Will to trump skill in opening Lions-Wallabies test

NICK MULVENNEY
Last updated 06:50 21/06/2013

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The phoney war is almost over, the 46 protagonists have been named and the Brisbane stage is set as Australia braces for the unique ferocity of a British and Irish Lions test match.

The first match of three, Saturday's clash at Lang Park (1000GMT) will go a long way to deciding whether Warren Gatland's fancied tourists can secure a first series triumph anywhere since 1997 and in Australia since 1989.

Australia are well aware that the last time the two sides met in 2001, the then world champion Wallabies were ripped asunder in the first test, only to battle back and win a thrilling series.

They will not want to give the Lions a similar start this year and Australia coach Robbie Deans, whose job may well depend on the outcome of the series suggested the first test would be won as much by character as by brute force and skill.

"It's going to be a battle of wills and obviously momentum is a big part of test rugby," he told reporters on Thursday.

"Obviously the side that can generate some momentum will have a greater opportunity to impose their will on the opposition. We hope to bring some momentum to the game and build off the back of that."

The Lions come into the contest battle-hardened after six tour matches in which they have played some breathtaking power rugby and were unbeaten until a patched up second-string side went down to the ACT Brumbies on Tuesday.

"Tuesday night was a bit of blip for us, given the conditions we've probably been trying to play too much rugby," Gatland said on Thursday.

"Physically we feel we're in great shape. We've come here to show the Australian public that we can play good rugby and I think we've done that."

While the Lions have been traversing the country playing tour matches, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans has been able to keep his cards close to his chest in his training camp on the Queensland coast.

It is an advantage certainly in terms of the freshness of his players and the time they have had to work on their combinations, but perhaps a disadvantage to go into a test of the intensity expected on Saturday without recent match practice.

"I can assure you, they'll hit the ground running," Deans promised. "They know what's coming, we've prepared as best we can and we can't do any more without playing to be frank."

On Thursday, Deans revealed his hand when he named a side led by lock James Horwill and including former rugby league international winger Israel Folau - a gambit Australia hopes will prove to be something of a trump card.

"The one advantage Israel has is that they've never faced him previously, they will have witnessed what he is capable of and they'll be wanting to limit that," Deans said.

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"Because he's a bloke that makes things happen when he gets his hands on the ball and it's fully our intent to get the ball in his hands."

Folau goes head-to-head with standout Welsh winger George North and Gatland suggested the Lions would have plans to test the defensive skills of the Australian, who has played little more than a dozen games of senior rugby union and none starting on the wing.

While Australia have also included uncapped centre Christian Leali'ifano and loose forward Ben Mowen, the Lions team is packed with proven internationals and the Irish captains of two former Lions tours in lock Paul O'Connell and centre Brian O'Driscoll, the only survivor from the 2001 tour.

Openside flanker Sam Warburton will captain the 2013 test team, one of eight Welshman who will take to the field in the famous red shirt, one short of the record nine of 1971 and '77.

Warburton is expected to have a busy night as everyone and his wife is agreed that the breakdown will be a key area of the series, overseen in the first test by New Zealand referee Chris Pollock.

"Sam and I had a chat with the referee on Wednesday. Both teams are looking for quick quality ball and getting on the front-foot," said Gatland.

"Sam's done a pretty good job facing David Pocock and Richie McCaw in the past so he is looking forward to the battle against Michael Hooper."

Australia's traditionally livewire backline is led by James O'Connor in only his second international start at flyhalf, while Jonathan Sexton and powerful scrumhalf Mike Phillips, one of the stars of the 2009 campaign in South Africa, will pull the strings for the Lions.

While everybody would love a repeat of the electric drama of the 2001 Brisbane test, the Australians are determined that the sea of red which greeted the players at the Gabba that day will not be reprised and will give away thousands of plastic gold helmets. "I trust our systems have improved enough that we won't have so much red in the audience," said Deans. "But the occasion will be similar to 2001."

- Reuters

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