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Lions aiming for History

The waiting is over, Warren Gatland has announced the 23 men that he has trusted with making Lions history when they take on Australia in the second Test on Saturday.

They will be aiming to end the sixteen-year wait to join the sides of 1971, 1974, 1989 and 1997 as series winners.

A victory on Saturday will mean that the series is won, with the third Test a dead rubber, however if you thought the first Test was a nail biting and tough encounter, the second Test will be on a higher level altogether.

The Australians will have learned a lot about the Lions in that first game and despite losing they ought to have come out of it with a lot of confidence. To have three centres leave the field through injury, plus Berrick Barnes, and yet still only lose because of a slip of the foot showed just how strong they are.

They will have spent all week looking to fix any problems they had in the first Test, though picking James O’Connor at fly half again suggest they may not have fixed them all, and will have analysed the Lions weaknesses to death.

The Lions will also have done their homework too, but having lost the First Test the Wallabies will be determined not to go out without taking it to the final game, they do not just have the series to play for now but pride and their reputation as well.

As Sir Ian McGeechan said in 1997 after the Lions had won the First Test:

“We’ve proved that the Lion has claws and has teeth. We’ve wounded a Springbok. When an animal is wounded, it returns in frenzy. It doesn’t think. It fights for its very existence.”

For Springbok read Wallaby, and that is exactly how it will be on Saturday.

The Lions have their own pride and reputation to play for too though. Even though ultimately nobody cares how you win a series, just that you do, the Lions will want to prove that they do not need a lucky slip of the boot to win, they will want to prove that they are just better than Australia.

There is a sense of proving themselves after 2009 as well, over a third of the starting XV were involved with that tour and there has been no shying away from the fact that they want to avenge that series defeat. They restored a lot of pride and respect in the Lions jersey in that series but they still felt that familiar pain of defeat.

What that defeat did highlight though, as did the First Test, is how fine the margins between success and failure are. One moment of madness or genius, even a stroke of luck can decide these games and it would be a surprise if Saturday were not the same.

It will be tight and it will be cagey, which is why Warren Gatland has made the decision to bring in Dan Lydiate for Tom Croft, he may not be as dynamic as Croft but he relishes the physical battle and in a tight game he is as good as they come. He will patrol the inside channels like a gladiator, nobody will be allowed to pass; it is his raison d’etre.

Tommy Bowe’s inclusion also owes a lot to the expected caginess of the match. Alex Cuthbert is a sublime finisher who is unstoppable as soon as he gets a whiff of a chance, as his try in the First Test showed, but Tommy Bowe is a supremely intelligent footballer.

His defensive positioning and ability is superb, he is a master of forcing the attacker into an early decision, whilst his attacking lines in tight games are also wonderfully thought out. He is not exactly a slouch in the finishing department either.

The inclusions of Geoff Parling and Mako Vunipola were inevitable following the injury news on Alex Corbisiero and Paul O’Connell, though the decision to start Vunipola ahead of Ryan Grant could have a negative effect on the Lions’ scrum. Something they cannot afford to go too far awry on after two botched scrums nearly cost them the First Test.

The inclusion of Ben Youngs is perhaps the most surprising selection, though it was one that many called for after Mike Phillips seemed to struggle last week. Youngs has been in impressive form all tour and his pace at the fringes will be a welcome addition. His inclusion marks the first time two brothers will line up in a Lions Test match since the Hastings brothers in 1989, brother Tom starts at hooker again, a proud day for the Youngs family.

What Gatland’s five changes all show though is that he knows, and therefore the team knows, that they have to improve from last week. This will be a tougher and even more intense game and the Lions must match that, it must be them that set the bar for intensity, not the Wallabies.

Everyone involved in rugby has been in a game where twenty minutes in you turn to a teammate and say: “Blimey, we’re in a tough one here”. The Lions cannot afford to be the team having that conversation; they needed to be forcing Australia to be thinking it.

A Lions series is no easy thing to win, you can prepare tactically, you can adapt to the referee, you can have a master plan all worked out, but even if all of that comes together it is not enough.

It is at that point that only one thing matters – pressure, and how you deal with it. Warren Gatland will hope that his 23 men can deal with it better than Robbie Deans’.

It will be nervous, it will be tense, but it will be utterly enthralling.

Teams:

British & Irish Lions

15. Leigh Halfpenny 14. Tommy Bowe 13. Brian O’Driscoll 12. Jonathan Davies 11. George North 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Ben Youngs; 1. Mako Vunipola 2. Tom Youngs 3. Adam Jones 4. Alun Wyn Jones 5. Geoff Parling 6. Dan Lydiate 7. Sam Warburton (captain) 8. Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: 16. Richard Hibbard 17. Ryan Grant 18. Dan Cole 19. Tom Croft 20. Sean O’Brien 21. Conor Murray 22. Owen Farrell 23. Alex Cuthbert.

Australia

15. Kurtley Beale 14. Israel Folau 13. Adam Ashley-Cooper 12. Christian Leali’ifano 11. Joe Tomane 10. James O’Connor 9. Will Genia; 1. Benn Robinson 2. Stephen Moore 3. Ben Alexander 4. James Horwill (captain) 5. Kane Douglas 6. Ben Mowen 7. Michael Hooper 8. Wycliff Palu.

Replacements: 16. Saia Fainga’a 17. James Slipper 18. Sekope Kepu 19. Rob Simmons 20. Liam Gill 21. Nick Phipps 22. Rob Horne 23. Jesse Mogg.

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