Preview: Australia v B&I Lions
The B&I Lions will pit their vast experience against a Wallaby team featuring three debutants and a rookie flyhalf in their bid to seize the momentum.
The British and Irish Lions will pit their vast experience against a Wallaby team featuring three debutants and a rookie flyhalf in their bid to seize the momentum in Saturday's first Test in Brisbane.
The tourists, chasing their first series win in 16 years, go into the opening match of the three-Test series anchored by a powerful set-piece, quality leadership with three Lions captains in their ranks, and the calming experience of centre Brian O'Driscoll and lock Paul O'Connell.
The two Irishmen have 222 Test caps between them, with a dozen for the Lions, giving them a decided edge over the Wallabies, who won the last series in Australia in 2001.
O'Driscoll and O'Connell are joined by five other survivors from the series against the Springboks in South Africa four years ago in scrumhalf Mike Phillips, prop Adam Jones, lock Alun Wyn Jones and back row forwards Tom Croft and Jamie Heaslip.
The forward pack alone has played a combined total of 403 Tests, and 17 Lions Tests.
In comparison, Australia coach Robbie Deans has gone for three Test newcomers - wing Israel Folau, centre Christian Lealiifano and flanker Ben Mowen - while James O'Connor will play only his second game at flyhalf at this level.
The Lions also go into the opening clash unbeaten in all seven Tests played in Brisbane going back to 1899.
Warren Gatland's team lost their unbeaten record on the current tour in a 14-12 upset to the ACT Brumbies on Tuesday after running up five victories.
While the Lions are match-hardened, the same cannot be said for the Wallabies, who will be playing their first Test since December.
Deans has had his squad in camp for three weeks working on combinations, strategy and fitness, but they are notoriously slow starters and in the past two years have lost to Samoa and Scotland in their first internationals of the season at home.
Compounding the team's lack of match practice is the relative inactivity of three backs - O'Connor, who has played just one Super Rugby match in six weeks, wing Digby Ioane and fullback Berrick Barnes.
"We feel very positive where we are, we feel we've got a few hit-outs under our belt which has given us that match-hardened edge that we're looking for," Gatland said this week.
"Physically we feel like we're in good shape, the boys feel very fresh and they're looking forward to it.
"With the Australian team not having played for a few weeks and with two or three players having been out injured, we need to really take it to them physically, and with the kind of tempo that they are used to putting on other sides."
Skipper Sam Warburton says the Lions are all too aware that the tourists have not won a series since South Africa in 1997.
"Everybody is desperate to achieve. It's the one thing you will see in the body language of every player for every game, because none of us has achieved a Lions Test series win," he said Friday.
"It's something you desperately want to have on your rugby CV. We've got European Cup winners, Grand Slam winners, English champions - all these competitions, but nobody's ticked the Lions box."
But Deans, whose coaching future with the Wallabies could hinge on the outcome of this series, is confident his team will win the battle of the wills.
"We've made the most of the time we've had. I can assure you that they'll hit the ground running. They know what's coming," Deans said.
"We've tapped into the past, we've prepared as best that we can and we can't do any more without playing to be frank."
While the Lions are unbeaten in Brisbane, Suncorp Stadium has become a Wallaby fortress with the home side winning 12 of the 14 Tests there since 2003. The All Blacks are the only opponents to have won in that time.
Rod Macqueen, who coached the Wallabies to the last series success 12 years ago, said he liked what he has seen from the Lions.
"They have some injury issues, which may have an impact in the first Test, but the Wallabies know they face a really big challenge," he said.
"I remember the buzz that we had in the country in 2001 and the same is happening now."
Players to watch:
For Australia: There are so many questionable selections - Is Berrick Barnes the best fullback? Is Adam Ashley-Cooper and Christian Leali'ifano really the best midfield combination? Will James O'Connor cope at flyhalf? However, the one player on which the spotlight will shine brightest is Rugby League convert Israel Folau on the right wing.
For the British and Irish Lions: Many questions have been raised about tour skipper Sam Warburton's form. He will no doubt like to prove his detractors wrong. Tom Youngs also needs to show the Lions do not have a weakness at hooker.
Head to head: The most exciting of all will be on the wing - Israel Folau on the Australian right wing against battle-hardened Welshman George North on the B&I Lions left wing. Will guile prevail over brute force? Flyhalf is another intriguing battle - James O'Connor in a rare Test appearance in the No.10 shirt for Australia against Irishman Johnny Sexton, playing a pivotal role for the B&I Lions.
2001: Australia won 29-23, Sydney
2001: Australia won 35-14, Melbourne
2001: B&I Lions won 29-13, Brisbane
1989: B&I Lions won 19-18, Sydney
1989: B&I Lions won 19-12, Brisbane
1989: Australia won 30-12, Sydney
1966: B&I Lions won 31-0, Brisbane
1966: B&I Lions won 11-8, Sydney
1959: B&I Lions won 24-3, Sydney
1959: B&I Lions won 17-6, Brisbane
Prediction: It is exciting times and any pundit worth his salt will take a punt on this game. However, getting it right when making that prediction is not as easy as it seems. The B&I Lions may have the edge in the set pieces, but the Wallabies will (should) have the guile in the backs. Should they get enough ball, the Wallabies could cause a few flutters in the Lions den. However, we feel the Lions may just have the edge and squeak a winner. The B&I Lions by 10 points or less.
Australia: 15 Berrick Barnes, 14 Israel Folau, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Christian Leali'ifano, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 James O'Connor, 9 Will Genia, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Ben Mowen, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga'a, 17 James Slipper, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Pat McCabe, 23 Kurtley Beale.
British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Jonathan Davies, 11 George North, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sam Warburton (captain), 6 Tom Croft, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Alex Corbisiero.
Replacements: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Dan Lydiate, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Sean Maitland.
Date: Saturday, June 22
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Kick-off: 20.05 AEST (11.05 UK & Ireland time, 10.05 GMT)
Expected weather: Mostly clear with little chance of rain, but cold. High of 20°C and low of 9°C
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert, Romain Poite (France)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
AFP & rugby365