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 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 – 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.