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Israel Folau match winner or weak link?

Robbie Deans has picked an Australian side that looks potentially very exciting and dangerous.

With James O’Connor at fly half and debutants Christian Leali’ifano and Israel Folau at inside centre and right wing respectively, it is certainly a team with a lot of attacking potential.

Folau is surely one of the most gifted Australian sportsmen alive. He was a Rugby League superstar, making his international debut at eighteen, he then switched codes to play Aussie Rules, before switching to Rugby Union where at the still tender age of twenty-three and just ten Super Rugby appearances, he will make his international debut.

It reads like a tale of a man who is brilliant at whatever he turns his hand to, and to an extent that is true, however from the Lions point of view that great strength could be his greatest weakness.

His parachuting into the side on Saturday is due to his instinctive and sublime attacking prowess, however what is not instinctive to him is the intricacies of that Union involves. Those intricacies are something that cannot be fully acquired in his short time in the sport. In short, he is inexperienced at every level.

The Lions are sure to Test his defensive capabilities, something with has been exposed at times in his short career as a weakness, they will send George North charging at him and will use Brian O’Driscoll’s subtle handling and running lines to try to drag him out of position. You can also be certain that Jonny Sexton will be hanging the ball up and over his head to try to turn him and test his positioning.

That test of his defence and his positioning will come as no surprise to Robbie Deans, which is why it seems odd that he has selected Folau on the wing, where he has only played once and which requires a sensitive understanding of positioning and defence.

As Warren Gatland said: “We know what a quality player he is, but probably the hardest position to defend is winger. He will receive some sort of attention defensively to see how strong he is.”

“The Australians in the past have not been afraid to move their players around defensively to different positions, whether they do that with him or not, or whether he runs from full-back on a few occasions, we are not sure.”

“I think he has been very good for the Waratahs at 15. The first game I think he was a little bit lost, he defended on the wing but he has had a bit of time and experience since then, and I am sure being in camp for three weeks they have worked really hard with him defensively as well.”

It is an experiment that Deans need not have tried though. At full back he has Berrick Barnes, a man who has spent most of his time at fly half, at fly half he has James O’Connor who has spent most of his international time on the wing, and on the wing Folau, who has been playing full back.

That Deans has decided against playing these players in their ‘usual’ positions (admittedly they have spent a lot of club time in the positions they are selected in) suggests that he wants the Australian game plan to be based around O’Connor’s attacking flair, with Barnes stepping in to take charge of more tactical aspects when necessary. If that is the case then it rather rubbishes the Deans mantra that Quade Cooper was not selected because his play did not suit Australia’s style, which will come as a surprise to precisely no one.

Back to Folau though and Gatland’s promise that the Lions will be testing him. There is no doubt of course that they will, but there is also no doubt that they are highly aware of the fact that Folau is a major threat and has the potential to tear the Lions apart.

No stranger to using a few choice words to unsettle an opponent, you can be sure that Gatland will not have said publicly that they will be putting the pressure on Folau unless it was designed to play on the players mind and to increase the pressure on him ahead of what he will soon discover is the biggest game of his life.

One thing worth considering though is that there is no law which states that the number on your back must correspond with your position. Deans could be pulling a masterstroke in misdirection and line his players up with no relation to the shirt they are wearing.

What is for sure is that the eyes of the rugby world will be watching and the side that copes best with that pressure will win, how Deans’ debutants respond to that pressure will be key.

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