Lions make five lineup changes for second test
Never afraid to throw a curveball when it comes to team selection, British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland raised a few eyebrows when he announced his side to face the Wallabies on Saturday night.
If some players thought being Welsh was an advantage on this tour, the Waikato man blew that theory out of the water by chopping two of the stars he cherishes most back in the principality. He made a total of five changes to the team that defeated the Wallabies 23-21 in Brisbane last weekend.
A Lions tour is no place for sentiment it seems.
Gone is Mike Phillips at halfback. Gone is Alex Cuthbert on the wing. Phillips hasn't even made it on to the bench.
"This is a do-or-die match for Australia. It's going to be battle," Gatland said today.
"We said after the first test that we had improvement in us and we are confident that this is the case.
"Several players have put their hands up this week and have forced their way into the test side while several players have returned to fitness."
Two of the changes Gatland made were forced on him as a result of injuries.
However, the dropping of both Phillips and Cuthbert shows no Welsh love-in is going on in the Lions camp and test places are up for grabs.
After an edgy, indecisive performance in the first test Phillips has been replaced by sniping English No 9 Ben Youngs at halfback with Ireland's Connor Murray the backup on the bench.
Not always a diplomat, Gatland tried to provide some reasoning behind Phillips' exit from test start to the stands, saying the Welshman was suffering "niggles".
"The decision was to rest him for this week and he's potentially a key component for next week," Gatland said.
"Just given the quality of the nines we've got, I mean all of them have done a great job so far, and we felt it was prudent to make sure he was 100 per cent for next week."
Cuthbert can feel a little aggrieved by his demotion after scoring one of the tries of the tour last weekend.
Irish power runner Tommy Bowe, however, has always been rated highly by Gatland.
Having recovered sufficiently from a broken hand to take Cuthbert's place on the wing, he will be raring to go.
Bowe's selection in the test team means there is disappointment for Tokoroa-born Scotland international Sean Maitland who drops from the test squad after doing well to make the bench last weekend.
With no more midweek games to be played it is unlikely Maitland, barring injuries, will get a chance to shine at test-match level on this tour. Luckily, with age on his side, New Zealand 2017 remains a realistic goal for him and seven days is a long time in test rugby.
In the forward pack, injuries to inspirational Irish lock Paul O'Connell and English prop Alex Corbisiero have robbed the Lions of two stars from last weekend's epic victory. How the eight will perform without O'Connell in particular remains to be seen.
Into the front row comes prop Mako Vunipola while fellow Englishman, Geoff Parling joins Alun Wyn-Jones in the second-row engine room.
In the final change, Welsh back row Dan Lydiate takes the place of versatile English flanker Tom Croft - who drops to the bench - in what Gatland hopes will give the Lions some more muscle on the ground, something Ireland flanker Sean O'Brien's selection on the bench further attests to.
'We've decided to add a bit more physicality to our side up front and Dan brings that, and then we've got the explosiveness off the bench with Tom Croft and Sean O'Brien can give us that as well," Gatland said.
Earlier today, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans named his side to face the Lions with James O'Connor again starting at No 10 and Kurtley Beale filling in at fullback for the injured Berrick Barnes.
LIONS: Leigh Halfpenny, Tommy Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, George North, Johnny Sexton, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones, AW Jones, Geoff Parling, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton (c), Jamie Heaslip. Reserves: Richard Hibbard, Ryan Grant, Dan Cole, Tom Croft, Sean O'Brien, Connor Murray, Owen Farrell, Alex Cuthbert
AUSTRALIA: Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali'ifano, Joe Tomane, James O'Connor, Will Genia, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper, Ben Mowen, James Horwill (captain), Kane Douglas, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Benn Robinson. Reserves: Saia Fainga'a, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Liam Gill, Nick Phipps, Rob Horne, Jesse Mogg