In the first of his blogs from the British and Irish Lions tour in Australia, Ciaran Baynes finds a Wallabies side full of flaws.
As the Lions landed on Australian soil on Monday they found their Test opponents uncertain over the fly-half position, with at least four of the first XV out injured, a key back just out of alcohol treatment and a coach few of the rugby public are fully behind.
Although Warren Gatland copped criticism from Clive Woodward for the pre-tour sojourn in Hong Kong (something Alastair Campbell may have been helpful spinning for him), the Lions coach will be far happier with how his side is shaping up than his counterpart.
Former All Black Robbie ‘Dingo’ Deans has never been a popular Wallabies leader and despite six wins and a draw (against New Zealand) in their last eight matches, no one seems convinced by him or his tactics. Defeat in the first Test in Brisbane on June 22 will see a deluge of criticism come his way.
If only the public was his only problem. Severely hamstrung by the loss of David Pocock two months ago, the next best flanker Scott Higginbotham joined him on the sidelines this week, as did likely replacement, veteran George Smith. Winger Digby Ioane and lock Sitaleki Timani are also out.
As good as young flankers Michael Hooper and Liam Gill are, the Lions will feel they have a real advantage in the back row, even in the unlikely event skipper Sam Warburton does not recover from his knee scare to make the first Test.
Behind the pack is where most commotion is though. The most natural and devastating ten is the mercurial Quade Cooper whose partnership with Wallabies scrum-half Will Genia was the key to the Queensland Reds winning the 2011 Super Rugby title.
Deans is sceptical over Cooper - not least after he called the team environment “toxic” last year - and did not name him in his provisional squad of 25. He will have felt vindicated when the Reds’ number ten twice saw kicks charged down inside his own 22 run in for tries at the weekend.
That said, Cooper recovered in the second half to run in the crucial try against the Melbourne Rebels and outplay likely fly-half starter James O’Connor - who such a luminary as former great Mark Ella does not believe has the experience to play the position given he has played just one Test there.
The other options are the usually solid Berrick Barnes who - after being demoted to the bench - cost the Waratahs victory on Friday by missing a late shot at goal and Kurtley Beale. The latter with Cooper and Ioane out would provide much-needed flair, but only returned to training with the Wallabies this week after a second stint in alcohol treatment in the last month following an assault on a team-mate on an away trip.
With six spots remaining up for grabs, Cooper has one last chance to prove to Deans he should be in the squad this Saturday when the Reds face the Lions in front of a full house at Suncorp Stadium, the first Test venue.
Although likely a forlorn hope, he has the press wishing and waiting for the chance to trumpet his case.
With the Reds currently the biggest live draw of any club in either rugby code in Australia, the match will likely be the only non-Test with a genuine home and away feel.
First up though is the Western Force on Wednesday. Perennial the fifth (and worst) Australian side and with their eyes on a Super Rugby game four days’ later, despite promises to leave the Lions “bruised”, they will not be much more competitive against the Irish-themed opposition, than the Barbarians were on Saturday.
And it will scarcely cause a splash on the Australian sporting landscape, coinciding as it does with the first of three rugby league State of Origin matches between New South Wales and Queensland in Sydney, which rival the AFL grand final for the biggest sporting tv audiences in most calendar years.
So the tour will start in earnest on Saturday and with Reds boss (and likely next Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie) promising to give Cooper carte blanche to throw everything at the Lions, a fascinating contest lies ahead.
And if things get tasty, Owen Farrell did prove against Schalk Brits he has a better chin than the Reds fly half’s opponent in his recent professional boxing bout.
- Sports & Recreation