The Southern-Hemisphere Jinx

The recent autumn internationals revealed some harsh truths for the northern-hemisphere teams.  Basking in a post-Lions glow, the expectation was that they would more than match their opponents from the other side of the globe.  The reality was a marked contrast.  Only England provided a glimmer of hope with an unconvincing 20-13 victory over a very under-par Australia.  Wales, Scotland and Ireland all lost to the big three of South Africa, the Wallabies and New Zealand.  Wales talked a good game, yet couldn’t quite walk the walk and whilst Ireland’s defeat to the Kiwis was heart-breaking, it was just so inevitable.  What can the 6 Nations teams (especially Wales, Ireland and Scotland) do to break the monopoly the southern-hemisphere currently has on the game of rugby?

            Firstly, the Lions: I am of the opinion that the Lions played almost to their top potential this summer (particularly in the finale in Sydney) whilst Australia underperformed considerably given the plethora of talent at their disposal.  The home nations assumed that they were going to steam-roller the Aussies (who have played 15 matches this year) just as they had done on that glorious July day.  Not so.  A variety of factors, the main one being off-load king Quade Cooper’s sublime form in the past two tests but also a renewed steel in the forwards (Michael Hooper take a bow) and some clinical finishing has led to a resurgence in the Australian team characterised by some thrilling running rugby.

There is a reason why Wales can’t beat any of the big three, and Wallaby fly-half Cooper displayed it swathes: talent.  Man for man, Wales simply aren’t as talented as Australia.  No amount of defensive drills, set-piece practice and teamwork can make up for that fact.  Over an 80 minute match, at one or two crucial points, this imbalance will manifest itself in an unstoppable attacking move – witness Christian Leialiifano’s try on Saturday.  The key thing here is ability.  Wales played supremely well on Saturday – probably the best they could have played – yet still they lost.  Wales don’t have someone like Will Genia, Quade Cooper or Israel Folau – someone who has that X-factor, who can produce the unexpected – a maverick if you will (well they do – James Hook – but he was playing for Perpignan instead).  They have a number of very good players, but no-one who can instinctively create something from nothing.  You get the feeling with Wales that they are just a battering ram, and a very good one at that, but they never really seem to search out the gaps – instead they seem to relish contact which I find bizarre.  Their players are wonderful physical specimens, but instinctive rugby footballers they are not.  Australia matched Wales’ physicality and their superior natural talent was the very fine difference between the teams on Saturday and this will continue until Wales can somehow conjure up a Shane Williams/Gavin Henson clone.

Speaking of Henson, I must state how Cooper’s performance on Saturday reminded me of the once great Wales centre.  During his prime (2004-08), Henson played as if he was having a Sunday afternoon stroll.  When he got the ball it was as if time stood still and no-one could touch him.  He made the game look easy whilst all around him players were straining every sinew to match his outrageous talent.  The same is true of Cooper.  In setting up the Wallabies’ opening try, under pressure from two defenders he nonchalantly flicked an offload to the waiting Joe Tomane who set up Lealiifano to score.  The genius of this was that he drew George North in from the wing to create space for the waiting Tomane.  Few players in the world game have that sort of vision, particularly in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a Test match.  Henson was similar in that defenders were drawn to him because they knew that he could create something in the blink of an eye.  Once the defence was concentrated on him, he had the ability to create space for other runners around him and, crucially, deliver a pass from which they could take advantage.  George North is a player who attracts defenders simply because of his immense physical strength, yet rarely does he use this to pass to a teammate in space.  Instead he goes into contact and, because of his upright body position, often gets turned over.  It is not enough to have a game-plan based around brute force.  International defences are so good these days that teams need a touch of ingenuity to breach the try-line.  Cooper was the difference between the two teams on Saturday and exemplified the importance of a running fly-half (step forward James Hook).

Ireland’s loss to New Zealand (it has to be described like that) was a bitter pill to swallow.  In all honesty they should have never been beaten after leading 22-7 at half-time but, like Wales, Ireland don’t have that winning habit over the Southern Hemisphere.  It must be said that to be leading by 15 points against the World Champions at the break is a herculean effort and they should be commended for putting up such a committed performance.  New Zealand however, are a relentless juggernaut that play at 100% intensity for the full 80 minutes (82 in this case).  Ireland showed a little naivety in not seeing out the match by playing territory and trying drop-goals but against the All Blacks (this year’s vintage are one of the greatest teams to ever play the game), they can be forgiven.  The issue is that was Ireland’s best chance to beat New Zealand, and probably will be for the foreseeable future.  It is telling that at the weekend, even when playing at almost 100%, the Northern Hemisphere teams still can’t beat the Southern Hemisphere when they’re not on top form.  I don’t know whether it is better coaching, more commitment, better quality of opposition, physical strength, stronger mental strength that is the difference between the sides (probably a combination of everything), but one thing is for sure; they are more talented.  Until this imbalance is rectified, the dominance of the Southern-Hemisphere over the rugby world looks set to continue.

Advertisements

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.