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Lions seeking the ultimate balance against Wallabies

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lionsrugby.com and James Mortimer     24 Dec 2012     Getty Images

With talk already turning to the 125th anniversary adventure in all quarters of the rugby world, speculation continues to grow on how Britain and Ireland’s elite will look to take on the Aussies up front.

Will the Lions pick a pack to try and pound their hosts into submission or will they opt for mobility and workrate on the hand grounds of the southern hemisphere?

The answer, says Rowntree, is a mixture of both. The man charged with coaching the forwards Down Under after working as a specialist scrum coach in South Africa three years ago is looking for a solid setpiece and all-round ability from his chosen eight.

“We want a balance to our game. We want to play a smart game,” said Rowntree.

“You need both facets, because if you pick a pack to try and batter them up front and there aren’t many setpieces, you’re going to look pretty stupid everywhere else.

“You need a pack that can concentrate on that detail at the setpiece but have also got a significant workrate as well. That’s where I’m coming from: we need to be good at all of those things.

“I keep saying this to our England pack and I’ll be saying it to the Lions pack - ‘we want every tool available to us and that’s forward dominance. It’s scrum, it’s maul, it’s lineout, it’s the breakdown’.

“We’ll be looking to really put our front foot forward in terms of passion, dominance and physicality as a forward pack.”

Graham Rowntree will be in the thick of things in 2013, just as he was three years ago

One area of the game that is almost certain to hold the key to glory in June and July is the breakdown. Whoever generates quick ball for their own backline and disrupts the flow of the opposition possession will have a huge advantage when it comes to securing series success.

Rowntree knows first hand just how good the Wallabies are in that area having seen stand-in openside Michael Hooper run the show for Robbie Deans’ troops in their Twickenham triumph over England last month.

Hooper was simply sensational in South West London and yet the Wallabies didn’t even start the Waratahs-bound youngster for the last-gasp win over Wales a fortnight later.

His absence had nothing to do with form, though, as Deans simply opted to give David Pocock his first start since August after the star seven finally recovered from knee and calf problems.

Both men have the potential to break British and Irish hearts in 2013 but the manner in which Rowntree’s England responded in the following weeks’ games against the Springboks and All Blacks suggests that the former Leicester prop won’t allow the Lions to suffer the same fate in the summer.

“We found out over the autumn Tests that the breakdown is everything,” added Rowntree.

“The breakdown is refereed differently at Test level. There’s far more intensity and there’s far more defensive pressure allowed on the ball, and that caught us out against Australia with England.

“We looked at that very closely and the following week against South Africa we looked at how we were looking after the ball ourselves and our urgency to clear out, and on the flip side of that we focused on pressurising the opposition ball more than we did against Australia.

“We were basically trying to do to the opposition what Australia did to us. That became a major driving force going into the South Africa and New Zealand games and we ended the series by putting the All Blacks under huge pressure in the breakdown area.”

Rowntree knows the breakdown will be even more vital in 2013 than in 2009

Talking of pressure, time appears to be one of the biggest areas of concern for the Lions in the modern era.

Long gone are the days of three, four, five or even six-month tours featuring build-up games galore prior to the Test series. Nowadays the Lions face a race against the clock to get ready for the challenge of a lifetime that comes at the end of a long, hard domestic and international season in which players’ minds and bodies are required to focus first on club and country.

But those restraints are now nothing new to Rowntree and fellow coaches Warren Gatland and Rob Howley after they all worked under Sir Ian McGeechan in 2009. Lessons have been learnt from the successes and failures of the last adventure and Rowntree confidently predicts that Gatland’s coaching group are already a step ahead of where they were in planning for South Africa.

“We weren’t able to get together as a group of coaches before Christmas in 2008 but we’ve done that now. We’ve already got together at the coaching announcement and have talked about selection so that’s great. We’ve got some continuity from the last tour with me, Howler and Gats coming on this tour as well.

“Continuity’s important. We haven’t got a great deal of time, that’s the nature of the tour. We know each other as coaches and we know how we operate. We’re speaking to each other a lot about how we plan to play and how things are going to happen.

“We’ll get on as coaches because that’s the personalities we are but we’ve got to quickly establish how we want to play and the type of player we want. The sooner we get organised there, the greater the benefit that’s going to have for everyone and it will ensure we hit the ground running.”