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Tests will shed light on Lions' pivotal man


Paul Cully

Jonny Wilkinson ... dark horse.

Jonny Wilkinson ... dark horse. Photo: Getty Images

It's a sign of the age that on the eve of an influential tour of Europe a Quade Cooper tweet about a computer game has been occupying rugby minds.

The ARU's decision to take $10,000 out of Cooper's pocket, apparently for an unvarnished social media view about the merits, or otherwise, of a product called Rugby Challenge added an almost comical note to Wednesday night's judicial proceedings. But distractions off the field have been a big part of the Wallabies story this year.

To the north, more traditional debates are taking place, and perhaps none more important than the contest to wear the British and Irish Lions No.10 jersey next year. The state of play is, of course, fluid with some about to make their moves in this month's Tests and others to see their chances dented. It might be summarised as follows: Ireland's Jonathan Sexton is pushing hard, England's Toby Flood has good form for Leicester and should get his chance for England against the Wallabies, Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson and the Ospreys' Dan Biggar are dark horses and, most significantly, Wales' Rhys Priestland is struggling.

The Lions' pivotal position has such importance because - aside from the obvious - the tourists look in outstanding nick in other areas. The props are imposing and, in the cases of Dan Cole and Cian Healy, still improving. The back row is overcrowded with riches (incidentally, Priestland is not alone in having form issues - some in Wales believe Sam Warburton will make the Wales team only on past deeds rather than current ones). The outside backs have size and pace, even if the tough going through the winter months of the European leagues doesn't always allow them to express themselves. What is sought now is that mix of composure, vision and ambition at No.10 to weave the threads together.

Wilkinson's candidacy, despite his age, is not as puzzling as it seems. Although gone from the Test arena, he is playing consistently well for Toulon. Also, his renowned professionalism is an attractive attribute in a touring party. Yet for that, you wonder whether if he books a ticket it will be a result primarily of others being injured, or confidence deserting them entirely. It is Warren Gatland's way for his teams to attack. The Lions - with Gatland as part of the coaching team - went to South Africa in 2009 to play, and while the Wilkinson of the 2001 tour to Australia took the ball to the line, the current version has lost some of that sting.

Challenging the defence is an admirable string to Sexton's bow. Having kicked into life for Leinster, Sexton's supporters can point to up-to-date evidence of his qualities. Yet provincial form has never been the issue for the 27-year-old. The international stage has been unkinder. There was a famous win waiting to be grabbed by Sexton in Christchurch in June, when his pack were winning the collisions against the All Blacks in the second Test. But the Irish only walked away with regret and reservations about the refereeing.

Sexton has a fine chance to soothe the doubters against the Springboks in Dublin on November 10. With injury robbing the home side of Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney, responsibility lies even heavier on his shoulders, but there is an opportunity in that, too.

Flood has been building. When playing for the Tigers, one trait that commonly impresses is his pace. He took an intercept against Ospreys two weeks ago and never looked likely to be reeled in from halfway. England seemed to lose faith in his qualities just before last year's World Cup, preferring the more conservative Wilkinson, but with his goal-kicking technique operating smoothly, the return to favour might be imminent.

If accuracy from the boot is one way of ascertaining the confidence of a five-eighth, it indicates that Priestland's mind is far from settled. In one early-season fixture, his success rate for shots at goal was 14 per cent. The talented Welshman was almost unrecognisable against the Wallabies in June compared with the assured performer at the World Cup and this year's Six Nations, and he has transferred those uncertain displays on tour into his domestic form.

Such troubles bring Biggar - and casting the net wider, Scotland's Greig Laidlaw - into calculations. Both have merits - Laidlaw kicked Scotland to a win over Australia in Newcastle - yet are light on exposure at the highest level.

The openness of the field brings intrigue to this month's Tests. The Wallabies will learn a lot more about whom they are likely to face next year. But the lack of an outstanding candidate begs another question: no matter who the Lions pick, will the Wallabies have anyone to fear?

17 comments so far

  • " But the lack of an outstanding candidate begs another question: no matter who the Lions pick, will the Wallabies have anyone to fear?"

    Almost choked on my coffee reading the above, it came out my nose a little...very uncomfortable...Time for you boys to do a little more research, Johnny Sexton (His Sex is on Fire..get used to it you'll be hearing it a lot) is currently looking for his 3rd Hcup medal in a row, kicks his goals, attacks the line, is a ferocious tackler and is as good as anything that exists in the Northern Hemisphere. He'll be at 10.

    ...and as for " will the Wallabies have anyone to fear?" Exactly who is it the lions are to fear from the Wallabies at 10? Cooper??? Beale???Barnes???Harris??? I, like every other Lions fan will be praying its Cooper, Australia's bad boy/darling...."but he won the super 15 for the reds...".blah blah blah please see Ireland v Australia-Auckland RWC 2011 for the real Q. Cooper.

    Of course the argument for who plays 10 for the wallabies is largely irrelevant as whoever it is will spend most of his day tackling and screaming (like a girl) at his pack to win him some ball (wont happen). To conclude "you boys are gonna take one Hell of a beating!!!"

    Henry B
    Date and time
    November 02, 2012, 10:01AM
    • @ Henry B

      Fair point ....but soooo predictable you, you egotistical, over- inflated,what are doing living amongst the enemy, Northern Hemisphere type.
      Suffice to say I agree with most of what you said ! Especially the bit about the coffee coming out of the nose...very uncomfortable... most certainly would agree with that.
      Hey, shouldn't you be drinking tea old chap ? Or is that darling ?
      Apologies if I got that wrong.

      inner west sydney
      Date and time
      November 02, 2012, 10:59AM
    • You're dreaming Henry. Bandwagon mentality and bluster- that's mostly what the Lions represent (And don't you boys love a bandwagon!). It's been a long, long time since they won a series. Buy your new jersey, sip your imported guinness, sing a few songs, spend your money and enjoy the sunshine.

      Meanhwhile you can prepare your comments for the inevitable 'death of the Lions tour' comments after you've been shown up next year.

      Date and time
      November 02, 2012, 11:51AM
    • blah blab blah Henry B - heard it all before. When was it the Lions last won a series? They have been spanked in the last 3, with far superior players than they will be bringing next year. Perhaps you should include France and Italy as well and just make it the NH Lions. Maybe a combined 6-country could provide some sort of a contest.

      "no matter who the Lions pick, will the Wallabies have anyone to fear?" - No.
      Maybe Richie Gray or Tuilagi if he gets going but Sexton, Priestland or Flood? Almost choked on my coffee.

      Date and time
      November 02, 2012, 12:10PM
  • " will the Wallabies have anyone to fear ( at fly half for the Lions) ? " Probably not. As they are playing Super XV sides as well they'll need at least two specialist 10's,so Jonny is a real possibility to tour.
    But the real danger for Australia will be in the Lions pack.As we know this is where most Tests are won & as you say the Lions may have a formidable group to choose from.
    The Nov/Dec tests in the NH & next year's 6N always have more mustard when a Lions tour beckons.It's also worth remembering that the last Lions to SA in '09 only narrowly lost the series to a very good 'Boks team.

    Date and time
    November 02, 2012, 2:39PM
    • Machooka-Nucken and Ice...seriously.....anyway not one of you Knuckle draggers answered my question who are the lions to fear from the wallabies at 10??? In response to Machooka, it used to be Tea but im a Coffee fan Nucken I'll be wearing my 2001 lions Jersey, I will not be drinking imported Guinness as its muck, I will be spending my hard-earned Aussie dollars although I fear many of my Lions brethren will consider $9 pints a bit steep and as for singing a few songs we'll be doing that alright creating something we like to call "Atmosphere"...if you need help understanding what that means go to a waratahs game...its the exact opposite of for you Ice...try not to bite so hard next time LIONS LIONS LIONS LIONS LIONS

      Henry B
      Date and time
      November 02, 2012, 3:59PM
      • @ Henry B
        How reprehendsible of me for NOT answering the ....'who will/do the Lions fear at # 10 ?'.
        I didn't think you were being serious but just bangin' on.
        To answer that you need to understand that this has been a challenge for the Wallabies for sometime.To find the perfect fit for that important position has driven many an Aussie fan mad ! Me included. Since the retirement of Larkham there (really) hasn't been anyone that's owned it.
        Anyways, to try to answer your question I would probably say it's going to be either Beale, JOC or (left of field - no joke) Christian L who was in amazing form, prior to injury,during the S15 season.
        So your boy is ....Johnny Sexton ? It couldn't be Priestland and the Poms don't have a 5/8 or is Johnny Wilko making a play ! All very scary, eh?
        Lastly, I suggest you try and put on your 2001 Lions Jersey to if you can still fit into it, especially as your head is now sooooo big ! Good luck with it all !!

        inner west sydney
        Date and time
        November 03, 2012, 10:58AM
    • What is this solid coffee that Ice and Henry have nearly been choking on? I wouldn't buy it, too much of a risk.

      I'm not going to thump the tub quite like ol' Hank but I do think the Lions have a big chance next year. And to say the Lions were "spanked" in the last three tours is nonsense, only the All Blacks gave us a touch up. SA 2009 and Australia 2001 were tight series.

      I'm concerned about the form of Warburton, I had assumed that he'd be a shoo-in for captaincy. Even still, I'm tipping 2-1 to the Lions, and then a clean sweep against the Pumas in 2018!

      Big Bear
      Date and time
      November 02, 2012, 4:39PM
      • Will be another epic series, that much is guaranteed. While yes, the Wallabies have won the only Lions series in the professional era, the record before that is poor. The Wallabies of 2001 vintage were undeniably in a higher class to the present crop - yet they only just snuck past the Lions that year. Though those Lions were led by a backbone of the 2003 World Champion English... These sorts of cauldrons always prove or unveil the greats of the game.

        Date and time
        November 02, 2012, 7:08PM
        • @gt
          On the 2001 tour of Australia, I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the Lions didn't score a single point in the final 20 minutes in any of the 3 games, including the game they won. Meaning the Wallabies won the series more comfortably then people might realize. Isn't that right Henry B?

          Old Hickory
          Date and time
          November 03, 2012, 3:07PM

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