The 6 Nations 2014

The 2014 6 Nations has the potential to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory.  There is no clear favourite and realistically, any one of Ireland, Wales, England or France could take the crown (depending on which version of Les Bleus turn up).  Having not endured a gruelling Lions tour, expect Les Tricolores to feature strongly.  Ignore the fact they have only won two of their last eleven Test Matches, and the fact that they finished bottom last year.  In the year after Lions tours, the French have won the 6 Nations title every time since 1998 so they have history on their side.  Italy managed an impressive two victories last year and are no longer the rollover they used to be.  Scotland have made significant improvements since Scott Johnson replaced Andy Robinson.  Wales are possibly favourites given that they are the reigning champions and are going for an unprecedented third championship in a row.  However they don’t have the player depth of England who have some exciting talent coming through the ranks.  Ireland too have always been strong in recent years and with their teams doing so well in Europe, their form may easily translate to the international stage.  Here’s a lowdown of the teams:

 

Wales:

The Welsh have a very settled line-up that are not only in their prime but also vastly experienced.  The likes of George North, Toby Falateau, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton are all 25 or under but have been playing regularly for the past 3-4 seasons.  The losses of Ian Evans, Ryan Jones and Jonathan Davies are big blows because they are real physical presences and in the case of Jones especially, his experience and versatility would have been a real asset.  Wales have the advantage of playing at home for three of the five fixtures but still have not sorted out the pivotal position of fly-half.  Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland both started the Autumn Internationals without convincing totally.  Expect Biggar to start and (hopefully) the world’s most underrated rugby player James Hook to come off the bench and pick off tiring defences.

Prediction: 2nd

 

England:

Logic dictates that England should be miles better than the three other home nations given the vast resources available to them, both financially and player-wise.  However they have been remarkably adept at evening out this so called advantage since lifting the World Cup in 2003.  Stuart Lancaster has slowly but surely been building England up to be a world force in international Rugby Union once again.  Lest we forget, they were only 80 minutes away (admittedly, probably the most naive 80 minutes of rugby I have ever seen) from a first Grand Slam since 2003 so the re-building process is well and truly in full swing.  England have finally seen sense and jettisoned the king of missed tackles, Chris Ashton, and should be all the better for it.  This leaves a rather inexperienced back three, albeit one brimming with potential.  I am particularly excited by this whippersnapper Anthony Watson from Bath.  This could be his international breakthrough season a la Stuart Hogg two years ago.  Perhaps the two most significant decisions have been the restoration of Brad Barritt to midfield (he is to tackling what Ronnie O’Sullivan is to snooker/Chris Ashton to not tackling), and the discarding of Ben Youngs.  I pray to God that Danny Care takes this chance to finally realise his enormous potential on the international stage.

Prediction: 1st

 

Ireland:

Given that three of the four Irish provinces have progressed in the Heineken Cup, they should maybe be regarded as the favourites this year.  A side boasting the talents of Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell will always be a formidable prospect, as shown by the Irish’s hearbreaking defeat to New Zealand in November, even if the latter two players are in the twilight of their careers.  The loss of both Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris through injury though is a huge blow, given the pair’s immense ball-carrying ability.  Sexton is key for me because at his best, he is the best fly-half in the northern-hemisphere (sorry James Hook), and also he offers a significant running option.  If he can bring the likes of D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Bowe and Kearney into play then Ireland have a big attacking threat.  However, I think the absence of their two experienced flankers will count against them.

Prediction: 4th

 

France:

Ah the enigma that is French Rugby.  One moment; astoundingly brilliant, the next; total merde.  Unfortunately for Les Bleus, they have been doing a lot more of the latter in recent internationals, much to the chagrin of their coach, Philippe Saint-André.  They have the strongest domestic league in Europe, yet, as the England football team knows all too well, a thriving league doesn’t always translate to success on the international stage.  The steady stream of imports from abroad has unduly affected the national side who, with the resources they have, should be beating every other team in the 6 Nations out of sight.  They still have world class players in captain Thierry Dusautoir, no. 8 Louis Picamoles, scrum-half Morgan Parra and centre Wesley Fofana but as always with France, it’s a case of whether they can all perform together as a coherent unit.  First of all they need to return to their audacious style of play from four or five years ago.  In the last 6 Nations championship they were painfully one-dimensional, lacking in any invention or creativity.  If they can re-capture the old French spirit and get the ball to Fofana in space, a lot can happen.  Or they will implode spectacularly.  Either way it will be fun to watch.

Prediction: 5th

 

Italy:

The Italian squad is vastly experienced, especially in the forwards.  With the Azzuri, you more or less know what you are going to get: A lot of forward power, distinctly one-paced in the back-line, except for my new favourite player: the mercurial fly half, Luciano Orquera.  Now the little number 10 has the ability to win a game in a flash as well as lose one, but isn’t it exciting to watch someone who is willing to take risks?  Someone will throw the audacious pass because it might lead to a try?  Modern day rugby has very few players of Orquera’s ilk and he should be applauded.  To be honest, with a back row of Alessandro Zanni, Sergio Parisse (surely the greatet number 8 ever) and Mauro Bergamasco (pretty sure he played in the ’99 World Cup, he must be about 50 now), the Italians have the ability to triumph over anyone on their day.  The problem is that they have sweet FA out wide so when Orquera does open the defence up like a can of beans, they don’t have the players to finish moves off.  Could cause a surprise but also, could not.

Prediction: 3rd

 

Scotland:

The Tartan Army have recently played rather attractive rugby without attaining the results their play has deserved.  Nevertheless, the schooling by South Africa in the Autumn was a stark reminder of their standing in World Rugby.  In Stuart Hogg they have the best running full-back in the competition, and with Seans, Lamont and Maitland on the wings, they have speedsters who know where the whitewash is.  Scotland’s problem has always been a dearth of creativity and tries.  Since the mighty Gregor Townsend retired, they have lacked the subtlety and creativity required to open up defences.  They also don’t have battering ram centres so they don’t force themselves over the gain-line either.  The resultant combination means lots of huff and puff but precious little end product which is a shame because Greg Laidlaw is a talented scrum-half and deserves to show what he can do with a pack on the front foot.  I can maybe see Scotland winning one match but no more.  They simply don’t have the requisite quality over the field, save for Hogg.

Prediction: 6th

 

As with all thealternativesportsblog’s predictions, they almost universally turn out to be incorrect.  Do not under any circumstances run down to the bookies and put money on any of our predictions.  You will end up disappointed, resentful and out of pocket.  Do however revel in the joy of five weekends of uninterrupted, (possibly) world-class rugby on your doorstep.  It might not be pretty but it will (probably) be exciting.

Advertisements

The James Hook dilemma

This weekend sees Wales take on Argentina at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, but one man will be very conspicuous by his absence: the mercurial James Hook.  The Perpignan utility back continues to be overlooked by Wales coach Warren Gatland despite his good form for his club.  He is one of the greatest rugby talents Wales has produced in decades.  His play has drawn comparisons with the great Barry John.  Alongside Gavin Henson, he is the most gifted rugby-footballer to come out of the principality this century.  So why can’t Hook get a game for Wales?  After being named on the bench for both the Autumn Internationals and being overlooked for the Lions tour, does the coach Warren Gatland just not rate Hook?  At 28, the Welshman is in the prime of his career, yet he already seems surplus to requirements despite having over 70 caps and being his nation’s 3rd highest points-scorer.  It simply doesn’t add-up.  So what can be the reason?

Hook made his début as a replacement in late 2006 after breaking into the Ospreys team as a fresh-faced 21 year-old, scoring 13 points against Australia.  Wales’ coach at the time was Gareth Jenkins who liked to play free-flowing running rugby and this fitted in perfectly with Hook’s natural attacking instincts as a running fly-half.  Unfortunately, at the time, as well as scoring lots of tries, Wales tended to concede plenty and were not the force they are today.  After a humiliating defeat to Fiji in the 2007 World Cup (a game in which Shane Williams scored one of rugby’s greatest ever tries http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmtouHIVexw  go to 2:50), Jenkins was removed as coach and replaced by the current incumbent, Warren Gatland.  In the Grand-Slam winning team of 2008, Gatland tended to rotate Hook with the more experienced Stephen Jones.  Following Gavin Henson’s self-imposed rugby exile in 2009, Hook was moved into the centre where his elusive running and inventive passing could unlock the midfield.  He was a regular in the Wales team until Gatland settled on a more power-dominated (and totally invention-lacking) centre-partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.  The emergence of Rhys Priestland at fly-half further marginalised Hook and he only just scraped into the World Cup squad of 2011, largely because of his versatility.  Since then Hook has been used sparingly, not least because he doesn’t have a full release clause for internationals in his Perpignan contract which has irked the Wales coach, but also because Leigh Halfpenny has blossomed into a world-class full-back (the position in which Hook currently plays for his club), further limiting his playing chances.

Last weekend against South Africa, Wales looked ponderous in attack showing an alarming lack of invention for a side that is usually renowned for its attacking flair.  Priestland in particular looked decidedly average – he kicked aimlessly and seemed to shirk the physical confrontation with the Proteas.  Instead, Wales decided to run at the defence instead of attempting to unlock it or find the gaps, and against a physical side like South Africa, that strategy is doomed to failure.  I can sort of see where Gatland is coming from.  Priestland is a safe pair of hands and is likely to take fewer risks than Hook.  However against the big three Southern Hemisphere sides, that simply doesn’t cut the mustard.  Having someone like Hook at first receiver brings a whole load of possibilities into play.  Hook can expose a defence in an instant with a clever kick, a drop of the shoulder, an inside pass, a burst of pace.  Yes he is unpredictable, but that is the key to his effectiveness as a rugby player.  Defences will be more aware of Hook’s flair and will consequently stand-off slightly.  With Priestland, you know he doesn’t have great running ability so the defence will be more inclined to rush-up, putting more pressure on the attack.  Wales have been crying out for that touch of class and Hook has it in spades.  Without it their long drought for a Southern Hemisphere scalp will most likely continue.

The age in which international rugby sides fielded a ‘playmaker’ is slowly coming to an end.  James Simpson-Daniel is a prime example.  Probably the most naturally gifted player England have produced this century, his international career was very stop-start due to injuries and also the England management not knowing what his best position was.  A silky runner with a devastating burst of speed, Simpson-Daniel earned 10 caps but was never allowed an extended run in the team.  He was viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity and was often used as an impact substitute, as Hook is, against tiring defences.  Henson was sort of a ‘playmaker’ as was Mike Catt for England at inside centre and Gregor Townsend for Scotland.  There is a pre-conception that they are defensive liabilities and modern day rugby being what it is (i.e very physical), opponents will ruthlessly target any defensive weaknesses.  However this is a fallacy.  Catt and Henson were definitely not liabilities and neither is Hook.  Australia’s Quade Cooper and Italy’s magical Luciano Orquera are the modern equivalents of a ‘playmaker’ – not the strongest in defence but worth the risk because they can win a match single-handedly.  This is the case with Hook.  He can win Wales a match on his own and against New Zealand, Australia or South Africa, Hook’s creativity is vital if Wales want to break their duck.

With Jamie Roberts and now Jonathan Davies out injured, the most logical centre partner for Scott Williams this weekend against Argentina would be Hook.  Gatland has other ideas, selecting Corey Allen from the Cardiff Blues, who has played 10 games of professional rugby in his life.  Now I’m all for giving youth a chance, but you also need your best players on the pitch to win rugby matches.  Argentina are no mugs and Allen is certainly being thrown in at the deep end.  He is either going to sink or swim.  Regardless of whether Gatland should have picked Allen, I personally think James Hook should start at 10 instead of Dan Biggar (and Rhys Priestland).  Despite Biggar winning the 6 Nations earlier this year, the Ospreys man was rarely a stand-out performer.  He had the benefit of willing midfield runners and an excellent pack in front of him.  Now if someone like Hook that as an attacking platform, he could rip defences to shreds, especially a less mobile team like Argentina.  I don’t know why Warren Gatland doesn’t pick him but he is missing an enormous trick.  I’m sure the Pumas will be breathing a huge sigh of relief when they see him warming the bench on Saturday.

If, like me, you yearn to see James Hook in a Wales shirt sooner rather than later, let this video (which I definitely haven’t watched about 20 times) whet your appetite:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw6CuMwiKn4

The Ultimate Test

The end of the 2013 Lions tour is fast approaching and the series has come down to the final test.  The tension on Saturday in Sydney will be practically unbearable, and that’s just for the spectators, either in the stadium, or watching in a pub/at home/on an illegal internet feed.  For the players (especially the Lions players) it will be possibly the most important match of their career.  One thing has dominated, and will continue to dominate the build-up to the game, however, and that is Warren Gatland’s decision to omit Brian O’Driscoll, the first time, it seems, that the Irish legend has been dropped in his senior career.

I’ll come to that issue shortly, but first of all, let’s look back at the tour as a whole.  Personally, I think a Lions tour is one of the great sporting events.  For me, interest in a sporting event is often proportional to length of time between occurrences.  So in football, a World Cup is more exciting than the Champions League, in athletics the Olympics is more exciting than the World Championships, in golf the Ryder Cup is more exciting than the US Masters.  This argument falls down slightly when looking at cricket, where the ODI World Cup is a turgid bloated lump of disinterest, but that’s more the fault of the format of the tournament, rather than the event itself.  However, what puts a Lions tour above almost every other sporting event (the Olympics and possibly the Ryder Cup can rival it) is the fact that the team and the concept only exists for a month and a half every four years.  For both the rugby and football World Cups, the teams that are playing have been building towards that tournament for years, and the element of surprise and suspense is lacking when the team takes to the field.  The fans know, broadly, how their team will play, which players combine well, which players are in form.  Naturally, that can’t happen for the Lions.  Therefore there is a sense of history being made during every minute of a Lions game, in particular during the test.  Scoring a Test try in a Lions jersey is a rare thing, and those that do will have their careers defined by doing so.  Think of the most memorable tries by (for example) Brian O’Driscoll, Jason Robinson, Ieuan Evans and Matt Dawson, and I imagine you’ll pick the tries they scored whilst playing for the Lions.

Ramble aside, I think this has been a successful tour, irrespective of the result of the final Test.  Yes, the lack of top quality opposition in the tour matches was an irritation, but it is entirely understandable.  The coaches of the Super Rugby teams are naturally going to prioritise a strong league performance over victory against a touring team.  As much as such a victory will probably be remembered for longer, a poor season will lead to him losing his job, so the Lions match is the obvious time to allow your important players to benefit from a rest.  It is similar to cricket teams who tour England – 20 years ago they would play most of the counties in either a 3-day or a 1-day match, and the counties would put out their strongest team, anxious to claim a famous scalp.  Now the two or three counties who actually play a touring team view it as a chore, and they tend to send out a development XI, resting as many players as possible without looking rude.  I thought the Lions made excellent use of their warm-up games – every player was given ample time to play themselves into (or out of) form, different combinations were tried, and the expansive style of play won Aussie admirers and enthused British watchers.  Naturally, the intensity wasn’t the same as in a Test, but then no warm-up match can be.

The first two Tests have seen more buttocks clenched, more fingernails chewed, more breath held per square mile than any other occasion on record (except for in Hoxton on the day the Glastonbury line-up is announced).  The Wallabies have looked more likely to break the line, and Will Genia has been marvellous at keeping the tempo relentlessly high.  The heart-breaking try towards the end of the second Test was down to his constant probing and ability to read in a split-second where the Lions defence was at its weakest.  Attack-wise the Lions have looked a little flat, and have lacked a ball-carrying presence in both games (welcome back Toby Faletau).  Jonny Sexton has kicked nicely, but has failed to deliver the ball to his fellow-backs with the required zip and regularity.  Too often, especially in the second Test, a forward (normally Mako Vunipola) ended up at first receiver, slowing down any chance the Lions had of taking advantage of width. 

So, to the team selection for the final Test.  Corbisiero for Vunipola makes sense.  Although I thought Vunipola had a pretty decent game last Saturday, helping the scrum win a few penalties and tackling like a dervish, he also gave away a few high-profile penalties, got in the way of attacks, and, as keeps being said, is probably a better impact player.  Hibbard for Tom Youngs also makes sense, in that the Welsh Dmitri Szarszewski (only not as handsome) is a better scrummager and ball-carrier.  The only caveat is that his throwing has been mediocre at best all tour, and the Wallabies may well target the Lions lineout even more.  Mike Phillips will be welcomed back, not only because it means the world’s slowest passer, Ben Youngs, won’t be on the field, but also because, given the right protection from his back row, he is a potential match-winner, whose physicality may well prove useful.

The back row selection is an interesting one, in that Gatland has decided against replacing the injured Warburton with a Justin Tipuric, the other turnover merchant in the squad, but has instead gone for Sean O’Brien.  Now O’Brien is a terrific player, who makes a staggering number of yards with the ball in hand, and could, at a push, be used in the lineout.  However, it seems that Gatland was struck by the lack of ball-carrying by the forwards in the second Test, and so has moved to remedy that.  Hibbard, O’Brien and Toby Faletau, who has replaced Jamie Heaslip at number 8, make a large number of hard yards, but this particular Lions pack now looks like it will lack something at the breakdown, especially now the Aussie have recalled George Smith, precisely for his ball-snaffling abilities.  Tipuric is on the bench, and should make an impact in that respect, but I worry it will be too late by then.

So, finally to the biggest call of the lot – the dropping of Brian O’Driscoll.  First of all it is clear that the Davies/O’Driscoll partnership wasn’t working – neither player has shown any kind of penetration.  If fit, Jamie Roberts was always going to return to the side, because of his abilities to break the gain line, suck in defenders, and leave more space out wide.  That is the way Gatland always envisaged playing, and as such Roberts’ injury was crippling to his game plan.  Therefore, the choice was between Davies and O’Driscoll as to who would partner him.  So far in the Tests O’Driscoll has been a slightly blunted instrument.  He has had little chance to get his hands on the ball, little space to show his quick feet, few opportunities to demonstrate his immaculate timing of a pass, and, after being pinged twice in dubious circumstances during the first few minutes of the series, has lost his breakdown mojo.  He has kicked poorly, and even looked a little panicked when faced with a quick decision.  Against that, he has been defensively immaculate, tackling everything, positioning himself perfectly, and being a vocal organiser.  An Irish Brad Barritt if you will.  Davies has been better during the tour itself, and has looked more potent going forward during the Tests, but has also started to look jaded, and it was technically his man who broke through for the Australian try in the second Test (although given the excellence of Adam Ashley-Cooper’s angle, anybody would have struggled to stop him).

From a rugby point of view, I think Gatland’s decision makes sense.  Here he has two outside centres, neither of whom are playing particularly well, to choose from.  One is 34, struggling a little for confidence, and would be playing with an unfamiliar centre partner, while the other is 25, has more of a physical presence, and knows the game of the man inside him like the back of his hand.  But this is Brian O’Driscoll we are talking about, one of the greats, not just of this era, but of any era; a leader, a player who has performed on the big stage, a player who inspires his teammates by his presence, as well as scaring the opposition.  He isn’t the player he was – indeed his level of performance has dropped steadily over the last four years – but he is still a formidable force.  This is a decision that will define this tour, one which will define Gatland’s coaching career.  I can see why he has made it, but I worry it is the wrong one.

The Lions – 1st Test

With just one more warm-up match to go, the likely starting XV for the Lions’ first test against Australia is starting to take shape.  Much has been said about the lack of high-quality opposition that the Lions have faced during their tour matches so far, but I’m not so sure. True, the Western Force and the Combined Country XV were pretty feeble, but last Saturday, the Queensland Reds played at a very high tempo, and asked all sorts of questions defensively, while this Saturday, the NSW Waratahs, while possibly a little low on quality, certainly gave the Lions a thorough physical examination.  Based on the first 5 matches, this is the team I would select for the opening test.

Full Back: Leigh Halfpenny

Not even a decision to make on this one.  Halfpenny is playing out of his skin.  Obviously his goalkicking is a factor (hopefully he can have as much of an influence as the last Welshman to wear number 15 for the Lions, Neil Jenkins), but his tackling is immense, he hardly ever drops the ball, and runs superb angles when entering the attacking line, rather as Lee Byrne used to do.  Stuart Hogg hasn’t played badly, and was impressive at stand-off in midweek, while Rob Kearney has only played the last 20 minutes against the Waratahs, where he looked a little off the pace.

Wings: Alex Cuthbert and Simon Zebo

This selection is obviously assuming that George North is unfit; otherwise the giant Welshman would be in instead of Zebo.  The Lions aren’t blessed with outstanding wingers on this tour.  Sean Maitland rather played himself out of contention with an anonymous performance against the Waratahs, where his main contribution was to miss a tackle in the build-up to the first try.  Cuthbert is shaky defensively (not in terms of tackling, but more his positioning and the discipline to hold the defensive line), but is an excellent finisher and of course a hard man to stop once he gets going.  I wasn’t quite as overwhelmed by Zebo’s performance against the Waratahs as many others, but he is a livewire going forward, and has the ability to create something out of nothing.  A strong performance from Christian Wade, should he play against the Brumbies, would put him right into the mix.

Centres: Jonathan Davies and Brian O’Driscoll

After a slow start, Jamie Roberts looked like he was coming into some form against the Waratahs, so his injury has come at an unfortunate time.  Without him, the Lions will obviously lack a huge ball-carrying presence, but they will also lose his defensive organisation and ferocious tackling.  However, Davies has been highly impressive all tour, with even his previously suspect distribution looking good, and O’Driscoll has done what O’Driscoll has done all his career – find space with his quick feet, distribute the ball quickly, offload intelligently, win turnovers, and bring some class to the midfield.  Even though his level of performance has dropped steadily probably over the last 4 years, he is still a staggeringly good player.  Manu Tuilagi may miss out through injury, but even if fit, I think he would be better as an impact player.

Fly-half: Jonny Sexton

Ever since his mediocre performance against the Barbarians, Owen Farrell has been playing catch-up.  Since then he has played well, and kicked excellently, but his distribution isn’t as smooth as Sexton’s, he always seems to take that split-second longer to get his pass away, and his short fuse may get the Lions into trouble.  Despite being targeted by the opposition, Sexton has looked a class apart throughout the tour.

Scrum-half: Mike Phillips

Phillips has been the test number 9-in-waiting since the very start of the tour, and his performances have lived up to that billing.  He has been combative, swift in his passing, and strong in defence (witness his try-saving hit on giant lock Will Skelton against the Waratahs).  Perhaps we haven’t seen him dart around the fringes as much as usual, but that may be down to the Lions’ game-plan, which seems to be to get the ball wide as much as possible.  Much as I don’t rate Ben Youngs, he has performed well so far, grabbing a crucial opportunist try against the Reds, but he’ll have to make do with a place on the bench.

Loose-Head: Mako Vunipola

Tricky one this; had Gethin Jenkins or Cian Healy avoided injury, then I don’t think Vunipola would have been near the starting XV.  However, he has been consistently prominent in the loose, been an invaluable ball-carrier, and looked solid in the scrum (his supposed weakness, although in Australia you’re never going to get really tested there).  Ideally, he would be an impact player, but with Alex Corbisiero starting the tour slowly, and Ryan Grant being even more of a specialist scrummager than Adam Jones, I would give the Tongan-born bruiser the nod.

Hooker: Tom Youngs

One of the positions where the Lions are not blessed with an outstanding candidate, Youngs gets my vote as hooker because so far he has been the most reliable throwing in at the lineout.  The worry is that during the Six Nations, this looked to be the weakest part of his game, and the opposition haven’t really targeted the Lions lineout yet.  Richard Hibbard has made some hard yards with the ball in hand but his throwing has been ropey, while Rory Best hasn’t shown up enough in the loose.

Tight-Head: Adam Jones

A very close call this between Jones and Dan Cole.  Cole is an animal at the breakdown, and a famously gritty scrummager, but the Lions’ scrum has looked more solid with Jones at the helm, while his tackling is immense, and he has shown some deft hands in the loose, even popping up at scrum-half on occasions.

Locks: Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones

This is where selection starts to get tricky.  All 5 of the second rowers on tour have made a case for inclusion; Ian Evans gets through an enormous amount of work on the floor; Richie Gray is an athletic runner, and useful in the breakdown; Geoff Parling is a master at the lineout, decoding the Queensland Reds’ calls and stealing numerous balls.  However, the two most experienced players have been outstanding so far.  Wyn Jones always makes yards with the ball in hand, tackles like a lumberjack, and is solid at the lineout, while O’Connell has shown his full range of skills, stealing at the breakdown, offloading, and shuffling the ball on quickly twice against the Waratahs to create attacking positions.  He is also a born leader, and his experience could be vital.

Back Row: Tom Croft, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau

I really don’t envy Warren Gatland the job of deciding who to start at back row.  I am aware that in all probability he will play Sam Warburton at 7, but to me he has looked a little undercooked, despite playing the full 80 against the Waratahs.  Apart from maybe Dan Lydiate, every single back-rower has made an extremely strong case to be picked in the test team.  Tipuric edges out Warburton because in every game he plays, he is one of the best players on the park, and because he has been lightning quick at the breakdown.  I think Faletau should play rather than Jamie Heaslip, because I feel the Lions will need his ball-carrying abilities, and Heaslip, while outstanding against the Western Force, was less prominent against the more physical Waratahs.  The toughest choice was leaving out Sean O’Brien.  He is a monster ball carrier, has form against the Wallabies, having destroyed them in the 2011 World Cup, and plays with so much heart.  However, I think Croft’s extra pace, ability in the lineout, and work at the breakdown will prove more useful.

So there we are.  For the record, my replacements would be: Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Sean O’Brien, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi (if fit, Stuart Hogg if not).  In all probability my opinion will change after the game against the Brumbies on Tuesday, and who knows, there may be more injury problems to contend with, but I can’t wait for what will probably be an incredibly tense series.