6 Nations Team of the Tournament

Now the dust has settled on an exciting but not vintage tournament, it’s time for me to put my formidable rugby knowledge to the test and choose my team of the tournament.

15. Full Back: Mike Brown (England)

After a pretty horrible 2013 Six Nations, Brown was possibly the player of the tournament this time around.  His support running was a joy to behold and he has the indispensable ability to almost always make the correct decision.  Looks so much more at home as a full-back than on the wing.  Rock solid in defence and also the joint-leading try-scorer.

14. Right Wing: Andrew Trimble (Ireland)

Yoann Huget was a rare bright spark in an otherwise average French side, but for his consistency, the Ulsterman gets my vote.  An unheralded player but someone who does all the basics very well and, like Brown, supports play excellently.  Kept his cool in Paris to score a crucial try.  Has inherited a great finishers instinct.  On this evidence, Tommy Bowe has more chance of replacing Brian O’Driscoll that ousting Trimble.

13. Outside Centre: Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)

Who else?  While Luther Burrell had a superb debut tournament for England, the retiring veteran showed the world what they will be missing with some all-round displays of class, elegance and ingenuity.  The beauty of O’Driscoll is that he never seems to be rushed on the rugby field.  He has that Henson-like ability to make time stand still and pick a pass no-one else sees, yet the defence hardly lays a finger on him.  Again, he was a rock in defence.  The great man will be sorely missed

12. Inside Centre: Jamie Roberts (Wales)

As much as I do have a rather large man-crush on Wesley Fofana (you’re lying if you claim you don’t), Dr Roberts had an excellent Championships.  As always he broke the gain line and tackled with energy and verve, but he has matured with age into more than just a battering ram.  He runs more intelligent line these days and often pops up as a support runner.  Two tries against Scotland capped an impressive tournament.

11. Left Wing: George North (Wales)

Despite playing at the unfamiliar position of Outside Centre for a couple of games, the giant Welshman looked much more at home on the wing.  Scored three tries and caused general havoc with ball in hand.  He still needs to work on his finishing in my opinion but he has the potential to be one of the game’s greats.

10. Fly-Half: Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

A quite brilliant tournament for the Racing Metro outside-half.  He was by far the most effective player in his position because he offers and equally potent kicking and running game, highlighted by his four tries.  Kept a cool head in the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Championship decider in Paris.  Made Wales’ Rhys Priestland look even more shit that he actually is, which is difficult.

9. Scrum Half: Danny Care (England)

The England number 9 has finally come of age.  His darting runs are reminiscent of Rob Howley and Matt Dawson at their best.  By far the best scrum-half in the northern-hemisphere, his high-tempo delivery set the foundations for England’s impressive attacking displays.  A joy to watch.

1. Loose-Head: Cian Healy (Ireland)

What a player.  An animal in the loose but also a formidable scrummager.  When he carries the ball he resembles a charging rhino and is (probably) almost as difficult to bring down without tranquiliser.  Healy has also curbed his ill-discipline which has blighted his career to date.

2. Hooker: Rory Best (Ireland)

Having originally been overlooked by Warren Gatland for Lions selection supposedly because of his lacklustre throwing, the Ulsterman showed the Welsh coach why he had been wrong to omit him with a brilliant tournament in which he was almost flawless at the line-out.  Edges out Dylan Hartley because of his superior tackling ability and energy in the loose.

3. Tight-Head: Nicolas Mas (France)

There was no outstanding candidate for the number 3 shirt so I chose the Frenchman more for his commitment in that brutal final encounter with Ireland in Paris.  The French scrum was pretty tidy in that game against an Ireland pack that had dominated up front against Wales, Scotland and Italy and that was in no small part due to Mas.  I have no idea what he’s like in the loose but let’s assume he was average-to-good.  Basically, he was less bad than all the other tight-heads.

4. Lock: Paul O’Connell (Ireland)

The Ireland captain is like the postman; he keeps delivering top-class performances year after year.  His display in Paris was one of the great performances.  He seemed to be everywhere: at the breakdown, tackling, ball-carrying, taking line-outs  – all in the face of some ferocious French resistance (there’s a first for everything).  The Emerald Isle will be hoping that he continues for at least a couple more seasons.

5. Lock: Courtney Lawes (England)

Another coming-of-age tournament for an Englishman, this time the giant Northampton second-row.  His all-round brilliance was exemplified by a man-of-the match display against Wales.  Rather like O’Connell, he is an all-action player with the addition of impressive pace.  Always near the top of the tackle count.  Looks a certainty for the World Cup.

6. Blindside Flanker: Peter O’Mahony (Ireland)

This very blog had tipped Ireland to have a disaster tournament precisely because they were without their star flankers in Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris.  Well I am currently eating mountains of humble pie because the Munsterman was an absolute tour-de-force.  He was a permanent fixture at the breakdown and won man-of-the-match in the forward masterclass against Wales.  Excellent.

7. Openside Flanker: Chris Robshaw (England)

By far the outstanding open-side in this year’s tournament.  Not only was he a tireless in defence and excellent at the breakdown, he also showed an impressive fleet-of-hand to release Mike Brown for Danny Care’s try against Ireland.  Deserved his try against Italy and led England flawlessly after much criticism in past years.  Looks to have benefited from a summer’s rest.

8. Number 8: Billy Vunipola (England)

A controversial choice.  I know he only played three games and Jamie Heaslip excelled throughout the tournament, but Vunipola (like his cousin Taulupe Falateau) is a complete rugby-footballer, in the mould of Sergio Parisse, Nick Easter or Bobby Skinstad.  Not only does he always break the gain-line, he has brilliant awareness and is constantly looking to off-load the ball.  This results in a far more dynamic attacking platform which defined England’s matches.  He is vital if the red-rose are to be successful in the World Cup.

 

As regular readers (apparently there’s at least one) will know, thealternativesportsblog is based purely on facts and is almost never wrong, so if you disagree with any of my choices, you are severely misinformed.

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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

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.’

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.

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.