When Wales beat Ireland in Croke Park in 2008 en route to their first Grand Slam under Warren Gatland, they did it despite not having won in Dublin in eight years, and survived having two players put in the bin. The first of those was Mike Phillips. His inclusion ahead of Dwayne Peel had been a big call, and his offence was so daft and indisciplined that you reckoned he wouldn’t appear for the second half.
Out he came however. And went on to play a key role in the victory. Loyalty was always the most important card in Gatland’s pack, and he played it at half time in the dressing-room that day leaving the scrumhalf clear where he stood.
Perhaps top of his agenda when he took over in Ireland from Brian Ashton had been to provide consistency in selection, to allay the fears of players that one mistake would mean the chop. The trick thereafter is to get the balance right between players feeling secure to go out and play, and having enough insecurity to know that poor form might lead to looking in from the outside.
We saw that little swing from safe to vulnerable in Melbourne this morning. The coach was explicit in saying that it was a selection issue to leave out Phillips, that he could have played this Saturday despite the knee injury he’s carrying. Gatland could have given Phillips the comfort blanket of the injury line, but chose instead to expose him to the reality that in corners as tight as this, no one’s place is safe.
It was good management from a man who has never looked so relaxed, but he must be deeply unimpressed by where Phillips is with his game to slot Ben Youngs into the gap. Youngs took his try well against the Rebels on Tuesday night, but it was bread and butter stuff against lower league opposition.
Replacing Phillips with Youngs is a shift to a different style of player, and not just a demotion for the man who came out here as first choice by a country mile. It’s good news for Conor Murray that he’s now in the Test squad, but while technically he has moved up from third to second, you wouldn’t bank on that pecking order obtaining when Gatland selects for the Sydney Test. Either way, Murray will be a much better player for the experience of being out here.
The other big calls from the coach saw him abandon Alex Cuthbert, a try-scorer from Brisbane and a man who sank England in the Six Nations, in favour of the player he wanted for the First Test, Tommy Bowe. I thought he would put Bowe on the bench, but you’d be happy that it will work out well.
Not so sure about the forwards however. The addition of Sean O’Brien to the bench is good business, but the nightmare scenario is an early injury on Saturday to Alun Wyn Jones, forcing Geoff Parling to shift from loose head second row to tight head, with either Dan Lydiate moving in from the back row or Tom Croft coming off the bench.
The rationale for starting Lydiate, who played longer than I would have thought feasible against the Rebels on Tuesday, if he was starting on Saturday, is to add physicality to the forward effort. Croft’s value has been undermined by the Wallabies offering the Lions free ball at the front of the line rather than concede at the middle or tail. It lessens the value of Croft’s lineout ability.
Australia will continue that tactic but they will push up harder this time and try and mess up the delivery of that ball to the number two jumper. Moreover they will be hollering at referee Craig Joubert about the accuracy of Tom Youngs’s throwing.
When the ball is uncontested at the front then people tend not to care about the straightness of the throw, but after Youngs had, by my count, four dodgy deliveries unquestioned in Brisbane, take it that it’s an issue the Wallabies are raising with Joubert for Saturday.
They’ll be banging on about the scrummaging of Mako Vunipola as well. Gatland has taken a risk in his non-selection of a second row on the bench – the calculation being that with a closed roof and a dry ball there won’t be many more than the eight scrums we had last week – so to reduce that risk he’ll be telling Adam Jones that he’s in for an 80 minutes shift on Saturday, or pretty close to it. With a 50 caps-plus front row in the field for the first time in Wallaby history (and none of Cian Healy, Alex Corbisiero or Gethin Jenkins to worry about) the home team may even feel bullish about this phase.
Primarily they are relying on two things: avoiding the freakish run of injuries that dismantled their backline in Brisbane; and having their first-choice goal kicker available for long enough to count. You’ll remember that duty was shared unsuccessfully last weekend by the night owls Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor.
Earlier this evening Robbie Deans was peppered with questions about the two boys fetching up at a fast food outlet at close to 4am on Wednesday. The closest he came to saying that this behaviour was hard to fathom was in describing his subsequent meeting with the two lads as “uncomfortable.”
When asked soon after about how Beale would bounce back after literally slipping up on the job in Suncorp, Deans said: “He’s a stronger person (than a few years ago) and you could see that in how he approached his prep this week.”
You could? Imagine how Deans must have felt waking on Wednesday to the news that two players in whom he had invested so much faith had repaid it by being so utterly feckless. Warren Gatland has been blessed by comparison. He’s hoping it makes the difference.