The Second Test: Part Two

Following on from my last post about Saturday’s second test between Australia and the British & Irish Lions, here’s the second part of my alternative awards ceremony. This time, we’re talking about the backs.

First up are the HALF BACKS, where all three Lions scrumhalves (quite impressively, given that one of them didn’t play) take home the Can’t One Of You Just Have A Shocker? Award for Biggest Selection Headache. At the start of this tour, the Lions no. 9 berth looked to be a foregone conclusion: Mike Phillips is a big, abrasive player and hard runner who fits perfectly into the Gatland playing style, as well as being a thoroughbred test match animal. After pulling off some dominating performances in warmup matches, most notably against the Barbarians in Hong Kong, there appeared to be nothing to change this idea- until the first test. Here, Phillips was comprehensively cut to pieces by Ben Mowen and had what has been recognised as one of his worst games on the international stage, and only when Ben Youngs came on to add some pace to the breakdown area did the Lions get a bit of spring in their step. This, combined with a slight knee injury picked up by Phillips, made it a foregone conclusion that Youngs would start this test, and to give him his due he played well, giving Jonny Sexton and his forwards a stream of good possession (even if a few passes were somewhat wayward). However, what was perhaps not as expected was the performance of Conor Murray, who came off the bench just before the hour mark. Mediocre at best during the warmup games, he has been regarded by some as a poor man’s Mike Phillips, but he had apparently not read the papers and refused to play to the script of Will Genia-related domination. Throughout his 25 minute tenure he was sharp, on the ball and played with intelligence, taking every scant opportunity that came his way, kicking well and bringing some physicality to the game that Youngs lacked; he gave the Lions a ninth forward at a time when it was most needed. Now, with Phillips looking set to be fit for the crucial third and deciding test, Warren Gatland has the unenviable task of trying to choose between them. I only hope his eventual choice justifies their inclusion next week.

Now we move to consider the CENTRES,  and since the Lions centres followed last week’s pattern by doing absolutely nothing of note all game (one excellent turnover from Brian O’Driscoll excepted) I shall turn to the Wallabies. Specifically I refer to Christian Leali’ifano, who gets the Following The Script’s For Wusses Award for Not Playing How He Was Supposed To. When Leali’ifano was removed from play after just 56 seconds last week, much was made of how this would effect the Australian playing style. We were gravely told that Leali’ifano’s creative, long passing game would have been key to the Aussie’s expansive attack, playing to the wings, and that his replacement (the defensively-orientated Pat McCabe) would force the Wallabies to restructure their attacking pattern. Given that both Australian tries were scored by a winger targeting the wide channels, clearly their playing style hadn’t been too adversely affected, but nonetheless it might have been reasonably assumed that, with Leali’ifano reinstated for this test, we could expect to see this tactic exploited to within an inch of its life on Saturday. Not so; whilst Leali’ifano certainly played well, his deadeye goalkicking securing the Aussie victory and his hard running proving an effective weapon, he didn’t appear all too interested in the distribution we’d heard so much about. I can only remember two occasions where the Australians attacked the wide channels, seeming content the rest of the time to just batter away at the Lions’ stonewall defence. With hindsight, this could just be providing me with more reason to mistrust everything Stuart Barnes says.

Finally we come to the BACK THREE and, well, no contest really. Whilst Leigh Halfpenny’s pressure kick came close to an award, it’s got to be George North taking home the Do You Even Rugby, Bro? Award for Most Meme-Worthy Moment. North has been the subject of some great YouTube videos during his rugby career, but few lend themselves quite so well to the internet’s sense of humour as the moment of sheer hilarity that graced our screens in the 60th minute. Thrown a through-the-legs pass by Brian O’Driscoll (the second good thing he did that evening), he was quickly enveloped by Israel Folau, and fans across the world sat with bated breath to see in whose favour this clash of titans would swing. However, I don’t think anyone was expecting what was to follow: North dropping a shoulder, picking up the 15 stone Folau and running ten metres with him slung across his shoulder, in what one might have called a dump tackle were North not in possession of the ball. He even managed to bring him down more safely than a lot of dump tackles. You can watch the incident in all its hilarity here. One lucky photographer managed to snap this picture, which inspired the internet to produce this, this, this, this and this. Not to mention this, and this. George North, whatever shall we do with you…

Like last week, I’d like to finish this post with a comment on the game in general. The Lions have come under quite a bit of flak for their showing on Saturday; Scott Gibbs, among others, has said that the Lions underperformed on the big stage and many are of the opinion that it’s now advantage Australia. My opinion is a little more mixed. Yes, the Lions had a golden opportunity to win on Saturday and yes, they did not want to be in this situation. Yes, their attacking game was weak, yes their centre pairing has no real bite and yes, the Australians are playing more attacking, exciting rugby. All of those flaws and more must be addressed by Gatland before next week, for this game has, above everything, revealed that Leigh Halfpenny’s boot isn’t quite enough to win a series on its own. There must be attack to go with the defence. I will also champion the view that, technically, it was a fairly poor game of rugby, dominated by its mistakes rather than moments of genius.

However, that doesn’t mean that that wasn’t one of the most tense, exciting and downright atmospheric games I have ever had the pleasure to watch. To my mind, defence and playing scrappily should always have a place in rugby- I wouldn’t want to watch it in every game, but I still think that you should be able to win like that if you are sufficiently good enough. By way of an example, I point towards 1990, where Scotland won a famous victory over the fancied English (and scooped the entire Northern hemisphere trophy cabinet to boot) by out-tussling their distinguished rivals up front and hanging on to win. Was their rugby good quality? No. Did they play better than their opposition? Arguably, yes, for the Scots remembered that points mean wins, and managed to keep their penalty tally ticking over enough for a historic win. Against Australia on Saturday, the Lions almost pulled off the same trick, keeping their penalty count low and denying Australia all but the most fleeting of scoring chances. In the end it didn’t work, and I’m not sure it’s a trick they could pull off twice. But my god, they came close. Oh so very close…

I am on holiday over the next couple of weeks, so posts will mostly cease for the immediate future. However, I will try to get something written up for the final test next week, although it may be a bit later than usual. We’ll see, I guess.

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.