Third Lions test promises to live up to hype
Billed as the most significant rugby test staged in Australia since the 2003 World Cup final, tonight's third and presumably decisive clash between the Wallabies and British and Irish Lions promises to live up the hype despite it's low quality predecessor in Melbourne.
Judicial dramas, selection controversies and the closely-fought nature of the two previous tests sets up the sold out finale at ANZ Stadium as another tense, intriguing encounter, 80 minutes with distinct ramifications for respective Kiwi coaches Robbie Deans and Warren Gatland.
Deans has the most to lose if Gatland succeeds where Graham Henry failed on the Lions last excursion to Australia in 2001 by masterminding the Lions first series win since the 1997 vintage won 2-1 in South Africa.
The former All Black's preference for power over panache and his reliance on the Welsh players he guided to Six Nations glory in February had already prompted disquiet among supporters -- axing Brian O'Driscoll for the first time in the centre's international career on Wednesday then succeeded in alienating the Irish en masse.
Jamie Robert's return from a hamstring injury to second five-eighth allows Gatland to field the Wales midfield combination for the first time in the series and guarantees Jonathan Davies is in a no-win situation as the Irish legend's replacement.
Roberts physicality, allied with the return of abrasive Wales halfback Mike Phillips from a knee injury means Gatland can roll out his preferred backline for the first time to stress the defensive channel patrolled by James O'Connor and Christian Lealiifano.
The presence of Manu Tuilagi, the Samoan-born English midfielder who terrorised the All Blacks at Twickenham last November, for the first time in the 23-man squad underscores Gatland's determination to bash the Wallabies into submission.
If successful the Lions are spared the ignominy of losing four successive series and Gatland will be forgiven - in the Home Unions at least - for exiling O'Driscoll, the star he introduced to test rugby in 2002.
Gatland's future is secure regardless of the outcome - he is revered in the Valleys - but Deans has a mountain to climb to extend his record-breaking tenure into 2014 as Jake White and Ewen McKenzie loom as replacements.
The all-conquering Crusaders coach reign with the Wallabies started promisingly with a stunning win over the All Blacks in Sydney in 2008, a heavy loss seven days later at Eden Park proved an accurate gauge of the inconsistency that has blighted his tenure.
It was telling that after James Horwill was cleared to play after beating a stomping rap a second time Deans said it was the worst week he had experienced since last year -- but did not specify if that correlated to the loss to Scotland, more Bledisloe Cup heartache or a 27-point defeat in Paris.
Deans' non-selections have also drawn scorn, particularly in Queensland where Quade Cooper waits for the Reds Super Rugby season to resume.
O'Connor sitting deep as a rookie test pivot has hardly vindicated Deans faith in a utility that also incurred the wrath of senior players when he had a 4am burger stop with Kurtley Beale before the must-win test in Melbourne.
Former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones felt that nocturnal indiscretion would be a contributing factor to Deans not earning a contract extension when his deal expires at the end of the year.
"There's continuing problems off the field of ill-discipline and I think that's something that needs to get sorted out and it's obviously not going to happen under Robbie's regime," Jones told ABC Grandstand.
Deans managed a grin when he sat alongside Beale has the trouble-prone fullback made light of the night out last week but was not as amused when the prospect of being replaced by McKenzie or White was broached.
He refused to comment though Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver has reiterated Deans' future did not hinge on tonight's outcome.
Deans was also on the defensive later on Thursday when former Wallaby Rod Kafer dissected O'Connor's failings on Rugby HQ as Deans sat in the television show's studio.
He pointed to O'Connor's pass for Adam Ashley-Cooper's crucial 76th minute try as proof of what the playmaker was capable of in tandem with Beale, newcomer Lealiifano, the experienced centre and cross-code superstar Israel Folau.
"You can see the understanding, the rhythm developing. Last week was the first time that combination played together. You can't expect them to fly in the first outing."