position at will, causing huge confusion in the Lions defence and varying hugely their running and kicking games.
The kicking duel is one area the Wallabies have a huge advantage. They will look to put the ball in behind the giant Lions wingers, forcing them to turn and play their way out of defence.
North, and particularly Cuthbert, aren't the greatest when the ball is put in behind them and neither are strong kickers or fielders.
The other area the Wallabies will target is the cross-field kick to Israel Folau. At 6'5" and with a background in AFL, he is a phenomenal high fielder. He will cause massive problems if the ball gets send his way in the air.
The Lions have only selected one natural kicker in their back line, Sexton, so huge pressure will be place on his game management. His kicking can be very loose on occasion, and this could be very dangerous against the potent counterattack of the Wallabies.
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The set piece duel will be a very interesting one as both sides have targeted attacking one aspect, and hoping for parity in the other. Whichever side achieves this will likely win the test.
The Lions have been targeting the scrum for months, and despite the injuries to Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy setting their plans back, they have stayed true to their plan by selecting Alex Corbisiero.
It's a cruel blow to Mako Vunipola, who as done as much as any player to earn selection, but Corbisiero is a powerful scrummager who must have showed something in training to force his way into the team.
The first scrum will be huge, so pay close attention. The Lions will go on all-out assault, but the referee's interpretation will be key.
I was surprised they picked Tom Youngs if they are targeting the scrum, but Adam Jones has been singing his praises, and his selection might have one eye on the Lions second set piece goal: lineout parity.
The lineout has wobbled horribly on this tour, with Rory Best doing his best to justify the decision to leave him at home and Richard Hibbard only slightly better.
The Wallabies have always been great lineout technicians, and you can be sure they have spent countless hours in camp focusing on attacking the Lions lineout.
Because of his inexperience, they will go after Youngs from the off, hoping to get under his skin. The Lions should keep it simple for the first 20 minutes, going for high-percentage throws to the front of the lineout.
And then, once Youngs is in rhythm and the Wallaby attack has been cooled, start hitting Croft off the back for quick ball.
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Another area where Australia have a big advantage is on the bench where they have three or four game changers where the Lions, struggling with injuries, are lacking someone capable of making a difference.
In troubled Kurtley Beale they have a player who, on his day, is good enough to warrant a place in any side in world rugby.
The big question is how close is he to match fitness and top form given he has played just one game, at Sydney club level, in the past couple of months.
Given they have three capable 10s on the bench, Australia has the luxury of picking Pat McCabe on the bench. If the Lealiifano experiment fails, he provides a power running alternative who will shut down the inside channel defensively.
The respective bench replacements are both pretty solid units, with Dan Cole and James Slipper two of the highest-rated young props in world rugby.
In the backrow, the Wallabies have the hugely talented Lian Gil who, if introduced, will free up Michael Hooper to showcase his attacking abilities. Gil is a potent scavenger who has gone from strength to strength in the past 18 months.
The Lions made the surprising selection of Dan Lydiate, a Warren Gatland favourite, to provide backrow cover. I just don't see him as an impact player off the bench and would've started him with Croft on the bench or picked Sean O'Brien on the bench. Lydiate is a closer, at his best shutting down the opposition.
Speaking of closers, the Lions have also chosen Owen Farrell who, like Lydiate, will be great to spring off the bench if the Lions get a lead but not someone who will lead a fightback if the Lions find themselves chasing the scoreboard.
The one game changer in the Lions bench is the dynamic Ben Youngs. His pace and distribution will totally change the Lions shape if he is sprung from the bench.
The other surprising selection is Sean Maitland who has looked poor in his appearances on tour thus far. Is this a move to appease the Scot's as he is the sole Scottish representative? The Lions would've been better served having Rob Kearney as an option to counter Folau's aerial threat or Simon Zebo to provide some spark.