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.

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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.