The Third Test

Yes, it’s nearly three weeks since the match and yes, I did say I’d try to get this post up closer to the time: travel wasn’t conducive to it, sorry. But the deciding test of the 2013 Lions’ tour to Australia was good enough to have stuck in my mind perfectly clearly since its glorious conclusion, so this is definitely getting an extra-length post as my Lions’ awards season concludes.

I feel I should pre-emptively apologise to any Australians who end up reading this post if it ends up being very Lions-centric, but… come on, you saw the game. The Lions were fantastic.

We begin, as usual, with the FRONT ROW, where (predictably enough) Adam Jones just edges out Alex Corbisiero to take the Yes, It Is Still A Relevant Part Of The Game Award for Best Scrummaging. The Lions scrum has oscillated wildly throughout this test series, from periods of near-total domination to some almost laughable nadirs. It also worth noting that it is most certainly no coincidence that the Lions have scored their points in previous matches during the periods where their scrum was on top. However, in this match the front row combo of Corbisiero, Jones and Richard Hibbard finally managed to deliver on all the pre-tour hype surrounding the scrum, and by ten minutes in they were working like a vice. Indeed, the only period in which Australia were able to exert any form of control (the half hour either side of half-time) came about pretty much solely because there weren’t any scrums.

Much was made of Corbisiero’s contribution in that game, but I’m giving the award to Jones simply because he has been the most consistent of the Lions forwards by a country mile. Jones is undoubtedly the best scrummaging tighthead in world rugby today, and at no point on this tour was he ever seen as the weak link in any sense. He was key to every demolition of every front row he faced on tour, and deserves every plaudit he gets (even those from never-read internet bloggers).

Now, SECOND ROW time, where nobody could hope to challenge Geoff Parling for the Where Did That Come From? Award for Best Tackle. Earlier on in the tour, Jesse Mogg had wreaked havoc amongst Lions ranks with his lines of running during the Brumbies’ win over the Lions, and was rewarded with a place in the Australia squad. He made no appearance during the first two matches, but came on for Israel Folau after 28 minutes in the third and immediately made an impact. Not long after taking to the field, he ran a superb line to split the Lions defence down the middle. With Australia starting to gain momentum at this point, a try could have spelt the end for some of the Lions’ hard won confidence, and as Mogg flew away from Lions defenders in acres of space, a score seemed inevitable.

Parling, however, had other ideas. The bearded Englishmen, showing far more pace than any lock should really be allowed, seemed to appear from nowhere, flying in from Mogg’s right to mount a desperate lunge at the winger’s feet. Somehow, Parling’s giant right paw latched onto one of Mogg’s flying feet, sending him careening through the air and giving grateful Lions defenders time to jump on him and relieve the pressure. It was a truly beautiful moment for a Lions supporter, and one that really deserves more YouTube videos than I found.

Time for the BACK ROW now, where an Australian scoops an award: George Smith, who takes the dubious honour of the Tony O’Reilly Memorial Award for Least Triumphant Recall. The 33-year old Smith, a veritable legend of Australian rugby (if only for the superb hairstyle he sported during the 2003 World Cup, allowing Brian O’Driscoll to become the only international player to be penalised for tackling another by their mullet), had been playing in Japan when he received the call inviting him to join up with the Australian squad ahead of the test series. Whether this was an entirely wise move on behalf of Australian coach Robbie Deans (not to mention, according to some, Smith himself for accepting the offer) was a matter up for much debate online following the announcement, and when he was selected for the deciding test both proponents and critics of his selection lined up with bated breath.

In the end, Smith’s return to international rugby was more slightly sad than especially good or bad. Within just four minutes of his taking the field, he was felled by a bone-rattling collision with Richard Hibbard that saw him taken off the pitch for treatment; perhaps not the best welcoming present for a man only just recovered from a knee injury. Still, there is no field better than a decade of international rugby for weeding out the wimps, and true to form the old soldier Smith was back on the pitch just a short while later. He then proceeded to do absolutely nothing that I was able to notice (although, admittedly, I wasn’t particularly watching) for the next three quarters of an hour, before being replaced by Michael Hooper. Who, it should be mentioned, must have been a trifle miffed at his non-selection after his heroics in the two previous tests.

Next up are the HALF BACKS (yeah, it’s backs and forwards together today), and I’ve got a wealth of options to choose from. All four candidates put in a good shift, with James O’Connor netting a neat try, Will Genia showing again why he’s considered by many the best player in the world and Mike Phillips doing well enough until Conor Murray got on and really got the party started.  However, my choice for an award is Lions No. 10 Jonny Sexton, who gets the Guzzling Humble Pie Award for Making Me Eat My Words. Around ten minutes into the second half, the Australians were continuing their ferocious assault on the Lions’ 22 (with the Lions for their part defending their hearts out) when Toby Faletau stole the ball and it made its way to Sexton. In the bar where I watched it, there was a moment of relief as we anticipated the surely inevitable act of Sexton’s belting the ball to into Sydney Harbour, followed by a moment of high tension mixed with sheer terror as he looked up, turned and poked an adroit chip over the Australian defence. In any other position on the field, I would surely have been praising Sexton’s genius, but pinned back in his own 22 I was less sympathetic. In fact, I recall my words were somewhere along the lines of ‘what on earth are you doing?’.

However, proof, if ever it was needed, was on its way to demonstrate that Jonathan Sexton has a far better rugby brain than I do. Both he and George North had spotted the space behind the Australian line, North hit the accelerator and suddenly the ball was in his hand. A quick pop inside to Jonathan Davies followed by Jesse Mogg being forced to carry the ball into touch and suddenly the Lions had gained eighty metres and lineout ball, both of which were immediately converted to a try thanks to a lovely move set up by Sexton and executed by Leigh Halfpenny. And who scored the try itself? None other than Mr J Sexton himself. Well played sir.

Time for the CENTRES to get their award, which manages to be unique by being awarded to a player who wasn’t actually playing. I speak, of course, about Brian O’Driscoll, who gets the Life Has No Sense Of Romanticism Award for Most Upsetting Drop. O’Driscoll must surely go down in history as one of the greatest players ever to grace a rugby pitch; a veritable handling genius with more than his fair share of pace and a superlative rugby brain, he has enthralled and delighted fans from all countries across his glittering career with Leinster, Ireland and, of course, the Lions. On his first tour in 2001 he had the fans singing ‘Waltzing O’Driscoll’, in 2005 he was chosen as tour captain (we’ll try to forget about Tana Umaga for now) and in 2009 he formed one half (alongside Jamie Roberts) of what coach Ian McGeechan would later call the greatest centre partnership in history. And that wasn’t just idle flattery.

Unfortunately, there are two things that O’Driscoll had, prior to this tour, never ticked off his rugby to-do list; to win a World Cup and to win a Lions tour. At 34 years of age, most agree that he’s probably passed up his last chance at the former, and this tour would surely prove his last bite of the cherry with regards to the latter. To miss out on both would, frankly, be an ignominious end to an otherwise astounding career; he simply had to win.

With such a stellar touring record, it’s not surprising that O’Driscoll was chosen to start both of the first two tests, but in both he did something quite remarkable. He played quite badly. Come the third, Warren Gatland was finally able to bring the previously injured Jamie Roberts into the fold at inside centre, and his mediocre-at-best form (and, cynics would argue, the fact that he isn’t Welsh) meant that O’Driscoll got the chop. He didn’t even make it onto the bench. Yes, Brian O’Driscoll has now, finally, been a part of a successful Lions tour, but it would have been nice if he could have contributed to the riotous victory that really sealed it for the tourists.

Finally, it’s time for me to turn my gaze towards the BACK THREE, where I have chose to offer up my own Man Of The Tour Award. Leigh Halfpenny got the official gong, and I can see why: his performance with the boot was nothing short of superlative and under high balls he was calm and assured. He was just about the only Lions player never to have an off day. Elsewhere, Jonny Sexton proved a metaphorical rock and Adam Jones a physical one for the Lions, Will Genia was Will Genia, and Israel Folau had about as close to perfect a start to an international career as one could hope for. All serious contenders for the title, but my chosen man of the tour is without question the Lions test No. 11, George North. Not just because his personal highlights reel makes such entertaining viewing or because I still go back to the video of him against Fergus McFadden for a giggle now and again, but simply because, in a backline frequently populated by mediocrity, he was the one light that never faded. He combined his natural size and pace with genuine skill to great effect in both bone-shattering defence and electrifying attack, an ever-present threat who the Wallabies were forced to play around for the entire series. He lit up the tour, but more than that he inspired the best T-shirt caption I saw throughout the entire series. It simply ran: “Rugby is a team sport. It takes fourteen men to get the ball to George North”.

Man of the tour? For me, without a shadow of a doubt.

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.

The First Test: The Backs

Apparently I get carried away whilst talking rugby, so my awards ceremony for this weekend’s Lions match has got split across two posts. This time it’s the backs who get a going over…

First up are the HALF BACKS, both pairs of whom take a Letting The Side Down Award for Most Maddening Gulf In Class Between Key Positions. It has been generally agreed that Mike Phillips, who Warren Gatland had presumably inked in as test scrum-half within half an hour of being told he’d got the Lions’ job, had a bit of a shocker on Saturday; whether it was the attention of Australian flanker Ben Mowen, an inability of his forwards to generate go-forward or just him not playing at his best, Phillips never really got into his natural rhythm. There were none of his surging runs, no sense of control over the breakdown, and he seemed to pass it out to Jonny Sexton at flyhalf only when he ran out of ideas rather than when he’d built a platform. By contrast, Sexton put on a great show, mixing good tactical kicking with some trademark  skill and control of his backline, despite Phillips offering him a decidedly shaky platform.

Australia faced precisely the opposite problem. I’ve never really seen Will Genia play well before, but on Saturday I was treated to a display that came damn close to fully justifying Stuart Barnes’ claim that Genia is the greatest player in world rugby today. Not only did Genia create all the momentum that Phillips didn’t and completely evaded the clutches of the Lions’ back row, the skill he showed to create Australia’s first try was truly breathtaking. When dealing with his forwards, Genia put Australia firmly on the front foot; it was only when he gave it to his fly-half that things started to break down. James O’Connor is something of a jack of all trades, starting his career at wing and moving to the No. 10 jersey via fullback, and his lack of natural instinct in the position showed on Saturday. Much will be made of his three missed kicks at goal, but around the pitch he was virtually non-existent, and his centres only ever got good ball when Genia just gave it straight to them. During the last quarter, Australia brought on a more natural flyhalf in Kurtley Beale; but brought him on at fullback. Given the quality of some of his runs, he and Genia united in the half-backs could have won Australia the game.

Now for the CENTRES, who collectively take the Where The Hell Were You? Award for Best Mastery Of Invisibility. That’s the only explanation I can find, at any rate, for why I cannot remember anything that a centre from either side did for the entire match. Well, that’s not quite true; I remember both Christian Leali’ifano and Pat McCabe getting injured, Jonathan Davies’ run doing said injuring to Leali’ifano (not, I should hasten to add, that I think this is in any way Davies’ fault; Leali’ifano merely put in an appalling tackle and got his head in the wrong position) and Brian O’Driscoll getting penalised early on. But in general play? Well, I presume they made a few tackles, but they never made any incisive breaks and neither side’s attack was focused through their midfield as is more typically the case. Indeed, I seem to remember at least one promising Lions attack getting butchered as Davies ran straight into traffic rather than using his numbers out wide. This could perhaps be blamed on the Lions not playing a natural inside centre (both Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi being injured, meaning the Lions had no go-to crash ball merchant) and the Wallabies getting their main attacking threat at centre injured, but even so that’s not an excuse for being boring.

Finally, we come to the BACK THREE. I could wax lyrical about this lot all day; how sorry I felt for Kurtley Beale after his tragic last-minute penalty miss (and no, Australians, I’m not being sarcastic), how fantastically George North played (and how close he came to scoring a brace), the match-winning kicking display given by Leigh Halfpenny and how both Digby Ioane and Alex Cuthbert both did exactly and only one good thing in the entire match. However, in a side with a surprising number of debutants, it seems only fair that the No One Cap Wonder Here Award for Best Debut should go to Man of the Match Israel Folau. Folau has only been playing the union code for a few months, coming into our fair sport via rugby league and Aussie rules, but he made an immediate impression on the international stage. Just thirteen minutes in, he latched onto a perfectly judged side-of-the-boot grubber kick from Will Genia to run in under the posts, and shortly before half-time he showed his opposite number George North that he wasn’t the only one capable of leaving defenders floundering in their wake. With North having come inside, Folau was left with acres of space in which to work his magic. With one magical step, he left Jonny Sexton for dead and outpaced Leigh Halfpenny for an adroit touchdown; a fantastic score. The battle between him and North in the tests to come will be an intriguing one.

Oh, and I also have one special award to give; Image of the Day. I refer you here, to this video of George North’s superb solo try, but it’s not North who I’m talking about. Once you’ve watched the try (and cackled with glee at the general awesomeness of it), skip forward to 1:07 and watch Berrick Barnes as he flies across to try and see him intercept North. As North slips round him, we see Barnes’ scrum cap-adorned head look up from the floor at the rapidly disappearing red shirt… and then see his face plunge into the ground as the realisation of the score kicks in. I don’t know why, but there’s something in the way he lets his head drop that is simultaneously tragic and hilarious. Depending, I suppose, on which side you were supporting.

I have a few final things to say regarding Saturday’s game. The first concerns referee Chris Pollock, who has taken plenty of flak from Lions fans regarding his refereeing, and particularly his interpretation of the breakdown. Speaking as a referee, I can’t say I agreed with him in a lot of areas: but, he did the most important thing right. He was consistent. Whilst his way of playing rucks and mauls was, to some eyes, ‘wrong’, he was treated both sides the same, and if this style happened to favour the Australians on some occasions then that’s not really his fault. How Craig Joubert and Romain Poite end up doing things is anyone’s guess.

My final message is to the Lions, and although I’m sure Warren Gatland will have told them anyway I want to get this off my chest; you have no excuse for playing like that. The Lions didn’t play badly on Saturday, but they were uninspired and failed to gain any sort of control over Australia in any area, the lineout being a possible exception that nonetheless failed to challenge the Australians for possession. That simply should not be happening. I appreciate the issues of selection, of having to come together in so short a time frame and of injuries that plague all Lions tours, but if ever the omens were pointing the Lions’ way it is now. Australian fans have been baying for Robbie Deans’ blood for some time now over his selection policies, and there was outrage when his Lions squad was announced that many players from the highly successful Reds and Brumbies franchises had been left out. There is a general consensus that this is not Australia’s strongest side, especially without the likes of George Smith (who has been recalled to the squad as injury cover for the second test) an in-form Quade Cooper who, on his day, is one of the best players in the world and combines beautifully with the outstanding Will Genia. Combine that with the fact that the Wallabies are far from the strongest side in the Southern hemisphere, with noted weaknesses up front (although not as pronounced as some think), and there should be no legitimate reason why one of the strongest Lions’ sides in living memory, both physically and skills-wise, should not be giving Australia a far stiffer challenge than they are currently facing. These guys are, for all the difficulties posed on tour, still professional rugby players.

The Lions won on Saturday purely because of bad Australian kicking. If that is what it takes to win the series, then we can hardly claim to be true victors.