Lions 2K13: The Whole Package

This will be my last post on this year’s Lions squad (promise; more aerodynamics next time). I’ll probably be coming back to the tour during the summer when they start playing games, but for now I’ve got a few things to consider, beginning with the makeup of the tour party.

Of the 37 players in the initial tour squad, 21 of them are forwards; a balance that, whilst not apparently significant, is indicative of the balance of player numbers. If he is trying to cover a position for both weekend and midweek games whilst allowing for form or injury, a coach would generally take double the number of players required in each position plus one (so three fullbacks, five wingers, five centres and so on), with a few more for particularly high-attrition positions such as the front row. However, this tactic alone would create a squad of more than 40 which, given that the Lions-size squad of 37 is about the upper limit to be effectively manageable and organised for a touring party, would simply not work, particularly if there were a lot of good candidates for any one position to further force the numbers up. As such, some positions are always going to be culled of an extra man here or there, and Gatland has chosen the backs; picking just four wingers and four centres means that only one is likely to be properly rested for each game, whilst the two flyhalves will find the going especially tough with the potential to be sharing starting & subbing duties for every single match. By contrast, there are eight back rowers and nine front rowers covering just six positions between them. The flyhalf problem may be helped if Gatland chooses, as he has mentioned, to play Stuart Hogg as an auxiliary fly half, but even so problems may arise; here taking James Hook or Greig Laidlaw may have mitigated the problem further, but I presume Gatland knows what he’s doing.

That he’s taken so many forwards may indicate two things; firstly that Gatland knows how high Lions attrition rates often are (especially up front) and he wants to ensure all his forwards are used to playing with one another whatever happens, and that he thinks that is where the key battles will lie. The Australians have one of the fastest and most exciting back lines in world rugby, despite many of their players being inconsistent in their brilliance; on their day they can set a game alight and, good though the Lions backs undoubtedly are, even they may struggle to cope with them in full flow. It may well be that Gatland has decided that he thinks the Australians weak link will be up front, and that if the tight five can gain dominance over their counterparts the Wallabies will simply have no ball to play with. Whilst the Australian back three is mobile and contains, in David Pocock, possibly the finest openside in world rugby (as well as the barnstorming runner that is Wycliffe Palu), they are not renowned for their scrummaging ability and, if set on the back foot in the power stakes, could see their effectiveness drastically dim. Go back to my last post, and count the number of times the word ‘scrummaging’ was used to describe the Lions’ prop selection. I think that might reveal quite a bit, and explain why some more exciting, but temperamental, players (looking at you, Christian Wade) have been left out of the squad; Gatland’s playing the safe game.

Running counter to this theory is some of the players he’s included; the likes of Richie Gray, Tom Youngs and Justin Tipuric are known for their performances in loose, rather than structured gameplay, so why has he picked them? The most probable answer is also the simplest; things go wrong in international rugby, and sometimes the Australians will get some ball to play with. Even if the Lions can’t quite match the Australian’s loose game, they must at least be able to counter it for the time being if the needs arise. These players may end up filling the bench as ‘just in case’ measures; or it may transpire that I’m totally wrong, and that Gatland may be picking good scrummagers up front as the basis for a looser, faster game. We will see.

If solidity is Gatland’s tactic, then his game plan may well be based around ensuring set-piece ball is top-notch. This might give Alun Wyn Jones the nod over Paul O’Connell for the second row berth due to his increased lineout presence, and suggests that Richie Gray is going to have to improve his game in the tight to justify inclusion over the lineout specialists Geoff Parling and Ian Evans; whichever one of those it ends up being depends very much on in-game form, but Evans may have the edge due to his experience partnering Jones for Wales. If he does though, his mobility around the park could reap dividends at the breakdown. If this doesn’t prove the case, then expect to see Tom Croft making a surprise appearance at blindside; whilst not a traditional defensive blindside, Croft is a born Test match player and his lineout agility is second to none. There are a few dead certs elsewhere in the squad; Adam Jones at tighthead, Toby Faletau at No.8, Sam Warburton at openside flanker, Mike Phillips at 9 and Jonny Sexton at 10, but elsewhere things are a little more uncertain. There is a reasonable chance that country combos will end up coming to the fore, at least for the Welsh; the back three and back row are likely to be all-Welsh, and there is a possibility for the second row and centres to follow a similar pattern. If Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard are injured then there’s a possibility for an English front row and an even slimmer chance of an English half-back pairing (if Mike Phillips is injured, the Irish half-backs may combine), but the view of most is that this will be a Welsh-dominated test side. I hope it is not too overrun by Welshies; nothing against them as players, only the fact that the Welsh national side has failed to beat Australia on its own several times in the past. Plus, y’know, it’s a Lions tour; ‘E pluribus unum’ and all that.

Beyond those few suggestions however, few notions of team selection cannot be made with any accuracy at this stage; all will depend on how various players perform in warmup matches, and it will be intriguing to see who Gatland picks to start the opening weekend and midweek matches respectively (the opening Barbarians match excluded; that’s likely to be a bit more experimental). Either way, this team selection has revealed just how much strength their is in European rugby at the moment (I mean, just check out this article on the best British & Irish 15 not going on tour, and see how strong it is), and the tour will doubtless prove… intriguing.

Lions 2K13: The Forwards and more…

My last post was the day after the Lions squad announcement, but only got as far as analysing the backs before realising I’d seriously overstepped my usual post length. Clearly I have too many opinions.

Anyway, the forwards.

We’ll begin with the props, of whom there are six. Adam Jones was always going to be a shoo-in at tighthead after making the scrum his bitch during every match of this Six Nations, and Cian Healy will probably be partnering him in the Test side; Healy has some disciplinary problems, but is a good scrummager and very useful in the loose. In spite of his youth, I am all in favour of Mako Vunipola’s inclusion in the side; he’s played well for England this season, his scrummaging is good and he has an uncanny knack of finding the tryline more often than a prop has any right to, indicating his presence in the loose; he’ll make a great impact sub. Dan Cole is also thoroughly deserving of his place; despite what certain pundits have said in the buildup, he ranks with Adam Jones as among the best scrummaging tightheads in the world and can carry the ball too when he wants to.

Outside these four, Warren Gatland’s choices become a mite more controversial. Gethin Jenkins is an experienced international and past tourist (as well as being Welsh, which always helps one’s case in a squad run by the Welsh national coach) and, when at full strength, is the best scrummaging loosehead in the northern hemisphere. Oh yeah, apart from Andrew ****ing Sheridan. Possibly the strongest and hardest man playing rugby today, he has hit a rich vein of form since joining Toulon- if he was still in England he’d be straight on the plane, and even as it is I’d have considered bringing him in late purely for his history of dominating Australians. Jenkins, on the other hand has gone rapidly downhill since arriving at Toulon and his club form is well below par. He played OK in the Six Nations but is not at his best, and will have to impress to justify inclusion for the test side.

The final prop is Matt Stevens. Now two years out of a lengthy ban after testing positive for cocaine, selection on this tour is a significant milestone in his rehabilitation as both a man and player; not that his inclusion hasn’t angered a couple of people. He’s even toured before, albeit on the disastrous 2005 tour where he didn’t win a cap, and his ability to play both sides of the scrum will be attractive to Gatland. However, he has not been a regular starter for England, and Ryan Grant will be justifiably feeling a bit miffed about having been left out of the squad after a stellar Six Nations with Scotland. Other pundits had even tipped Euan Murray and Mike Ross to tour, outside bets though they were.

Warren Gatland must have great faith in the English front row union; along with three of their props, he’s taken both of their international hookers, Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley. Despite his disciplinary problems and inconsistent throwing, Youngs is active in the loose and was a favourite of many (not me especially, but hey; I’m no international coach) to make the tour. Hartley, on the other hand, is a more controversial choice. Not only is he not British (which, whilst it shouldn’t be a problem, will always annoy someone or other), but he’s also not been a regular starter for England since Youngs’ rise to prominence, and has a history of disciplinary problems. This on its own wouldn’t be much of a barrier to selection were it not for one person: Rory Best. The Irish hooker had a great Six Nations, is a superb lineout thrower and does everything that a hooker should and more; Gatland must have a VERY good reason for not taking him.

Oh, and Richard Hibbard’s the third hooker. He’ll probably start the tests.

Working our way back we arrive at the second rows. Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones were obvious choices after great runs of form for both club and country, and together they would provide an engine room of colossal power. To compensate for some slight deficiencies in lineout agility, Gatland has gone large and taken three more locks: Ian Evans, Geoff Parling and Richie Gray. Both Evans and Parling are lineout bosses (pipping Donnacha Ryan to that job) with some mobility around the park, but neither offer much special in the tight; they will be unlikely to play alongside one another. Gray is the wildcard in the mix, being the most flamboyant ball-carrier and useful in both scrum and lineout; unfortunately his form has been found wanting in recent months, so Gatland will be hoping he finds his feet in Australia to provide a much-needed foil to Jones or O’Connell. If he doesn’t then it’s a role Joe Launchbury could easily have filled (despite his inexperience) after a fantastic showing in the Six Nations.

The back row is the pick of the bunch when it comes to selection controversy: taking two Number 8’s is not uncommon, but England’s Ben Morgan will, despite his recent injury, feel rightly annoyed that he has been left out in favour of Ireland skipper Jamie Heaslip, who’s been having an… OK season. Johnnie Beattie must also be feeling aggrieved after a Six Nations that, whilst hardly world-beating, was probably better than Heaslip’s. Toby Faletau was always going to tour after a good show in the Six Nations, and will probably start but he isn’t quite as exciting or dynamic as Morgan (or even Heaslip at his best; the real mavericks would have even thought about Andy Powell), who would have provided a nice balance. Gatland’s choice of flankers is also interesting; he’s taken a full six to cover just two places, each with their own play style and skill set. Tom Croft has the agility and lineout skills (a smart move if both O’Connell and Jones prove undroppable in the second row), Sean O’Brien is a combative rucker and ball-carrier, Justin Tipuric is a natural loose forward, Dan Lydiate is a veritable rock at blindside flanker and Sam Warburton brings leadership and presence at the ruck. Choosing between them as players is nigh-on impossible, and really depends on how the Lions want to play. Certainly, with six of them, nobody’s getting in by default.

Except that one of them is. Naming Sam Warburton captain makes some sense from a leadership perspective; he took Wales to a Grand Slam last year and, despite his youth, has great presence on the pitch. However, among such talented peers he is not quite shining enough to be absolutely secure of his place, and even in the Six Nations Wales found themselves moving him to the blindside rather than his natural openside to accommodate Justin Tipuric’s superb form. But now Dan Lydiate, the best blindside flanker in the world last year, has returned from injury and joins both of them; if both he and Tipuric hit top form then neither can possibly be left out of the test side, but one must to make way for Warburton. Warburton’s a good player, and could well be the best seven out there come Test time, but making that risk in such a key position wouldn’t have been my position. Fantastic leader (and, indeed, player) though he is, this is not a squad short of leadership potential, and I personally would have picked either Paul O’Connell or Brian O’Driscoll to captain the side.

And then there’s the question of Chris Robshaw. The England captain picked up three man of the match awards during the Six Nations and deserved every one, despite repeated claims that he was playing out of position. Picking the recently injured Lydiate and the not spectacular (this season, anyway) Sean O’Brien over him and the likes of Kelly Brown (another Scottish back rower who made a big impact this season) and Ryan Jones (a seasoned tourist capable of playing everywhere in both second and back rows) will be adjudged by all to be somewhere between risky and downright stupid. Personally I would have taken Robshaw over O’Brien and Jones or Morgan over Heaslip, but that’s just me.

Hmm… 1400 words again. OK, just one more post (only one, I promise) to cover some more general squad trends and attempt to identify playing styles, along with a few other bits and pieces. Monday it is then.

Isn’t legalised violence wonderful?

OK, back I am after unscheduled break, and since I have some time, I thought I would try to spread the word of something very close to my heart- the sport of rugby.

In Europe (or Britain, anyway), rugby is subject to a lot of misconceptions due to lack of knowledge- across the rest of the world, Australasia and South Africa excepted, it is hardly known. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, rugby is an ancestor of American Football, and shares several of the same broad features- big meaty players, an oval-shaped ball (although rounder than an American football to make it easier to pass and kick), physicality and the idea of touching the ball down in the end-area. However, below the surface, the similarities end. For one thing, rugby players do not wear full body armour, and for another they do not run around for 3 seconds at a time interrupted by a 2 minute break. I would try and explain the rules differences, but rugby is recognised as having some of the most complicated laws (when gone into in detail) of any major sport. A few basic rules include- there are two groups of players, big, strong forwards who win possession and be physical, and light, fast backs who score most of the points. Points are scored either by touching the ball down over the end line for 5 points (not just by running over it or throwing it down), or kicking the ball through the posts at either end- this can either be done either after a try (touchdown) has been scored (worth an extra two points), when a penalty is awarded (3 points), or from a drop kick in general play (also 3 points). You can only pass backwards & sideways (but can kick or run forwards in open play), you can only tackle a player with the ball, and once a player has been tackled to the ground the forwards (or whoever happens to be nearby), all pile in to try and push each other off the ball in what’s called a ruck, in order to win possession. If the ball is ‘knocked on’ (spilled forwards), a scrum is formed (both sets of forwards pushing against each other to win the ball), and if it is kicked out of the field on either side, a lineout is formed (the ball is thrown in and both sets of forwards jump and lift one another in order to try and catch it).
Considering I probably could have summarised football in a sentence, this gives you some idea of just how complicated the game can get. If you want to learn more, I suggest you try to watch some- the Six Nations tournament is starting in February and will be on TV, while one of the American networks (I think it may be NBC) has recently started broadcasting rugby 7’s (7 players on each side rather than 15, and only 7 minutes each way rather than 40- this leads to very fast, high-scoring games).
I should probably also take this point to clear up a couple of misconceptions about the game. 1) Rugby is not a ‘posh man’s sport’. Yes, it is named after an English public school and yes, most of the current England squad will have got sport scholarships at private schools, but rugby is an inclusive game, and anyone can join without fear of class boundaries- I have been in a squad where one guy with a dad earning upward of 100 grand  has been struggling for his place while our first choice centre’s dad has been struggling for work. 2) You are not guaranteed to break eery bone in your body. I have played rugby for numerous years now and have yet to receive a serious injury, and while it is true the injury toll in rugby is far greater than in football, it is far less than sports like American Football, and the rugby community is very good at looking after its members.
However, I didn’t post this just to be a laws description or a whinge against those who don’t understand the game, because rugby is so much more than a complicated set of rules. To my mind, there are 4 reasons why rugby is the best game on the planet. One is that it is a game for everyone, regardless of shape, size or skills. The big chunky ones who may not be the most intelligent or skilful but like to push each other around can go up front in the forwards (probably the front row, who are an entity unto themselves), the big tall ones can be really good in the lineout, the fast ones can go on the wing, the skilful and aware ones at flyhalf (the rugby equivalent of a quarterback), and the tiny, annoying little gob*****s who like to annoy the referee are born scrum-halves. Two is that rugby can, at its best, be superlatively spectacular and beautiful in a myriad of different forms. This: http://www.rugbydump.com/2011/12/2271/biarritz-score-a-sensational-team-try-against-montpellier, is just a teamwork spectacular showing a ‘backs try’, but just as beautiful to a rugby aficionado could be a 60-metre maul (like a loose scrum), pushed all the way up the pitch. And then you’ve got this which, well… it was the world cup final, England v Australia (the old rivals), England had never won the world cup before, it was 17-17 well into extra time, there were less than 30 seconds left and- this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKHtcIdD4M&feature=related. It was a hell of a lot better than the video and commentary makes it look.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, rugby is a social sport. It’s a friendly game, and getting drunk in the bar with your opposite number is a celebrated post-match ritual, even if he’s sporting a broken nose you gave him in the match earlier. On the pitch, you may be worst of enemies- on it, everyone has a laugh. Rugby fans are allowed to drink at matches, unlike football fans, because the authorities can trust them to basically behave. Rugby abhors violent play, and abuse of the referee is especially frowned upon. It is a game founded on trust and friendliness, on camaraderie, on team spirit, to an extent that no other sport can match, and it is a thing more beautiful than even the greatest of tries.
And fourth (watch all the replays of these) and finally there is… well this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKHtcIdD4M&feature=related
and this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKHtcIdD4M&feature=related
and this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPMZrPjW5cs
… and also this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wq_PL-GDTI&feature=related
Yeah…