Coach Robbie Deans admits he faces an immensely tough decision whether to recall the experience and nous of Wallabies great George Smith to improve Australia’s breakdown fortunes on Saturday night.
The British and Irish Lions surprisingly gained the upper hand in a rugged breakdown battle in the second Test and young incumbent Michael Hooper is no certainty to start at No.7 in the ANZ Stadium decider.
After a week of full training in Melbourne, Smith is considered fit and prepared enough to be unleashed against the Lions.
But the 32-year-old still has not played for six weeks due to a knee injury and that would concern Deans ahead of such a big game.
The coach conceded on Tuesday that he could choose any one of his three openside flankers – Hooper, Smith and replacement Liam Gill – to start in the third Test.
All have been stand-outs in Super Rugby this season, while 110-Test veteran Smith has turned the clock back 12 years when he was highly influential in Australia’s maiden series win over the Lions.
The Brumbies flanker last played for Australia in 2009 but Deans showed how highly he rates him by rushing Smith back from injury last week.
Asked if he faced a difficult call at No.7, he said: “Absolutely, which is great.”
Although the Wallabies ultimately prevailed 16-15, Deans might be forced to consider a back-row change after Lions captain Sam Warburton was far more influential than Hooper at the ruck contest.
It was a reversal of fortunes from the first Test when Australia dominated the breakdown, before and after Hooper moved into the centres just after the break.
“As happens, the Lions responded to our performance in the first Test and they really targeted it, particularly in the wide breakdowns, and they put us under a lot of pressure,” Deans said.
“We’ve got to be better.”
Lions coach Warren Gatland has a headache of his own at No.7 with Warburton (hamstring) ruled out.
Irishman Sean O’Brien was on the bench in Melbourne and is highly regarded by the Wallabies but Gatland would be tempted to pick Welsh openside Justin Tipuric, who starred in March’s Six Nations triumph over England.
“They’ve got some quality options there,” said Deans, who played down Warburton’s loss.
“In fact, I think (the media) were suggesting at the front end (of the tour) that they maybe should have been there in the first instance.”