There are two times when players like getting taken off early: the first is when they are being beaten so badly the scoreboard can’t keep up; and the second is on a Lions tour when it’s four nights before the Second Test, and an early removal might suggest more involvement at the weekend.
So Sean O’Brien was on longer than he might have liked tonight at AAMI Stadium, a great venue which is just a 25 minute walk from Melbourne city centre. In the one precinct you have the MCG, the Rod Laver Tennis Centre, Collingwood’s magnificent indoor training centre and then the AAMI stadium, which is home to the city’s union and league teams. Sport matters in this city.
There was a full house at AAMI to see what kind of resistance the Rebels could mount, but while it was spirited it was never going to repeat the upset caused by the Brumbies a week ago. Instead we were mostly on Test watch.
With Warren Gatland confirming afterwards that Alex Corbisiero and Jamie Roberts would be available for Sydney, but not this weekend, it opens the door to a few changes. Mako Vunipola and Ryan Grant are the likely starters and bench looseheads for Saturday, while Richie Gray looks to have done enough to get the bench spot when Geoff Parling takes over from Paul O’Connell.
There was a theory floating here that with Australia giving the Lions free throws to the front of the lineout, Tom Croft had become a luxury. And his defence in wide channels in Brisbane was poor. In which case Dan Lydiate would start, with Sean O’Brien on the bench. The Lions badly missed O’Brien’s impact in the last quarter in Brisbane.
As it turned out tonight, Gatland left Lydiate and O’Brien on for longer than suggests they will have major roles to play when the show moves to Docklands on Saturday. So if O’Brien is to get a look-in it would seem to be coming at the expense of Lydiate on the bench. They are utterly different players: Lydiate is a stopper and chopper; O’Brien is a dynamic carrier, but with some way still to go on his link-game.
The Leinster flanker tried too hard to impress in the first half tonight and it led to a dodgy start that took him a while to overcome. Sometimes though it’s best to make these selection decisions on the basis of what’s worst for the opposition, which equates to what’s best for you. The Wallabies don’t want to see O’Brien in the squad.
With Tommy Bowe fit again – he will be wearing a protective hurling glove to protect his hand – Gatland has a straightforward call between himself and Sean Maitland on the bench. Unless he chooses to abandon Alex Cuthbert and draft Bowe back in to the starting team, which looks unlikely. Given that it was a break in his hand, mitigated by having bones on either side of it acting as a natural splint, it would be a terrific comeback for Bowe to get back into Test action. And, along with O’Brien, it would be a good call.