As predicted here, the British & Irish Lions lost their unbeaten record as they went down 14-12 to an ACT Brumbies side who took full advantage of the injury-weakened side put in front of them. It was the first time that the Lions had lost a provincial game since their 1997 tour of South Africa. Whilst history buffs will no doubt delight in pointing out that the Lions won that series, times have moved on and, more importantly, this is a very different Lions team.
The defeat was disappointing after a very good Lions performance on Saturday against NSW Waratahs. It is probably safe to say that the eight forwards who started that game will be the eight who start the opening Test this weekend. That means that, slightly controversially, captain Sam Warburton will start at open-side flanker, even though the form of others on this tour has been better. Mako Vunipola, whose international career only began back in November, will be the loose-head prop and the equally-inexperienced Tom Youngs at hooker.
In the backs, though, things are much more complicated. The Brumbies made the Lions pay heavily for playing a back line which included two men fresh off a flight from Argentina, one who had until the weekend been on holiday in the US and 36-year-old Shane Williams, who retired from international rugby two years ago and who was in Australia working as a television pundit. That, however, is the state of play with the Lions. Injuries have meant that they have still not been able to start their first choice back line and the hamstring injuries to George North and Jamie Roberts might mean that they still cannot come Saturday.
Of all of the players on tour, no-one’s star has fallen faster than that of Alex Cuthbert. Regarded as a shoe-in for the Test side before the team left the UK, his defence has been exposed as suspect time and again by the provincial sides and despite being the 2/1 betting odds favorite to be top try scorer on this tour he might only get a game on Saturday if North is not fit to do anything more than come off the replacements bench. In the meantime, the surprise inclusion on the tour, Scotland’s Sean Maitland, seems the preferred choice for the right wing berth now.
Australia, of course, have their own injury problems and it is without question that having the likes of David Pocock and Tatafu Polota-Nau would’ve made their pack at least 50% better, but they are still an enormously talented side. In Will Genia they have arguably the best scrum half in world rugby, Adam Ashley-Cooper is not just a versatile back but a lethal finisher and rugby league convert Israel Folau is a union star in the making. Questions have been raised about the omission of Quade Cooper, but in James O’Connor they have a prodigious talent at fly half or wing three-quarter and Kurtley Beale, despite his personal problems, can turn any game with his instinctive play and exposive speed.
Perhaps the most significant difference, though, comes in the nature of these injuries. Pocock was ruled out of the series three months ago, Polota-Nau almost a month ago. Where the Lions have had to deal with their injury problems on the hoof (hence the bizarre call-ups), Australia have been in camp and formulating game plans to deal with the absence of those key players. That factor alone suggests to me that the Lions are overvalued in this market and that the best options for your sports picks is to back an Australia win at betting odds of 8/5 with Sportingbet.