British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland revealed that Saints summer signing Alex Corbisiero’s superior scrummaging resulted in his selection ahead of Mako Vunipola for Saturday’s opening Test against Australia.
The rampaging Vunipola was expected to feature at loosehead prop at the Suncorp Stadium after impressing during his four starts on tour, but he lost out to his England rival.
Corbisiero was a late arrival Down Under, re-routing from England’s tour of Argentina after Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins were forced home through injury, and has started only one match, the 64-0 rout of the Combined Country XV.
But his 94 minutes of rugby for the Lions convinced Gatland that he is a safer option to start against the Wallabies with Vunipola providing second-half firepower from the bench.
“Mako’s been pretty unlucky. We’ve looked at the weather conditions and there’s a threat of showers,” Gatland said.
“I’ve no doubt that (Australia coach) Robbie Deans has looked at Mako technically at scrum time.
“Mako coming off the bench will give us a huge amount of impetus and that’s a big strength of his game.
“Technically Alex is probably a little bit sounder and potentially we feel we might have a little bit of an edge at scrum time, although it will be tough contest.
“Alex might also prove to be a better combination with Tom Youngs and Adam Jones, but there’s no doubt Mako will have an impact for us coming off the bench.”
The approval of Gatland completes a startling reverse in fortunes for Corbisiero, whose season had been troubled by a chronic knee injury that raised concerns over his playing future.
While he was watching the RBS 6 Nations from the treatment room, Vunipola was securing his position as first choice loosehead.
But the 24-year-old recovered in time to win selection for the first international against Argentina before withdrawing to join the Lions and now finds himself in a Test XV containing eight Welshman, four Irish and three English.
“I’m thrilled to be involved, very proud and excited. I’ve tried to make sure that my set-piece is efficient and that I’m accurate and efficient around the park in everything I do,” he said.
“Every time I had some game time I tried to make an impact and show what I can do in this environment.
“There were some dark times this season when the injury was taking its time to heal. It’s good looking back now that there was light at the end of the tunnel. I’m glad I was patient.
“Australia have a good pack, they’re well drilled and will look to put us under pressure. We’ll have to meet them physically.”
Apart from the inclusion of Corbisiero the starting XV chosen by Gatland was as expected, although a surprise name on the bench is Wales blindside Dan Lydiate. Toby Faletau or Sean O’Brien were expected to offer back row cover.
Wales wing and another future Saint, George North starts after passing a fitness test on his hamstring injury yesterday with compatriot Alex Cuthbert deployed on the opposite flank in the absence of Tommy Bowe, who is recovering from hand surgery.
Brian O’Driscoll and Jonathan Davies forge the centre partnership with Jamie Roberts not expected to return from treatment until next week. Jonathan Sexton and Mike Phillips are the preferred halfbacks.
Wales’ Sam Warburton leads the side from openside flanker with Tom Croft reprising the role he filled in South Africa four years ago on the blindside, with Paul O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones picked in the second row.
Gatland admitted that selection had been challenging, but used the Lions’ impressive 47-17 victory over the Waratahs last Saturday as his template for the Test team by retaining 11 of that starting XV.
“We went through due process and there was a good discussion about the team,” he said.
“Obviously the make-up of the loose forwards was one, the make-up of the front row was a big discussion and the make-up of the midfield too,
“A lot of the players were rewarded for their performance last Saturday against the Waratahs. That was an extremely positive performance and a lot of those selected for Saturday played against the Waratahs.
“But given the attrition rate of the series it’s important the rest of the squad stay focused. We’re a really close-knit group and there’s a positive feeling in the team.”