Lions Squad 2013

Yes, it’s rugby talk again; this time we are specifically talking about the announcement made yesterday concerning Warren Gatland’s squad for summer’s Lions tour (the second aerodynamics post will be along later). I have and have heard plenty of strong opinions in the buildup to this announcement concerning who should and shouldn’t be taken for various reasons, but I’m not about to start slagging off Mr. Gatland’s decisions (not least because he’s got enough people screaming at him on the internet already). No, the purpose of this post is simply to study the makeup of the tour party in order to explain some of the coaching team’s thought processes, make a guess as to what the final test side will be (at this stage; a LOT depends on how people perform in the warmup matches), and to suggest how Gatland intends his team to play.

We begin with the elephant in the room; the question of whether to pick France-based players, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to travel with the rest of the tour party if they were involved in the Top 14 finals. Gatland kept his cards close to his chest on this one prior to the announcement, saying only that he would ‘prefer’ to have the whole side go out together, and it’s easy to see why. Players coming in late (and off the back of one of the toughest domestic seasons in the world to boot) are always disruptive to a tour, but with so few warmup games for the Lions before Gatland has to knuckle down and pick his test side, such players would only have a couple of games in which to justify their inclusion. In the end, he’s stuck to his guns and only picked players who will be able to travel with the initial party to Hong Kong (where they will play the Barbarians as a first warm-up match); Gethin Jenkins (Toulon) has had an unhappy season in France and the club have apparently released him to tour in full, whilst Mike Phillips (Bayonne) is playing for a club small enough (and mid-table enough) that they probably won’t mind giving him up quite as much as, say, Andrew Sheridan (who’s started almost every game for table-topping Toulon). Gatland’s clearly decided that there’s enough talent at home to suit his needs, and… well, let’s get into the individual positions before I start offering opinions.

We begin at fullback, where there are, predictably, no surprises. In Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg and Rob Kearney Gatland had three of the best 15’s in the world to choose from, and the only real debate pre-selection concerned whether he was going to take all three or leave either the superlatively talented Halfpenny (not a chance), the mercurial Hogg (who some have pencilled in at winger for the test team) or Kearney, with all his dominance of the aerial battle and his experience as a test Lion in 2009 (a tour he was superb on). At winger, however, there was more debate pre-announcement; the Welsh giants of George North and Alex Cuthbert were always going to tour, (even if North has been closed down by defences this season and Cuthbert can only finish, rather than create), but beyond that there was more confusion. Tommy Bowe has Lions experience but has been injured recently, Craig Gilroy, Simon Zebo, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser have great potential but limited international experience, Chris Ashton has been devastating in the past but has hit a run of poor form, and Christian Wade (the outside bet) is an electric attacker in the mould of Jason Robinson (seriously, watch this step from the 2001 tour, and then this from earlier this season. See the similarity?), but some question his defensive abilities. In the end, the Welsh pair have been joined by Bowe and Maitland, a mix that has less searing, defence-busting pace than it does all-round skill and reliability; the safer option. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gatland to pick an all-Welsh back three (he is their coach after all), but personally I think that Bowe and Maitland would be a more complete pair. Or at least, if Gatland makes North and Cuthbert think that’s what he’s doing, they might pull their fingers out.

Moving further forward we come to the centres. The legend that is Brian O’Driscoll joins Jonathan Davies in making up the skilful, running half of the group, and both have a natural gift for creating something; crucial if someone like Cuthbert takes the winger’s berth. Both are out-and-out 13’s so won’t play on the same side, but the Australians would do well to be wary of either. To complement them, Gatland has chosen a couple of traditional bulldozers in Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi. Roberts and O’Driscoll formed a mean centre partnership in 2009, but Roberts has blown hot and cold since then and only performs really well when his team are definitively on top. Brad Barritt may have offered more, especially in defence, but doesn’t run the same hard lines or have the ability to really set a game alight. Tuilagi is a whole other entity; normally he plays 13, and whilst he has a good pair of hands, a mean handoff and is a more varied, complete runner than Roberts, he’s not used to distributing and could struggle if forced to play inside centre. I would be tempted to pencil in Tuilagi and O’Driscoll if I were naming the team tomorrow, but all will depend on how various partnerships click together in the warmup matches.

Onto fly-half, and the biggest selection news of all; only two No. 10s are touring, and neither of them are Jonny Wilkinson. After a dominant performance for Toulon in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens, many expected him to make the plane over his opposite number for that game, Owen Farrell (who was given a masterclass in fly-half play by Wilkinson). However, Wilkinson has since come forward to say that he was approached and, whilst flattered, didn’t think his body would be able to cope with the pressures of such an intense tour immediately after a tough French season. Still, his clinical finishing ability and the fear he puts into the hearts of Australian rugby fans will both be missed. As it is, we have Jonny Sexton and Farrell on the plane to Oz; Sexton has been The European No. 10 for the past few seasons and, whilst rarely massively exciting, he never has a bad game. Farrell is younger and more inconsistent, and will be playing definite understudy to Sexton throughout this tour; but he is nonetheless talented and has the perfect temperament to deal with the pressure of Lions rugby should injury strike (in which case Wilkinson could be called up or, as Gatland has pointed out, Stuart Hogg could drop in). Even better, with Leigh Halfpenny’s boot in the equation Farrell wouldn’t have the responsibility of keeping the scoreboard ticking over to worry about, further settling his nerves.

If my Lions tour were to have only two flyhalves, I would personally try to address that deficit by taking either James Hook (a fantastically talented, creative player much misused by Wales in the past thanks to his ability to play absolutely everywhere in the backs; unfortunately he plays in France so has not been picked) or Greig Laidlaw; not only can Laidlaw play both 9 and 10 very well, but he can kick, has a good pass and has all the requisite skills. However, his traditional scrum-half stature can sometimes him defensively vulnerable, particularly playing at 10, which is the only reason I can think of as to why such a talented player is not in the tour party. Gatland has chosen three scrum-halves: Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs and Conor Murray, and nobody will expect at this stage anyone other than Phillips to start for the tests. Although he lacks creativity and his pass is, frankly, too slow, he is a born big-match player and is fierce and combative enough to act like a fourth back-rower; which would be great if Gatland hadn’t chosen eight very talented back rowers. Murray is a similar player with a stronger pass but lacks Phillips’ sheer dynamism, whilst Youngs offers something different; a highly creative scrum-half who loves nothing more than looking for opportunities. He probably won’t make the test side thanks to his habit of running with it too far before passing, eating up time and space, but has the skill to make the Aussies sit up and take notice should the game need an injection of pace.

OK, so that’s 1400 words on just the backs; I think the forwards will have to wait for next time, along with an analysis of the squad as a whole, likely tactics and how well I think they’ll perform. See you then…

Where do we come from?

In the sport of rugby at the moment (don’t worry, I won’t stay on this topic for too long I promise), there is rather a large debate going on- one that has been echoing around the game for at least a decade now, but that seems to be coming ever closer to the fore. This is the issue of player nationality, namely the modern trend for foreign players to start playing for sides other than those of their birth. The IRB’s rules currently state that one is eligible to play for a country having either lived there for the past three years or if you, either of your parents or any of your grandparents were born there (and so long as you haven’t played for another international side). This state of affairs that has allowed a myriad of foreigners, mainly South Africans (Mouritz Botha, Matt Stevens, Brad Barritt) and New Zealanders (Dylan Hartley, Thomas Waldrom, Riki Flutey), as well as a player all of whose family have played for Samoa (Manu Tuilagi), to play for England in recent years. In fact, Scotland recently played host to an almost comic state of affairs as both the SRU and the media counted down the days until electric Dutch wing Tim Visser, long hailed as the solution to the Scots’ try scoring problems, was eligible to play for Scotland on residency grounds.

These rules were put in place after the ‘Grannygate’ scandal during the early noughties. Kiwi coach Graham Henry, hailed as ‘The Great Redeemer’ by Welsh fans after turning their national side around and leading them to eleven successive victories, had ‘found’ a couple of New Zealanders (Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson) with Welsh grandparents to help bolster his side. However, it wasn’t long before a bit of investigative journalism found out that there was no Welsh connection whatsoever, and the whole thing had been a fabrication by Henry and his team. Both players were stopped playing for Wales, and amidst the furore the IRB brought in their new rules.  Sinkinson later qualified on residency and won six further caps for the Welsh. Howarth, having previously played for New Zealand, never played international rugby again.

It might seem odd, then, that this issue is still considered a scandal, despite the IRB having supposedly ‘sorted it out’. But it remains a hugely contentious issue, dividing those who think that Mouritz Botha’s thick South African accent should not be allowed in a white shirt and those who point out that he apparently considers himself English and has as much a right as anyone to compete for the shirt. This is not just an issue in rugby either- during the Olympics, there was a decent amount of criticism for the presence of ‘plastic Brits’ in the Great Britain squad (many of them sporting strong American accents), something that has been present since the days of hastily anglicised South African Zola Budd. In some ways athletics is even more dodgy, as athletes are permitted to change the country they represent (take Bernard Lagat, who originally represented his native Kenya before switching to the USA).

The problem is that nationality is not a simple black & white dividing line, especially in today’s multicultural, well-travelled world. Many people across the globe now hold a dual nationality and a pair of legal passports, and it would be churlish to suggest that they ‘belong’ any more to one country than another. Take Mo Farah, for example, one of Britain’s heroes after the games, and a British citizen- despite being born in, and having all his family come from, Somaliland (technically speaking this is an independent, semi-autonomous state, but is internationally only recognised as part of Somalia). And just as we Britons exalt the performance of ‘our man’, in his home country the locals are equally ecstatic about the performance of a man they consider Somali, whatever country’s colours he runs in.

The thing is, Mo Farah, to the British public at least, seems British. We are all used to our modern, multicultural society, especially in London, so his ethnic origin barely registers as ‘foreign’ any more, and he has developed a strong English accent since he first moved here aged 9. On the other hand, both of Shana Cox’s parents were born in Britain, but was raised in Long Island and has a notable American accent, leading many to dub her a ‘plastic Brit’ after she lead off the 4 x 400m women’s relay team for Great Britain. In fact, you would be surprised how important accent is to our perception of someone’s nationality, as it is the most obvious indicator of where a person’s development as a speaker and a person occurred.

A simultaneously both interesting and quite sad demonstration of this involves a pair of Scottish rappers I saw in the paper a few years ago (and whose names I have forgotten). When they first auditioned as rappers, they did so in their normal Scots accents- and were soundly laughed out of the water. Seriously, their interviewers could barely keep a straight face as they rejected them out of hand purely based on the sound of their voice. Their solution? To adopt American accents, not just for their music but for their entire life. They rapped in American, spoke in American, swore, drank, partied & had sex all in these fake accents. People they met often used to be amazed by the perfect Scottish accents these all-american music stars were able to impersonate. And it worked, allowing them to break onto the music scene and pursue their dreams as musicians, although it exacted quite a cost. At home in Scotland, one of them asked someone at the train station about the timetable. Initially unable to understand the slight hint of distaste he could hear in their homely Scots lilt, it was about a minute before he realised he had asked the question entirely in his fake accent.

(Interestingly, Scottish music stars The Proclaimers, who the rappers were unfavourably compared to in their initial interview, were once asked about the use of their home accents in their music as opposed to the more traditional American of the music industry, and were so annoyed at the assumption that they ‘should’ be singing in an accent that wasn’t theirs that they even made a song (‘Flatten all the Vowels’) about the incident.)

This story highlights perhaps the key issue when considering the debate of nationality- that what we perceive as where someone’s from will often not tell us the whole story. It is not as simple as ‘oh so-and-so is clearly an American, why are they running for Britain?’, because what someone ‘clearly is’ and what they actually are can often be very different. At the very first football international, England v Scotland, most of the Scottish team were selected on the basis of having Scottish-sounding names. We can’t just be judging people on what first meets the eye.

Six Nations wrapped up

OK, you can come out from under the sofa all you rugby-haters- this will be my last post about the great game for a while now, I promise, as I deliver my last set of awards to the sides in this year’s Six Nations, this time for their performances over the tournament as a whole. For me, this year’s has been a bit of an inconsistent one- some matches have been epic to watch, and there have been some really great moments, but then again a few games (the second half of Scotland-Ireland immediately springs to mind) which have bored me out of my skull. Still, as an Englishman it was nice to see Stuart Lancaster’s side play such great rugby- I can only hope that he gets a chance at the full-time job.

Now, onto the awards, beginning with SCOTLAND, who claimed both the wooden spoon (in a disappointing 5-game whitewash) and the Potential Does Not Equal Results Award for Biggest Discrepancy Between Squad Quality and Results. Scotland’s side contains some real gems of world rugby, and a few players in this tournament shone especially brightly. David Denton was a revelation at No.8, his barrelling runs and general go-forward belying his inexperience, and was well backed up in this regard by his giant lock, 22 year-old Richie Gray, whose powerful running and dominance of the lineout look set to make him a giant of the game over the next few years. John Barclay has always been a flanker of great quality, but even he was outshone by his counterpart Ross Rennie in this year’s tournament- he seemed to be absolutely everywhere, in every game he played, and was my pick for player of the tournament. Behind the pack, Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter were back to their formidable bests as they fought over the no.9 shirt, and Greig Laidlaw proved a great catalyst in attack for the Scots- his almost try on debut will go down as one of the best touchdowns I have ever seen. Max Evans and Sean Lamont were useful as ever in the threequarters, and young back 3 players Lee Jones and (especially) Stuart Hogg provided some deadly incisive running and finishing that the Scots have lacked in the past- and they have been backed up by a coach in Andy Robinson who not only has one of the highest win ratios of any Scotland coach ever (the third-highest, at the start of the tournament), but has done much to try and drive this Scottish side out of their perpetual doldrums. I could go on. And despite all that quality, all that skill, Scotland finished… last. Lost everything. Even to Italy. How the *&$% did that happen?

Speaking of ITALY, their award is up next: the …Oh Yes, I Knew There Was SOMETHING Different Award for Most Understated Arrival of a new coach. After last year’s World Cup, the Italian authorities finally decided to dispense with the services of Nick Mallett, the charismatic and successful South African who had lead the Italians to some (for them at least) impressive results, and helped bring them closer to the pace of modern world rugby. In his placed stepped Jacques Brunel, whose lofty aims at the start of the tournament centred around being title contenders within three years. Generally throughout a coach’s first term in office, he is the subject of much media attention, as was England’s caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster. Brunel on the other hand… well, he got a bit of hype on the first weekend- lots of camera cuts to him in down moments looking pensieve, or elated, or… well it’s kind of hard to tell through his superb moustache. But after that, he sort of faded out of the spotlight, lacking Mallett’s sheer charisma and beaming smile in front of the camera, , and only being referred to as an impassive face whenever his defence leaked a try. Even in the Italian’s win over Scotland (which so far gives Brunel a 20% win rate), I only saw one camera cut of him. Or at least, that’s the picture I got from the British media, anyway.

On to IRELAND, clear winners of the Oh, Just Make Your Bloody Minds Up! Award for Biggest Selection Headaches. Coach Declan Kidney was not presented with an easy selection task- not only was his captain, leading try scorer and national talisman Brian O’Driscoll injured for the entire tournament, which only compounded the age-old battle at fly-half between Jonny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara by offering the possibility of playing them together, but vice-captain Paul O’Connell’s health was similarly in doubt, Donnacha Ryan was pushing for either his or Donncha O’Callaghan’s place in the second row, Sean Cronin and Tom Court were challenging up front, and media pressure was building to replace powerful ball-carrier Sean O’Brien with a more natural openside flanker. Kidney stuck to his guns with O’Brien, but elsewhere he was forced into lots of compromise and chopping & changing. He tried out several centre combinations involving a mixture of Sexton, Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls, and later on had to cover for a bad drop in form for long-term centre Gordon D’Arcy. Up front, he dithered over whether to play Ryan or O’Callaghan alongside the strength and imperious form of O’Connell, before O’Connell’s injury finally forced his hand into playing the athletic but slightly weaker second rows alongside one another- a move that backfired spectacularly when, forced to bring Court on early against England, his pack were shunted all over the pitch and completely demolished in an imperious English scrummaging performance. Kidney tried his best, but this year selection-wise, it was not to be.

Now we come to FRANCE, who take the Er, Aren’t You Supposed To Improve With Experience? Award for Progressively Deteriorating Performances. The third team with a new coach this season, France began with a performance against a determined Italian side that made the other teams sit up and take notice- a clinical showing  that some predicted would put them at the top of the pile come the business end of proceedings. This was followed up by an equally clinical display against a spirited Scotland side displaying some newfound invention and incisiveness… and then things began to get patchy. Next up against Ireland, they were two tries down by half-time and only some ground-out penalties and a now-familiarly devastating run from monotonous try machine Wesley Fofana helped them salvage a draw. Their next display was more… well, French (ie fluid and free-flowing), but it was rather forced to be after a blistering first 20 by England, and even another Fofana try couldn’t prevent a two-point loss. Finally, they hit their nadir against Wales- admittedly a quality side who won the Grand Slam that day, but their win was by a single try. For the first time in the tournament, Fofana didn’t cross the line, and the French side as a whole seemed rather lethargic for huge chunks of the game. Tense? Certainly. Compelling? Yes, especially considering that there was a Grand Slam (and possibly a championship) at stake. But a good performance? Er, no. Bear in mind that these guys, with almost exactly the same squad, got to A FRIKKIN’ WORLD CUP FINAL.

To the top two, where the impressive ENGLAND took the See Johnson, Experimentation DOES Work Award for Most Impressive New Squad Performance. A lot was made at the start of this tournament about the youth and inexperience of the England side- there were 5 new caps on the first game of the tournament, a 1-cap captain and a second row pairing whose collective caps total didn’t go above 10 until the Ireland game. The biggest unknown was, of course, Owen Farrell- the son of coach and dual-codes legend Andy and a rising star in the Saracens squad, having won the Premiership with an impressive kicking performance last season. His first two games were at inside centre, allowing old head Charlie Hodgson (‘Chargedown Charlie’) to take the bulk of the pressure off him at fly-half- but prior to the game against World Cup semi-finalists and later Grand Slam winners Wales, Hodgson was injured and Farrell, aged just 20 and with two caps to his name, had to step into the most pressurised position on the pitch, whilst still maintaining kicking duties. He has famously said that the Wigan U-11’s immunised him to boos whilst kicking, but his performance under so much pressure was frankly amazing- combined with another trademark kicking technique (this time involving a glare out of the post that seems to dare them to move out of the way), there are many (me included), who find it hard not to draw parallels between this young, blonde, northern fly-half cum centre with a wicked boot, resolute temperament and a great control of the game and the legend that is Jonny Wilkinson. He was by far the only impressive newbie- Ben Morgan’s running quickly became a bedrock of the side from No.8, Chris Robshaw (captaining from openside) proved a sublime cheat at the rocks, the new centre pairing of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi look set to be a dominant set of bulldozers in the future, and new coach Stuart Lancaster has quickly made himself very popular with the rugby press- but of all of them, it is perhaps Farrell who best epitomises the meteoric rise of this young squad.

And finally, to winners of both the Grand Slam and the OMFG, That Is Never Going To Stop Being Epic Award for Single Best Moment Of The Tournament Award, WALES. Welsh fans would pick out several moments that I could here be referring to- perhaps any of Alex Cuthbert’s tries? No, although they were quite good. Then maybe some of Dan Lydiate’s barnstorming tackles? No, although he was by far the best defender of the tournament and the kind of guy who will make the life of selectors (and David Pocock, come to think of it), very difficult come next year’s Lions Tour. What about the moment of victory itself, the winning of the Grand Slam? Again, no- sure it was great for the Welsh fans, and it was wonderfully tense, but that moment is very much supporter-specific. No, the moment I refer to goes back to their very first game, against the Irish, and Wales’ other giant winger George North. Everyone who saw the moment knows exactly what I was talking about. It epitomised rugby- the speed of the step, the power of the hit, the grace of the offload, the sublimity of the move as a whole. For those who didn’t see it, and for those who, like me, just want to see it over and over again, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72CC9AaoNx0&feature=related

Enjoy 🙂