Stage set for Brisbane showdown
June 21, 2013
Sam Warburton's Lions shirt is embroidered ahead of the first Test against Australia © Getty Images
The wait is finally over. The British & Irish Lions will tackle Australia in the eagerly-anticipated first Test clash at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on Saturday night.
Just under four years since they clinched a consolation third Test victory against South Africa in Johannesburg, the Lions will launch they latest bid for a rare series victory. Not since 1997 have they dominated one of the southern hemisphere's giants and they have not tasted success on Australian soil since edging out the Wallabies in 1989 - although they came desperately close on their last trip Down Under in 2001.
The Lions enter this clash on the back of a demoralising defeat to the Brumbies in their most recent outing in Canberra. The tourists' Test players may well have been rested for that game but the result and the lacklustre nature of their performance robbed them of some priceless momentum having swept all before them on a five-game winning run up to that point.
The Wallabies have also rested their leading players ahead of this game but controversially they have been wrapped in cotton wool for several weeks and largely denied the opportunity to face the Lions in the warm-up games. Only time will tell if their concerns ahead of what is expected to be an extremely physical three-Test battle are justified but there is also a fear that they will be under-cooked as a result.
Australia - Player to Watch: Could the most telling contribution come from replacement Kurtley Beale? The talented playmaker has endured a troubled few months but can he put his woes behind him with an eye-catching display in Brisbane?
Australia - Team News: Australia have named three debutants in their side in the form of winger Israel Folau, centre Christian Leali'ifano and blindside Ben Mowen. Berrick Barnes and a fit-again Digby Ioane complete the back three with Adam Ashley-Cooper partnering Leali'ifano in a new-look midfield. James O'Connor will fill the No.10 jersey and will line-up with scrum-half Will Genia. Stephen Moore will start at hooker and will be flanked by props Benn Robinson and Ben Alexander while captain James Horwill links up with Kane Douglas in the second row. Wycliff Palu starts at No.8 with Michael Hooper filling the remaining spot at openside.
British & Irish Lions - Player to Watch: Irish veteran Brian O'Driscoll so often saves his best for the biggest stage and expect him to lead by example as ever - but can he match his heroics in the first Test 12 years ago?
O'Driscoll wary of 'smart' Wallabies
British & Irish Lions - Team News: Sam Warburton will lead a side featuring eight players making their Lions Test debut but also two former captains in lock Paul O'Connell (2009) and centre Brian O'Driscoll (2005). Alex Corbisiero gets the nod at loose-head having missed out on the original tour squad and is joined in the front row hooker Tom Youngs and fellow prop Adam Jones. O'Connell resumes his partnership with Alun Wyn Jones in the second row while Warburton will pack down alongside blindside Tom Croft and No.8 Jamie Heaslip in the back-row. Jonathan Sexton and Mike Phillipps will line up at fly-half and scrum-half respectively and Jonathan Davies will partner O'Driscoll in midfield. Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and George North form an all-Welsh back three.
Key Battle: A brutal battle up front will go a long way to deciding this contest with the breakdown set to provide an intriguing showdown in particular. Lions skipper Sam Warburton has retained the faith of coach Warren Gatland and will be tasked with dominating his Wallabies rival Matt Hooper. Many may have expected the likes of David Pocock and George Smith to fill the Wallabies' No.7 shirt for this series but injuries have handed Hooper the chance shine and he will no doubt relish the opportunity.
Trivia: The Lions and the Wallabies will do battle for the Tom Richards Trophy - named after one of only two men to have represented Australia and also played for the British & Irish Lions. He is the only Australian-born player to have achieved that feat with the English-born Blair Swannell having also played for both sides.
Stats: Australia have won 17 of their previous 22 Tests at the Suncorp Stadium. New Zealand are the only side to have beaten them at the current ground - three times - although the Lions can lay claim to a victory at what was then called Lang Park in 1966. The Wallabies' most recent outing at the stadium was an epic 18-all draw with the All Blacks last September.
Betting: Fancy the Lions to stun the Wallabies with an early try as they did in the first Test in '01? Bet365 are offering 5/1 for the first scoring play to be a Lions try. Or how about Lions skipper Sam Warburton to silence his doubters once and for all with a Man of the Match performance at 10/1?
"I don't know whether we are favourites or not or what the odds are, but I feel we have every chance to win. I think we are going to win."
"I found myself kissing my Lions jersey the other day as I was packing it up for another flight"
Prediction: Expect a bruising and intense battle to rank among the greatest ever Lions games - and the battle-hardened tourists to claim a narrow victory.
The ESPN team preview the Lions' first Test clash against Australia
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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