'If Brian can retain enough spark then Roberts could be astonishing again'

Sky Sports pundits Paul Wallace and Stuart Barnes have backed the duo to flummox the Aussies this summer.

Brian O'Driscoll roars on Jamie Roberts in 2009.
Brian O'Driscoll roars on Jamie Roberts in 2009.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

THE AUSTRALIAN MEDIA fired the first shot across the bows with their ‘red slabs of meat’ headline, when Warren Gatland named his Lions squad, but two former Lions believe the New Zealander will take a series win by whatever means possible.

Paul Wallace [1997] and Stuart Barnes [1993] wore the red jersey against southern hemisphere opponents and know just how tough winning a Test match, let alone a best of three series, can be. The duo were in Dublin this week to promote Sky Sports’ coverage of the upcoming Lions tour Down Under and agreed Gatland will be happy to play expansive rugby, the moment his players take a 2-0 series lead against the Wallabies.

“Sometimes you say ‘Aw that wasn’t great, the way they played’,” explained Barnes.

When you are a player, first and foremost, you’re out in the woods. You’re not on top of the hill looking out over some grand plan. You’re saying ‘How can we win this game?’ and that’s all they are going to care about.

“It is how Warren Gatland is going to be judged. If the Lions win 2-1 and play no rugby at all, they’ll be heroes. That’s how it is.”

Changing the gameplan

Gatland’s squad selections of players such as Gethin Jenkins, Mako Vunipola, Matt Stevens, Tom Croft and Alun Wyn Jones give the impression of a coach that is happy to win the series by winning the battle of the packs. Exciting backline players such as Simon Zebo, Christian Wade and Ian Madigan, barring injury call-ups, are not the ‘bolters’ that many journalists and former players were calling for. All hope of an attacking gameplan is not yet lost, argues Barnes.

“You can get Leigh Halfpenny playing a different way,” he told ”Rob Kearney is back to the player he was last year. [Selection surprises] can happen on a Lions tour. Four year’s ago, Kearney was nowhere near starting but Lee Byrne got injured and he came in. Finest Lions fullback I’ve seen in donkey’s years. Last year, he was best fullback in the world, including Israel Dagg.

If you’ve got Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Sexton you’ve got a triangle of footballers. What that will do is the slabs of red meat will become different blokes.”

Paul Wallace and Stuart Barnes with Scott Quinnell. (Credit: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

Barnes added, “Jamie Roberts was so good four years ago because he forged this beautiful partnership and Brian was finding a way, one man, to draw two defenders and allow a leading shoulder for Roberts… [2009 starting outhalf] Stephen Jones played really well on that tour but he’s not as good as Sexton.
If you think about how good Roberts looked against the world champions four years ago with Jones there, if Brian can retain enough spark – if he’s still that that bit at a high enough level that we saw against Biarritz – then Roberts could be astonishing again. we won’t be calling him a slab of meat then. We’ll be calling him an all-time great 12.”

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“Jamie Roberts is a playmaker, not with his hands as such but he runs great lines,” said Wallace. “He pumps his legs, gets his hands free and he’s great to run off. That’s where O’Driscoll is at his best. He always plays great rugby beside a big, powerful centre… Brian really thrives off powerful runners. Even if Roberts doesn’t start, you have Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Davies. These guys can get their hands free and run off him.

“Brian may struggle to the form he showed four years ago and has certainly lost a bit of pace from the last time he was in Australia [with the Lions] but his vision, and ability to read situations, is second to none.

“With Sexton’s threat, running along the line, sucking in defences, I think there should be lots of space for him. Let’s hope he stays injury free as he could have one great, last hurrah.”

*All Lions matches will be shown live and exclusive on Sky Sports HD and Sky viewers can also follow the tour on a host of other Sky platforms including a dedicated Lions area in Sky Sports Catch Up.

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Patrick McCarry

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