Lions 3rd Test reaction.

I was tempted to write something in the immediate aftermath of the Lions win on Saturday, but given the state of elation I was experiencing at the time, it would probably have gone something along the lines of ‘WHOOOOH!!!  YEAAAAHHH!!!  Go Lions!  Give everyone a knighthood.  Halfpenny for King.  Gatland for Pope.’  Now that I’ve had a chance to calm down, my first instinct is still to write 1,000 words with precisely that sentiment, but I’m going to rein myself in, and try and be a little more objective.

It was an outstanding performance from the tourists.  They were defensively superb, the forwards carried the ball strongly, the backs exercised their moves when it mattered and, most importantly, they absolutely monstered the Wallabies in the scrum, so much so that you started to almost feel sorry for the Australian pack, and a British sport-lover does not dole out sympathy to an Australian sportsperson willy-nilly.

As a former back, I genuinely have no idea what goes on at scrum-time (along with the rest of the human race).  I am au fait with the term ‘hinging’, I can bollocks on about slipping your bind with the best of them, and I understand what an early engagement is, but generally I look at the scrum with a certain amount of bemusement, and then cheer/groan when the inevitable sanction occurs (because, let’s be honest, the ball hardly ever comes out).  However, even I could tell that the Lions scrum was doing something special.  Those in the know were praising the referee Romain Poite for finally refereeing the scrum properly, and clearly the extra power of Alex Corbisiero and Richard Hibbard made a difference.

I was worried that the pack selection had too much emphasis on ball-carrying ability and not enough on craft at the breakdown, but as it transpired the breakdown was not contested as hotly as in the second Test, and, when it was, Poite importantly allowed a proper contest.  Therefore the three loose forwards could work as unit, as evidenced by the first penalty conceded by the Wallabies.  Dan Lydiate felled Joe Tomane, with Sean O’Brien in close attendance, meaning the Irishman could get his hands on the ball before any other Aussie could get near enough to form a ruck.  However, the Lions were smart, and only committed to the breakdown when there was a clear chance of winning the ball, or if they were defending near their own line, when they were excellent at slowing the ball down, probably illegally.  Jonathan Sexton was possibly lucky to avoid a yellow card in the second half, when he held on to the tackled player a couple of metres from his own tryline.

And then we come to ball-carrying.  The difference between the second and third Tests was startling.  Jamie Heaslip is a fine player, quick, with an outstanding offload, and an eye for space, but a shirt-up-jumper ball-carrier he is not.  Given the style of play Gatland prefers, it was a surprise that Toby Faletau had to wait until the third Test to get a start, but he made a huge difference, always making yards, catching restart ball, and coming up with a crucial, possibly even game-changing turnover in his own 22, a couple of minutes before Sexton’s try.  Sean O’Brien, the object of an unexpectedly large amount of man-love from the commentators on Australian TV, was also prominent ball-carrying-wise, although not as much as in previous games – here his main contribution was breakdown work, and putting in an astonishing number of tackles, getting into double figures before the end of the first half.  Finally, Richard Hibbard improved even on Tom Youngs’ work in the loose, notably getting up unharmed from two almighty head clashes, and then collapsing into a state of catatonia on being replaced.

As far as the backs were concerned, their efforts in the first hour or so were primarily defensive.  Jamie Roberts is Wales’ defence leader, and obviously had no trouble slotting into the system alongside his usual partner Jonathan Davies, while George North impressed, giving Israel Folau an early greeting, and then pulling off a highly impressive catch of a high ball in his own 22 under pressure from two Wallabies.  However, when an attacking opportunity arose, they displayed the incisiveness of a warm sharp metal object meeting a lump of dairy product, in particular for the second try, where Tommy Bowe’s decoy run created just enough hesitation in the Australian defence, giving Jonathan Davies just enough room to slip round the outside.  For the fourth try, the angle of Jamie Roberts’ run, and the timing of Conor Murray’s pass were so beautiful and so perfect, that I fully expect to see an exhibition based around them displayed at the Royal Academy within the next 12 months.

Then we have Leigh Halfpenny.  Wonderful, wonderful Halfpenny.  The man to whom I am intending to marry my as yet unborn daughter, whether she wants to or not (although let’s face it, she probably will – girls go gooey at his curly locks and soulful eyes, in the way that blokes go misty-eyed at his flawless kicking technique and low centre of gravity).  He quite simply gets everything right.  The opposition fly-half blooters a kick downfield – don’t worry Halfpenny’s in the perfect position to field it, and barely has to move to catch it, before cracking a dead-eyed reply into touch in the opposition 22.  Oh no, the most dangerous runner in the team has gathered his own chip and chase and is haring into our 22 – don’t worry, Halfpenny has grabbed him round his knees and has him down on the floor before he even has a chance to think about an offload.  What’s this, the opposing scrum-half has booted a mediocre kick towards the left hand side of the pitch around the halfway line?  Can’t see us making too much out of this opportunity though.  Hang on, Halfpenny’s predicted exactly where the kick will go, has caught it and set off on a mazy run, stepping outside then inside before drawing the full-back and sending our giant left-winger over in the corner.  He is an utterly brilliant player in every facet of the game.

There is much else to mention in conjunction with the game – the way Adam Jones never ever takes a backward step in the scrum; the fact Jonathan Sexton is always shouting angrily at someone; Jesse Mogg’s tracer-like left boot; Geoff Parling’s epoch-making ankle tap on the aforementioned Mogg; Geoff Parling’s beard, which makes him look as though he should be telling whimsical yet subtly hilarious stories at the Edinburgh Fringe; Kurtley Beale’s line-breaking ability; Warren Gatland’s slight smile as the Lions win another penalty at the scrum; the way that even joy at a Lions victory cannot hide the fact that Stuart Barnes is an obnoxious tosser .  However, that’s all for another day.  Instead let’s savour the win, and put £50 in an envelope entitled ‘New Zealand 2017 fund.’

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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.

The Lions – a conservative squad

Warren Gatland’s Lions squad announcement on Tuesday threw up precious few surprises.  All the names were more or less expected and there were no massive left-field selections; it is a very pragmatic, a very Gatlandesque squad.  I agree that the New Zealander has chosen a squad that probably has the best chance of winning down-under.  There is a wealth of experience and defensively, the squad looks nigh on impregnable.  However I feel there is something missing from the squad, a player with the X-Factor who can do the unexpected – a mercurial maverick if you will.  In 1997, this player was Gregor Townsend; in 2001 – Austin Healey, 2005 – Gavin Henson, 2009 – James Hook.  2013 – N/A.  There is no obvious candidate, no one who can supply that defence-splitting pass, nobody who can provide that step/dummy/burst of pace.  This used to be the raison-d’être of the Lions.  Alas no longer.  Up-your-jumper, down-the-middle, safety first play seems to be the order of the day.  It is a shame that this Lions series will probably be decided at the breakdown, not by a moment of brilliance in open play.

My first gripe with Gatland’s squad is the omission of Rory Best at hooker.  Now Richard Hibbard and Tom Youngs are relatively inexperienced at international level whereas the Irishman has 67 caps and is renowned as a strong leader.  True, Dylan Hartley is a seasoned international but he hasn’t exactly had the best season and was usurped by Youngs during the Six Nations.  Best was a bit shaky on his throw during that tournament but his performances for Ulster have been nothing short of barnstorming.  His work in the loose more than makes up for his apparent shortcomings in the line-out which for me, was only a temporary loss of form.  I hope this oversight does not come to haunt Gatland later in the tour.

Chris Robshaw was very unlucky not to be selected but who would he have replaced?  Sean O’Brien is a must at blindside flanker and is a great ball-carrier.  Tom Croft is also an all-round option who can provide cover at 6 or 7.  At openside flanker, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric are ahead of the Harlequins man.  Robshaw may feel slightly aggrieved that Dan Lydiate has only played 4 or 5 club matches yet still managed to make it onto the plane.  However, Lydiate is a genuinely world-class no. 6 and if he can find his top form of 2011/12 Gatland’s selection will be vindicated.

The only other slightly controversial selection in the pack was Matt Stevens at prop.  The Saracens man retired from international rugby in late 2011 after the World Cup but Gatland must have seen something that he liked through his form in the Heineken Cup.  Stevens, the gnarled old pro is a formidable scrummager but nothing can replicate the intensity of Test Match Rugby.  Can he step up to the plate after almost 2 years in the international wilderness?  In the 2011 World Cup he looked off the pace and gave away far too many penalties.  He cannot afford to replicate those sorts of performances this summer.

The lack of creativity in the backs is slightly worrying.  Maybe I am romanticising the traditions of the Lions too much but aren’t they meant to play (and win) by throwing the ball about with gay abandon?  What about the likes of Phil Bennett, JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards, Jeremy Guscott and Rob Howley?  Lions legends who played hard but also with flair.  Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Davies anyone?  They all have their various merits, but genius creativity is not one of them.  Did it cross Gatland’s mind to select someone like James Hook or Billy Twelvetrees?  Or even Danny Care?  Players who, if the Lions are losing, can unlock a defence in an instant.  O’Driscoll has the weaponry to do so, but he is more of a running centre than a passing centre and the Irishman no longer has the pace of old.  The lack of cover at fly-half is also worrying.  For such a specialist position, taking just Farrell and Sexton is a risk.  If one of them gets injured three or four days before a test match, then you are looking at Stuart Hogg as the back-up option.  Hogg is undoubtedly a talented player but he is in no way even a club-level no. 10, let alone at the level required to face the Aussies in the pressure cooker of a Lions series.

The distinct lack of subtlety to Gatland’s game-plan is an issue.  The Wallabies aren’t exactly going to be scratching their heads, wondering how the Lions are going to play.  They know it’s going to be very physical, forward-dominated game and so they can prepare for that right now and tailor their training accordingly.  If it is to be a war of attrition and a survival of the fittest then we could be in for a forward-dominated borefest akin to this year’s Six Nations.  I sincerely hope this is not the case and the Lions play some fluid running rugby but I doubt they have the personnel to do so.  As long as they have the correct ethos, then ultimately that is all that matters.

British & Irish Lions 2013 – The Squad

Tuesday 30th of April: the most important day in every British and Irish rugby player’s season.  The day when they will know whether they have achieved the highest accolade the game of rugby can offer: the chance to tour with the British & Irish Lions.  Some will be expecting the call from Warren Gatland, others will be waiting nervously by their phones.  Whoever is chosen will join a select group of players to have proudly worn that red jersey.  Here, my brother and I pick our 37 man band of merry men hoping to roar to success down-under this summer.

Full-back/Wing:

Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, George North (Wales)

Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo (Ireland)

Tim Visser, Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

One of the easier selections.  The Welsh trio of North, Cuthbert and Halfpenny are shoe-ins, and in Halfpenny, the Lions have a genuinely world-class performer.  Simon Zebo and Stuart Hogg are relatively inexperienced at this level but consequently should play without fear, and most importantly they have an abundance of pace and skill.  Visser is a physically imposing player who is an impressive finisher and Tommy Bowe provides experience having toured to South Africa in 2009.  Rob Kearney will be on stand-by should any injuries occur.

Centre:

Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies (Wales)

Manu Tuilagi (England)

Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)

We have picked only four centres on the provision that Tommy Bowe can provide cover as can James Hook and Owen Farrell.  This midfield is not exactly brimming with creativity and Billy Twelvetrees was seriously considered, but we decided to stick with experience.  All four have played down-under before and Roberts and O’Driscoll formed an effective partnership four years ago.  Tuilagi is a wrecking-ball of a centre and will cause havoc in both attack and defence, and O’Driscoll, although he doesn’t have the pace of old, will be equally tenacious.  The Irishman is also a dab hand as a makeshift back-rower.

Fly-Half:

Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

Owen Farrell (England)

James Hook (Wales)

Injury permitting, Ireland’s Sexton is a guaranteed starter.  He seems to be back to full fitness and played a key role in Leinster’s victory over Biarritz on Saturday.  Elsewhere, Farrell does the basics well, has a very solid kicking game and can be trusted to close out games.  James Hook should provide some flair which will be crucial if they find themselves with a deficit to overcome.  Dan Biggar is unlucky to miss out, but his lack of versatility counts against him, and Jonny Wilkinson won’t be available for the start of the tour.

Scrum-Half:

Mike Phillips (Wales)

Danny Care (England)

Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)

Phillips is an easy choice.  He was in good form for Wales during the Six Nations and had a storming last tour to South Africa in 2009.  His deputies are less obvious.  Greig Laidlaw had an equally impressive Six Nations and has the passing ability to provide quick ball to the backs.  He is also dead-eye as a place-kicker.  Danny Care is selected for his tireless running and sniping around the rucks.  He hasn’t always played his best in an England shirt, but he has been in good form for Harlequins.  The Englishman will be effective off the bench against tiring Wallabies and he has that edge to his game to get under the opposition’s skin.  He just edges out Ben Youngs who doesn’t quite have a good enough passing game.  Conor Murray is also an option, but in our opinion he is just a less-good version of Mike Phillips.

Prop:

Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins (Wales)

Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola, Andrew Sheridan (England)

Cian Healy (Ireland)

One of the key positions in the squad.  The Aussies are not renowned as strong scrummagers and if the Lions can compete up front, the platform will be laid for victory.  Adam Jones and Dan Cole will give the Wallabies sleepless nights in the scrum whilst Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy will make an impact marauding in the loose.  Vunipola is a young loose-head who has come on leaps and bounds in the past 18 months.  The Englishman may not be a first-choice but can make a difference in both the scrum and the loose.  Andrew Sheridan is our wild-card pick for his experience and his scrummaging ability.  He has previous against the Aussies and seems to save his best performances for the Green and Golds.

Hooker:

Rory Best (Ireland)

Richard Hibbard (Wales)

Ross Ford (Scotland)

Another key position for the Lions.  Best and Hibbard both had good Six Nations tournaments, with Hibbard taking advantage of Matthew Rees’ injury to put himself firmly in the Lions frame.  Best has good leadership qualities which will be vital down-under.  He also has the knack of scoring tries which is no bad thing.  The final spot was between Ken Owens and Ross Ford, the Scotsman edging it due to his superior throwing ability.

Second Row:

Paul O’Connell (Ireland)

Ian Evans, Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)

Richie Gray (Scotland) (fitness permitting)

The engine room of the team – this selection was rather more obvious.  After the disappointment of missing out on the Six Nations, Ireland’s Paul O’Connell has put in a series of strong displays for Munster in recent weeks and has been chosen as our captain.  He is joined by two Welshmen, Alun Wyn Jones, a perennially top-class performer, and Ian Evans who did himself no harm with his sterling performances in the Six Nations.  Richie Gray has not had a vintage season but is an absolute animal in the loose and has pace to burn.  If his hamstring injury clears up then the Lions have a formidable second row capable of overpowering the Wallabies.

Flanker/No. 8:

Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau (Wales)

Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)

Chris Robshaw, Tom Croft (England)

The most hotly debated position in the squad.  Warburton and Lydiate are genuine world-class performers in their respective positions, so are guaranteed spots on the plane.  Tipuric is arguably in better form than Warburton at the present time, and has to be a contender for the all-important no. 7 jersey.  Chris Robshaw has been immense all season and just edges Sean O’Brien out of the equation.  Toby Faletau is the obvious choice at No. 8, and Jamie Heaslip completes the touring party.  Nick Easter and Johnnie Beattie were considered, but the Irishman has the imposing physicality required of a No. 8 and had a successful tour with the Lions to South Africa last time around.

So there you have it.  We’ve selected our 37.  Warren Gatland, you are welcome.  Whichever players the New Zealander picks, they have the opportunity to become immortalised.  The Lions are the pinnacle of every  British and Irish rugby professional.  They will need to be at 100% from Aussies will definitely be raring to go.  I like how Gatland has said his selections will be determined by current form.  He is learning the lessons from Clive Woodward’s disastrous tenure in 2005.  A player cannot  find form during the tour – it is a fruitless exercise and a waste of a touring spot.  For me, The Lions desperately need to have a strong showing to keep the mystique and intrigue of this quadrennial tour going.  They haven’t won a tour since 1997 and have only won two test matches out of 9 since then.  The absence of influential open-side flanker David Pocock for the Wallabies may well tip the balance in the Lions’ favour.  Whatever the touring party, it promises to be a titanic battle.  Roll on the summer.