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.

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 🙂

Bradley Davies… just die

(First up, quick apology for the lack of post on Saturday- I was out and away from my computer all day so was unable to post. Sorry)
For those of you who don’t know, the first round of the Six Nations (Europe’s premier international rugby competition) took place this weekend. If you didn’t see any of the matches, I highly recommend you do, especially the final match (Wales-Ireland), which was a cracker, if controversial towards the end. The other two (France-Italy and England-Scotland), were pretty good too, and I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend’s rugby.
The Six Nations will be continuing (on and off), for the next 6 weekends, so I thought I might devote my humble corner of the internet to it for that time. Every week there is a round of matches, my post here on Monday will be dedicated to the weekend’s action, handing out awards to the various sides. Some will be individual, some will be collective and… well you’ll pick it up as we go along I suppose
To anyone who is thinking of watching the games but hasn’t yet done so, I would recommend hitting BBC iPlayer (Google it) and watching the games online (or at least the highlights show, which will be significantly shorter and miss out the boring bits) BEFORE reading this (or any future) post, as there may be a few spoilers. I’ll print the scores down at the bottom if you can only be arsed to see the results

OK, everyone seen them who wants to?  Good, because here we go, beginning with…

ITALY, who won the England, Watch the Hell Out Award for Most Improved Game Style. Italy have traditionally been a side of big forwards who never got effectively used, and light backs who got very effectively run all over by the opposition. However, with the arrival of new coach Jacques Brunel (who after just one game has somehow earned the same admiration from me as I showed towards old coach Nick Mallett- and I thought he would do England proud), Italy at last appear to have a working, effective game plan. It isn’t complex- it basically involves working with the forwards close to the ruck to gain some quick ball and get the defence on the back foot, the same tactic my club uses when playing- but it is well-executed, well-suited to the Italian game plan (especially their captain, the superb Sergio Parisse), and Italy are at last beginning to look like a quality outfit

FRANCE are next up, and take the Bloody Hell, Where Did That Come From Award for Most Devastatingly Efficient Scorers. France got 4 tries from just 6 line breaks- a truly devastating strike rate that will strike fear into the hearts of defences in the weeks to come. Italy only had to make one mistake and bam- France were over. This was best demonstrated in their third try, which was also by far the most beautiful- fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc chipped over the defence, right behind the only weakly defended spot in the Italian line, in the only phase where the Italian full-back was out of position. This allowed him to run straight through the gap after the ball without the Italians managing to contest it and, after one deft touch from the outside of the foot and another off Aurelien Rougerie’s knee, Vincent Clerc was able to gather and run in under the posts. This is one attack to keep a close eye on

On to the next game, where ENGLAND (or more accurately their new captain, Chris Robshaw), won the Richie McCaw award for best cheating in the rucks. As any referee or flanker, and in fact most forwards, will tell you, the ruck is the place where the most offences can, and most often do, occur, and one of the few places where 90% of such offences are deliberate, since it is impossible for the referee to notice all of them amongst the bodies. Flankers are the masters of cheating at the breakdown, and Chris Robshaw on Saturday night showed that to perfection. I can think of only a few rucks where his hand (conveniently the one opposite to where the referee, George Clancy, was standing) was not on the ball illegally, or interfering with Scottish forwards. The fact that he only got caught two or three times is testament to the fact that in rugby, cheating is a skill rather than a foul- well, in rucks at least

SCOTLAND picked up both a team and individual award for their performance, collectively taking the Nigerian Striker Award (I can’t remember his name, the one from the World Cup) for the Most Missed Opportunities (they had several scoring opportunities that went begging, but dropped the ball so many times that it hardly mattered), and Man of the Match David Denton bagging the Mr T Award for Being An Absolute Tank. On only his second cap, he was a revelation, leaving defenders scattered in his wake and being Scotland’s only real source of go-forward. If  others could only follow his lead, Scotland would be a force to be feared.
(I could also have given Scotland the awards for Worst Way to Concede a Try for this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etiqc-cr1hY (skip to 1 minute), and would have given them Best Touchdown In Human History if the moment at 2:06 had actually resulted in a score. So close, yet so far)

To Sunday, where IRELAND were winners, almost of the match (a real cracker that was), but were denied as they won Harshest Legal Descision to be Yellow Carded for. With the clock reading 79 minutes and Wales desperate for the winning score, the Irish defence appeared to be going slowly backwards, but was holding firm on their own 22. Then Stephen Ferris, Ireland’s flanker (who had an outstanding game), put in a big hit, lifting the right leg of Ian Evans and forcing him sideways and into the dirt. To all rugby fans at home and in the stadium, the tackle was safe. It was techinically a lift-and-dump, yeah, but really, that stuff shouldn’t even be penalised. It was slow, it was controlled- fine. If that had been lower-league rugby no-one would have thought twice about it.
However, before the World Cup last autumn the international referees were told that anybody lifting legs above the shoulders warranted a penalty and 10 minutes in the sin bin, and that was what Ferris had done. He was yellowed, Wales got the penalty and won the match- many would argue deservedly. But the manner of their win left a bitter taste in the mouth of many an Irish fan, especially after what had happened to…

WALES, who also won multiple awards- not only the Me Playing Football Award for Worst Kicking (Rhys Priestland, who missed literally everything until Leigh Halfpenny took over kicking duties), and the How The Hell Is Someone That Skinny So Powerful Award (George North, who made one try and scored another through some spectacular hard running- for a 19-year-old, skinny winger, he was amazing), but also the Not Such A Dark Alley Award for Most Ridiculously Stupid And Brutal Behaviour I Have Ever Seen On A Rugby Pitch. 15 minutes prior to Ferris’ misdemeanour, Irish flanker Donncha Ryan attempted to counter-ruck the welsh off the ball. He failed, and was caught by Wales lock Bradley Davies, who then picked up Ryan, carried him away from the ruck while the ball was whisked away, and then, with Ryan totally innocent of the ball or any illegal move, picked him up, turned him over and spear-tackled him into the ground. To watch both it and Ferris’ tackle, see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUm9Whlaydc
Rugby is a violent sport- I will not deny that. But confine it please to a fair contest of fists, where little lasting damage is typically done, not this vindictive assault. Every player knows that a tackle like that is a potential broken neck and a life possibly ended, by a stupid, illegal move. The worst part is, he wasn’t even red-carded for it- the line judge, Dave Pearson, recommended a yellow and that was what was given. Ridiculous. As all the pundits were saying afterwards, that moment ruined an otherwise perfect advertisement for the game. Davies knows what he did and what he deserves- let’s hope its the last of such behaviour we see for a very long time

Final scores:

France 30- Italy 12
England 13- Scotland 6
Wales 23- Ireland 21