Stage set for thrilling Sydney showdown
July 4, 2013
Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones has been tasked with steering the Lions to glory © PA Photos
The British & Irish Lions latest quest for glory will come to a conclusion in Sydney on Saturday night when they tackle Australia in the series-deciding third Test at the ANZ Stadium.
The Lions drew first blood with a 23-21 in the first Test in Brisbane but their hopes of a first series triumph since 1997 - and first against the Wallabies since 1989 - were dealt a hammer blow with a 16-15 defeat in the second Test in Melbourne last weekend. As a result, the stage is set for a thrilling finale after which the Lions will either be celebrating an historic triumph or cursing yet another series that they let slip from their grasp.
A brutal and enthralling battle has taken its toll on both sides but history will show that the biggest selection calls of the series were based on form. Lions coach Warren Gatland ensured there would be no fairytale ending for veteran centre Brian O'Driscoll by wielding the axe for this game - there is not even a place on the bench for the Irishman - while Wallabies boss Robbie Deans has opted to recall another Test centurion in the form of flanker George Smith.
Gatland clearly has no time for sentiment and has been true to his word having repeatedly said the team would be picked - and then the captain. That focus on form will see ten Welshmen start the game - the highest number since the first Test of the 1950 tour in Brisbane. That collective includes lock Alun Wyn Jones who will captain a side stripped of the experience of the injured Sam Warburton and Paul O'Connell as well as O'Driscoll.
It is a calculated gamble by Gatland just like Deans' decision to withdraw his players from the Lions' warm-up games in favour of wrapping them up in cotton wool in anticipation of a gruelling Test series - only time will tell who is able to collect following this winner-takes-all clash.
Australia - Player to Watch: Veteran flanker George Smith returns is back almost four years after his 'farewell' Test appearance against Wales in 2009. Selected on form and for his expertise at the breakdown, all eyes will be on him to see if he can give the Wallabies the edge in a critical part of the game.
Australia - Team News: Smith returns to the Wallabies' line-up at the expense of Michael Hooper in the only change to the side that started in Melbourne last week. Hooper drops to the bench with Liam Gill making way on a bench that reverts to a six-forward, two-back split. Western Force loose forward Ben McCalman is drafted in with Rob Horne the unlucky back to make way with Nick Phipps and uncapped fullback Jesse Mogg providing the run on options.
British & Irish Lions - Player to Watch: Wales centre Jonathan Davies has been one of the stand-out players in recent weeks but needs a huge performance to justify his selection at No.13 ahead of fans' favourite Brian O'Driscoll. Will he silence his doubters and prove coach Warren Gatland right?
British & Irish Lions - Team News: The Lions have opted to make six changes and one pivotal switch following last weekend's defeat in Melbourne with the headline-grabbing omission of veteran centre Brian O'Driscoll. Jonathan Davies is preferred at No.13 with Jamie Roberts filling the void at inside centre, while scrum-half Mike Phillips returns instead of England's Ben Youngs, who like O'Driscoll does not even make the bench. A fit-again Alex Corbisiero will pack down at loose-head instead of Mako Vunipola, hooker Richard Hibbard gets the nod over Tom Youngs, Sean O'Brien replaces injured skipper Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau is preferred at No.8 to Jamie Heaslip in a side that will be led by lock Alun-Wyn Jones.
Key Battle: With only a total of three points between these sides in the first two Tests, the battle of the boot between Lions fullback Leigh Halfpenny and Australia centre Christian Leali'ifano is sure to be pivotal in the destiny of the Tom Richards Cup. One miss could be all it takes to hand the sizeable glassware and the glory to the opposition. But their chances to influence the contest will rely heavily on their team-mates' ability to dominate the all-important breakdown battle. This latest meeting of the sides features some fresh faces including two new opensides in Sean O'Brien and George Smith - the success of these two at securing the ball will no doubt be reflected on the scoreboard.
Trivia: The only Lions to win the first, lose the second but still take the Test series were John Dawes's team in New Zealand in 1971. They took the third Test 13-3 in Wellington before drawing 14-all in Auckland in the fourth and final Test.
Stats: The first Test attracted a record crowd of 52,499 to the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane and a record 56,771 fans flocked to the second Test at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne. Will Saturday's clash break the record for the 83,500 capacity ANZ Stadium? Unlikely as Stadium Australia, as it was then known, welcomed 109,874 fans for Australia's Bledisloe Cup clash with New Zealand in 2000.
Betting: There has been very little between these two sides to date so you may fancy the hosts to squeeze home? Bet365 have the Wallabies at 7/2 for a victory by 1-5 points. Or how about 9/1 for Lions winger George North to cap an outstanding series with the last try of the game?
"He's class, isn't he? To have achieved what George has throughout his career, and return to play at the highest level, after such a long break, is a testament to the quality of the man, both as a person, and as a player."
"Obviously totally gutted at being left out for deciding Test but all efforts go into preparing the boys to see it through."
Prediction: Expect another tense and titanic battle that will test the resolve and strength in depth of both sides. Crucially the Wallabies have momentum and a relatively settled line-up and that will give them the edge - but only just.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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