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.

006 Nations: From Rugby with Love

And so another weekend of Six Nations rugby action has rolled around again, which means an awful pun in the title (for which I apologise unreservedly) of my regular awards ceremony post. So without further ado, onto the first game.

We begin with ITALY, takers of a major scalp last weekend against France and takers this weekend of the Running Into A Brick Wall Award for Sheer Determination and Bloodymindedness. Italy won last week thanks to their fluid, offloading-centric game plan, smashing into the French defensive line and putting them on the back foot, and commentators across Europe have been quick to praise coach Jacques Brunel for his work in transforming Italy’s playing style for the better. The Italians tried much the same tactic against Scotland, who they had high hopes of beating after their heavy loss to England last Saturday, but whether it be the wet, stodgy conditions of Murrayfield (in stark contrast to last week’s faster pitch at the Stadio Olimpico) or the sheer quality of Scotland’s defensive effort, Italy simply could not get the Scots to open up. And yet, credit where it’s due, Italy did not give up. It would have been easy to simply say ‘this isn’t working’ and to try and revert to a less well-practiced kicking game (which would have hardly helped matters against a ruthlessly efficient Scottish lineout), but Italy took the brave option of sticking to the game plan they’d practiced and continuing to probe at the Scottish defence. That they failed to breach their line until a beautifully executed set play less than ten minutes before the end, despite controlling both territory and possession, could be said to demonstrate that this tactic was a failure, but it is perhaps more of a testament to the Scottish tackling and counter-rucking display.

As well as taking the defensive victory, SCOTLAND also take home the Don’t Mind If I Do Award for Fijian-style Opportunism. Scotland controlled next to none of the second half possession, and a minority of it in the first, content instead to ensure the Italians were not going to breach their line; which, given the newfound danger presented by the current Italy side, wasn’t a bad move. This could have been a recipe for a very, very boring match, but such a spectacle was saved by the Scottish back division’s ability to sniff out and exploit the tiniest of scoring chances. Of Scotland’s four tries, two were breakaways courtesy of tiny mistakes from the Italians. Possibly the best moment of the match came from Scotland’s full back Stuart Hogg, who managed to intercept what would otherwise surely have been the scoring pass from Luciano Orquera before running 80 metres for a try. Sean Lamont added Scotland’s fourth after noticing the ball unguarded and legally playable behind an Italian ruck, and Matt Scott nearly picked up his first international try early on after a well-placed grubber kick through conjured up an opportunity from nowhere; only Tobias Botes’ superb covering tackle meant the Scottish centre had to wait half an hour for his try.

Onto Saturday’s other game, where FRANCE’s Maxime Machenaud picked up the Come On Guys, Work With Me Here Award for Best Solo Performance In An Otherwise Dour Team Display. France played their match against Wales in much the same vein as they had against Italy; looking decidedly lethargic throughout, only fullback Yoann Huget ever looked like he was trying to actively do anything rather than waiting to be magically handed the ball with the line at their mercy. The only other player to achieve any obvious sense of activity from the French starting lineup was Machenaud, winning his second Six Nations start at scrum half, and looking every inch ‘Le Petit General’. Small, energetic and feisty, he positively bustled back and forth across the pitch with all the haste and enthusiasm that a scrumhalf should, and as such he appeared a genuine threat. Unfortunately, he was taken off after just 50 minutes in favour of the more calculating and arguably skilful Morgan Parra, but in a game in serious need of kicking off that may have proved France’s death knell.

WALES themselves pick up an award that could very well have been France’s had Machenaud not impressed me so; the Is It Over Yet? Award for Most Boring Game. The entirity of the France-Wales match was reasonably well summarised by the half time 3-3 scoreline, with the vast majority of the game being played between the two ten metre lines. At 10, Wales’ new flyhalf Dan Biggar produced an up and down display, combining some great tactical kicks (including one sweetly-placed grubber to force Huget to concede the lineout) with some rather poor general play and one or two howlers. The game’s final 16-6 scoreline was frankly flattering, and although I will not deny that Wales’ try (a beautiful chip from Biggar into a minute gap that all 6ft several of George North somehow managed to pop up in and bound over from) was both well-executed and well-deserved, I’m not entirely sure Wales can have a definitive claim to having won the game so much as France lost it. Still, at least Wales managed to break their duck, and the weather was most certainly not in their favour for a fast, free-flowing match.

The boredom award could quite easily have applied to IRELAND during their almost as dull game with England on Sunday, but instead they pick up the rather self-explanatory Bar Of Soap Award for Dreadful Handling and the Ooh… Ouch… Award for Biggest Casualty list. Ireland were hamstrung early on in the game when their instrumental flyhalf Jonny Sexton came off with a calf strain, but these things happen and many would argue that his replacement Ronan O’Gara’s more conservative approach was better suited to the wet, dreary conditions. However, last week’s try-scoring winger Simon Zebo was soon off the field as well with what later transpired to be a quite serious metatarsal injury that has ruled him out of the rest of the competition. Zebo was soon followed by Mike McCarthey (knee), Brian O’Driscoll (ankle) and Donnacha Ryan (back) on the injuries list, with all three joining Sexton as doubts for Ireland’s upcoming game against Scotland. Perhaps surprisingly, none of these injuries came about (as far as I could tell) as a result of foul play; in fact the only person committing such an offense was Irishman Cian Healy when he attempted a stamp on Dan Cole’s ankle. Whilst Cole was apparently unaffected, Healy was cited and is very unlikely to be available for Scotland as well in a position Ireland desperately need him to fill. Ireland’s next squad may be shorn of a few key branches.

Finally we come to ENGLAND, also contenders for the boredom award until Ben Youngs’ adroit chip set centre Manu Tuilagi up for the Sleeping Goalkeeper Award for Most Fluffed Up Opportunity. After Owen Farrell’s beautifully placed kick to the corner put Rob Kearney under pressure and forced an English lineout on the Irish five-metre line, England looked set for their best opportunity of the match; and when referee Jerome Garces awarded them a penalty advantage after Ireland infringed at the resulting maul, the chances looked even better. With the safety net of a penalty in place, Youngs poked his head up from the back of a ruck and began sniffing for even the remotest of opportunities; and spied an undefended space in the Irish in-goal area. With deft precision, he hoisted his kick over the Irish defence and directly into the gap, and as Tuilagi rushed onto it a scoring opportunity seemed certain. However, a bouncing rugby ball is a funny old thing, and presumably Tuilagi wasn’t expecting the ball’s first bounce to land as precisely into his chest as it did. He half-fumbled the catch, and as he reached up to take the ball as it began to fall down again he caught his arm on Keith Earls, making a last-ditch effort to stop him. He missed the catch, the ball went dead, and it was left to Farrell to slot the resulting penalty,and another one 5 minutes later, to secure England the win, and their place as the last undefeated team in the championship. How long that record will stand is another matter entirely…

Final Scores: Scotland 34-10 Italy
France 6-16 Wales
Ireland 6-12 England

The Six Nations Returns…

…and with it my weekly awards ceremony, as last year, for the weekend’s matches. To be honest, I haven’t had much time to think about these, so enthralled with the actual games as I was (over 150 points and 17 tries scored; absolutely fantastic stuff), but I think I’ll just dive straight in with the first match of the weekend.

First, we must turn to WALES, who take the dubious honour of the Year-Long Nostalgia Award for Most Dramatic Fall From Grace, reclaiming a title they won in both 2006 and 2009. Last year the Welsh, after a proud performance at the World Cup the previous awesome, had their ranks positively blooming with talent and good form. Behind the scrum, Rhys Priestland was still hanging on to some of his outstanding 2011 form, Jamie Roberts was in the kind of hard-running, defence-busting mode that won him three Lions caps in 2009, George North (alongside, to a lesser extent, Alex Cuthbert) was terrorising defences through a mixture of raw speed and power, and Jonathan Davies’ smooth running and handling in the centres was causing him to be mentioned in the same breath as New Zealand’s great Conrad Smith. The team seemed unstoppable, battering, bludgeoning and otherwise smashing all who came before them as they romped home to the Grand Slam.

And then the slide began. Since they took the title against the French 11 months ago, Wales have lost eight games on the trot, of which Saturday’s display against Ireland was only the most recent. After some pretty dire performances against the southern hemisphere sides during the summer, a few traces of hope were salvaged during the autumn from close losses to the likes of Australia. Some of the more optimistic Welsh fans thought that the Six Nations may signal a new return to form for their players; but an opening match against Ireland proved unforgiving. The Irish put 30 points past the Welsh in 50 minutes with only 3 in reply, and although Wales mounted a spirited comback it all proved too much, too late.

On, then, to IRELAND; more specifically to left winger Simon Zebo, who takes the Nyan Cat Award for Most YouTube-Worthy Moment from George North in this fixture last year. Whilst North’s little moment of hilarity was typical of a player whose size and strength is his greatest asset, Zebo’s piece of magic was a more mercurial bit of skill. After Dan Biggar (the Welsh flyhalf) decided, for reasons best known to himself, to aim a kick straight at the face of the onrushing Rory Best, the Irishman managed to gather the ball on the rebound and set off for the line. Realising he was being pushed for space, he elected to throw a beautiful long pass out to captain Jamie Heaslip. If Heaslip were able to flick the ball to Zebo, sprinting along his outside, there was a fair chance that the winger could make the corner; but the skipper was under pressure and could only manage a flick off his knees. The pass was poor; thrown at knee-height about a metre behind the onrushing winger, most moves would have ended there with a loose ball. But Zebo produced a truly magical piece of skill– as the ball seemed destined to disappear behind him, he turned and flicked at it deftly with his left heel, before gathering the ball one handed and continuing his run; all without breaking stride. He may not have got the try, but from his bit of sublimity prop Cian Healy did, and thus Zebo will be forever honoured in the hall of fame that is YouTube.

Onto Saturday’s second match and SCOTLAND, proud takers of the Holy Shit, How Did That Happen Award for Biggest Disparity Between Score and Performance. In all honesty, the Scots were never not going to struggle against their English opponents; Calcutta Cups are always ripe for upsets its true, and there’s nothing the Scots like better than being mistaken for the underdog, but they had not won at Twickenham for 30 years and the current team was probably not in the best shape to break that duck. A new side under a new coach (Scott Johnson), they had taken last place and the wooden spoon in last year’s Six Nations, even losing rather badly to Italy, they reached a nadir during the dire loss to Tonga that ended their autumn series and led old coach Andy Robinson to resign. By contrast, the Auld Enemy were ebullient after their emphatic win against New Zealand in November, and some smart money was being put on them to take the Six Nations title this year. And it showed during the game; for all Jim Telfer’s pre-match comments about the England side being ‘arrogant’, the young English side were clinical and efficient, winning twice as many breakdowns as the Scots and Owen Farrell kicking everything he could get his boots on. Nonetheless, the Scots put in a pretty damn good show when they could; new winger Sean Maitland opened the game’s scoring with a neatly taken try in the corner, and fullback Stuart Hogg not only set up that try with a dazzling 60 metre break, but eventually grabbed one of his own and was probably the best back on the pitch. Johnnie Beattie was sublime in the back row, and if it wasn’t for England’s clinical territory game then they would certainly have managed a scoreline far closer than the 20 points it ended up being. We’ve all played games like that; you think you’re playing well and putting up a good fight, scoring some points, and then look up at the scoreboard and think ‘how did that happen?’

As for ENGLAND, centre Billy Twelvetrees takes the Carlos Spencer Award for Most Impressive Debut Performance (and, incidentally, the Staff Sergeant Max Fightmaster Award for Best Name- dunno why, it’s just cool). England have in recent past been rather good at debuts (Freddie Burns last year enjoyed a sound beating of the world champions as his first cap), and much speculation was put forward before the game as to whether the young Gloucester man could fill the sizeable hole left by the injured Manu Tuilagi. As it turned out, he did so splendidly; despite a somewhat ignominious start to his international career (ie he dropped the first ball that came his way), he spent most of the match running superb lines that often threatened the Scottish centre pairing and kept the tempo of the match nice and fast. To cap a great first performance, he even picked up England’s third try, running a typically lovely angle to seemingly pop up from nowhere and slip straight through a gap in the defence. Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing if he can make it a habit.

And now to Sunday’s match, where FRANCE take the When Did I Get In Last Night Award for Least Looking Like They Wanted To Be On The Pitch. France are always a tricky bunch to predict, and their last visit to Rome ended an embarrassing defeat that lead coach Marc Lievremont to dub them cowards; but they’d fared the best out of all the northern hemisphere sides in the awesome, beating Australia and Argentina convincingly, and Frederic Michalak, once the French equivalent to Jonny Wilkinson, was back on form and in the No. 10 shirt. To many, a trip to face the usually table-propping Italians was the perfect warmup before the tournament really hotted up, and it seems the French may have made the mistake of thinking the Azzurri easybeats. It quickly transpired that they were not; Italy’s talismanic captain Sergio Parisse grabbed an early try courtesy of fly half Luciano Orquera, who had a stunning game and lead for most of the first half before a try from Louis Picamoles and some good kicking from Michalak put the French in front. But at no point in the game did France ever look threatening; in the first 25 minutes Italy controlled nearly 75% of the game’s possession whilst France seemed content to wait for mistakes that the Italians simply never made. They seemed lazy, lethargic, even as the precious minutes towards the end of the game ticked away, and never matched Italy’s sheer commitment and drive at the breakdown. Even when they did get good ball, the Italian’s surprisingly impressive kicking game meant they rarely had the territory to do anything with it.

As for the ITALY themelves, they (and Luciano Orquera in particular) take the About Bloody Time Award for Finally Finding A Fly Half. Italy have always had strength in the pack thanks to such men as Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, but behind the scrum they have always lacked class. In particular, they have lacked a good kicker ever since Diego Dominguez retired, allowing teams to be ferocious in the breakdowns with only a minimal risk associated with penalties. Kris Burton and Orquera both tried and failed to ignite the Italian back division, growing in strength with the achievements of Tomasso Benvenuti and Andrea Masi, last year, but yesterday Orquera ran the show. He and Tomas Botes at scrum half kept the French pinned back with a long and effective kicking game, whilst Masi’s incisive running from full back and an energetic display from centre Luke Mclean meant the French were never able to establish any sort of rhythm. With their backs to the wall and their fingers not yet pulled out, the French were sufficiently nullified to allow the Italian forwards to establish dominance at the breakdown; and with Orquera’s place kicking proving as accurate as his punts from hand, the French were punished through both the boot and the tries from Parisse and Castrogiovanni. An outstanding defensive effort to keep the French out in the final 10 minutes and two lovely drop goals from Orquera and Burton sealed the deal on a fantastic display, and the Italians can proudly say for the next two years that the frequently championship-winning French haven’t beaten them in Rome since 2009.

Final Scores: Wales 22-30 Ireland
England 38-18 Scotland
Italy 23-18 France