Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Leadership is the issue in series decider

Shadows over Lions and Wallabies' chiefs this week casts the spotlight on the cohesion of the warring sides.

Modern rugby coaches insist leadership cannot be a solitary commission. They talk in terms like "group advocacy", "collective responsibility" and "pod management".

It makes more sense than Sean Fitzpatrick emerging from a ruck to ponder an issue before wandering out and asking a back to grubber more to turn the opposition around.

So the All Blacks in this double-decade age of professionalism have picked a leadership group that runs many aspects of life in camp, from team duties and brainstorming ideas to details out on the track.

Kieran Read has senior assistants such as Conrad Smith, Andrew Hore, Daniel Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Keven Mealamu to test ideas on or take advice from. Usual skipper Richie McCaw has also been around that group at their planning meetings.

So how does McCaw's absence compare with the non-appearance of the Lions and Wallabies captains which faced both sides this week?

Sam Warburton received his non-playing card after a series of scans in Melbourne on his damaged hamstring as James Horwill waited for a verdict on his second appearance before the IRB to answer a stamping charge.

Horwill was cleared to lead his troops while the Lions pondered their options.

Former Lions skipper Paul O'Connell was out with a broken arm and another ex-captain, Brian O'Driscoll, was not in good form.

The side was stacked with Welshmen so better make one of them skipper. Hey, how about you, Alun Wyn-Jones? You've had a crack with Wales, here's the black armband, give it mush my son... or something like that?

Not quite, but there was an element of last man standing.

The Wallabies have Horwill to run-and-gun the tight five, Ben Mowen to control the lineout calls, superb lieutenant Will Genia who will sniff the pace of the match and the tenacity of the Lions defence, and Adam Ashley-Cooper wider out to scan defences and call plays.

They are men who have played a great deal together and can feel the tempo of the Wallabies' work and the reaction of the Lions.

In stoushes like last week's, they understand how to keep their late composure in a game of static enterprise. They worked together in the last 10 minutes to find the converted try for the victory to square the series.

When referee Craig Joubert awarded them a penalty the only clear option was a scrum.

The first move did not look flash when James O'Connor called Israel Folau on an inside ball. However Folau attracted multiple defenders for the gap to open a touch on the left. Converted try, all square in the series.

Who would do that business for the Lions in the same situation? Wyn-Jones will have his melon buried in the set-piece, so who calls Jamie Roberts to smash it up for a switch call out wide to George North?

Without the seasons of regular international play together, the Lions always have to overcome these sorts of issues while their opponents invariably improve.

Knowing this, Gatland has gone for his Valleycentric XV, 10 men who have worn the scarlet jerseys of Wales together and found a common purpose and style, which has taken them to more consistent standards in recent seasons.

They know each other's nuances, they are on the same wavelength as Gatland's philosophies and ideas.

Add in the striking edges from Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Sexton, Sean O'Brien, the propping rock Alex Corbisiero and lineout calling from Geoff Parling, and the good ship SS Lions should be steaming nicely, rather than listing towards the rocks.

If things get a bit twitchy, Wyn-Jones' rapport with French referee Romaine Poite will be tested. He should have an idea how Poite ticks from his regular Six Nations' appointments. Warburton will school him up on any of the official's foibles.

Horwill's practical knowledge of the referee will not be as broad especially if he lets play "go" a little more in the rucks and tackle contests.

Leadership will be vital, but not the only determining factor.

Will the Lions have any snap left after a long domestic season and six-week sojourn Downunder?

Can they rise from the deflation they must have felt last Saturday when they were five minutes shy of a piece of history?

- NZ Herald

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