The British and Irish Lions are banking on a successful Wales formula as they strive to pull off their first Test series win in 16 years against the Wallabies today.
With the series tied at 1-1 after two pulsating encounters, head coach Warren Gatland has taken the controversial decision to drop Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll and reunite crack center pair Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts among a record-equaling 10-strong Welsh representation in the starting side.
However, while O’Driscoll, 34, was dumped from a side he was expected to captain, in a contrasting move Australia have recalled George Smith, a veteran with 110 Test caps, after four years in the international wilderness.
Davies and Roberts are among a sizeable contingent of Wales players from this year’s Six Nations championship-winning team in the Sydney starting lineup for the tourists, with an 11th on the bench, in a team captained by Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones for the first time.
The last time Wales had 10 men in a Lions team was the first Test against Australia in Brisbane in 1950, which the Lions won 19-6.
Australia coach Robbie Deans believes the Wallabies have saved their best for last, following a come-from-behind 16-15 win over the Lions in last weekend’s grueling second Test in Melbourne to level the series after the tourists won the Brisbane opener 23-21.
He has gambled by selecting 32-year-old openside flanker Smith, without a match for six weeks following a hamstring injury, and relegating No. 7 Michael Hooper to the replacements bench for the Wallabies’ most important match since the 2003 World Cup final with England.
The Kiwi is banking on Smith’s experience and composure under fire to push the Wallabies over the line.
“This will be our best performance, without a doubt. I think that’s been coming,” Deans said. “If you look at the second Test, we started to get some rhythm. Combinations started to kick in. The Lions will intend to deny us that momentum, but either way this will be our best performance.”
“We feel that the combination of experience and fresh legs that George brings is the right way to go. His expertise in the contact zone, where timing, judgement and physicality is everything, is going to be critical,” Deans added.
New Zealander Gatland, who has taken a break from his role as Wales head coach to lead the Lions, made five changes to a winning side between the first and second Tests, and a further six changes after losing last weekend.
Apart from O’Driscoll, who has 133 international caps, Lions scrumhalf Ben Youngs, his brother and hooker Tom Youngs, prop Mako Vunipola, and No. 1 Jamie Heaslip have all been dropped, while skipper Sam Warburton is out with a hamstring injury.
Gatland brought back the fit-again trio of Roberts, scrumhalf Mike Phillips and prop Alex Corbisiero, while Wales No. 8 Toby Faletau is to win his first Lions cap in a back row that sees Sean O’Brien move off the bench to claim Warburton’s spot.
“It all comes down to Saturday [today] — the winner takes all. We know we can leave nothing in the tank and that only a complete performance will get us across the line,” Gatland said.
“Picking this team was not easy and ultimately, with several players available after recovering from injury, the head overruled the heart in many selection decisions,” he added.
“Brian O’Driscoll is a great player and has had a wonderful career, but for the final Test we just felt Jamie Roberts’ presence offered us something more,” he said.
Gatland will be looking to seek early ascendancy through his forwards and create opportunities for the big ball-carriers, while testing Australia’s backs with high kicks.
However, scrumhalf Will Genia, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale and Christian Leali’ifano have been in great form and Australia’s forwards have held their own in the set-piece.
French referee Romain Poite’s interpretations at the scrum and breakdown could play a big part in the final outcome.