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James Haskell: Lions must be wary of these Aussie dangermen

Michael HooperSo what sort of side will the Lions face Down Under? Having played Super Rugby against many of their guys when with New Zealand’s Otago Highlanders, it’s given me a reasonable insight into who they are likely to play against.

Unlike the raw physicality of the South Africans or the running style of the Kiwi teams, the Australians rely a lot more on a mapped-out game-plan, or a sequence of actions designed to get them into certain positions with the intention of creating miss-matches to release their backs.

At the Highlanders, the one thing we talked about when playing against, say, the Waratahs, was if you disrupt this sequence, then guys will be out of position and their attack will break down.

One guy who really stood out when I played against him was the Brumbies’ No.7 Michael Hooper. I hadn’t really heard of him before the match but I knew a lot about him afterwards. He has since burst onto the international scene and was fantastic for the Aussies, especially against England in the autumn, where I tipped him, correctly, to be man of the match.

His ability over the ball is top notch. He isn’t the biggest, but his ability to bounce-up after the tackle and get onto the ball is up there with the best in the world. He also cleverly allows others to make leg tackles, so as the second man in, his squat size means he gets over the ball quickly and is very hard to clear out. He also has a turn of pace and is not scared of carrying.

He will always attack a breakdown given half the chance and if he doesn’t get the ball, he is tricky to shift. If he gets the nod to start in the back row, he will need to be stopped early – as the Highlanders unfortunately discovered, when he won six turnovers against us.

There is talk of iconic Wallaby George Smith possibly being involved and I think, with David Pocock’s injuries, they could do far worse than to play both Smith and Hooper.

I played against Smith in both France and Japan and he hasn’t lost his edge at all.

Another player who could cause the Lions all sorts of problems, is wing Digby Ioane. He has had a few problems over the last few years with his knees, but when he is on top of his game he is deadly with the ball in hand.

He is fast, powerful and has great footwork.

Another out of this mould is inside back James O’Connor. He looks like a bigger, more aggressive version of Justin Bieber, but he has a world class ability to break through tackles, create line breaks and finish. His place kicking is not bad either.

You look at him and think, “I’ll tackle him,” and then before you know it, you’re getting bumped off or side-stepped.

When the Rebels played the Highlanders in Invercargill last season, he ran at me during a passage of play and in the last few feet, side-stepped. I lunged at where I thought he was going to be and caught hold of a leg and, er, some other stuff.

Let’s put it this way, he stopped pretty quickly, to my relief. It was only as he went down did it dawn on me what I actually had hold off! I profusely apologised and luckily being a top guy he saw the funny side.

Mind you, the testicular tackle is not a go-to option for the Lions!

I first came across him on a tour to Australia with England in 2010. He was only about 17 but he played against our midweek side, scored three tries, kicked all the points, played unbelievably and was taken off after 40 minutes so he could start against the main England side that weekend!

I’ve never been more impressed by a young player; I was even more shocked when I learned his age. Will he play at 10 for the Australians?

It looks likely with Kurtley Beale in therapy and Quade Cooper not in coach Robbie Deans’ original squad.

The last player is a bit of a wild card, Israel Folau who has moved from League to Union via Aussie Rules!

After numerous tries for the Kangaroos and in State Of Origin he is now on top form with the Waratahs. If he can reproduce his league form then he could be the Aussies’ most potent weapon – their equivalent to Sonny Bill Williams.


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