The Final Round (Six Nations 2014)

Saturday, March 16th 2014: the day the sun finally shone on European rugby (both literally and metaphorically). With firm pitches underfoot and glorious playing conditions, the final round of the Six Nations ended with an eye-watering 20 tries being scored as European rugby finally showed what amazing stuff it can produce given the conditions for it. One of the Six Nations’ most entertaining days, it was a great day of rugby for all (well, at least for those not wearing blue), and now, to wrap it up, here comes my final round of awards.

I feel like I may be repeating myself a little here with ITALY‘s award, but I still think it’s warranted-the Wax Lynchpin Award for Being So Badly Let Down by Just One Thing. For many years, Italy have been the Six Nations whipping boys, salvaging plucky wins against struggling sides whenever they can but never really looking like serious contenders. The perennial story was always one of ‘give their pack a back line to finish things off, and maybe we’ll get a good rugby team out of them’. Nowadays however, they have genuinely turned a corner- Jacques Brunel has selected a back division with strike runners of genuine quality, Michele Campagnaro has undoubtedly been the find of the tournament, and Luciano Orquera & Tomasso Allen find themselves in the position of being Italy’s first international-quality fly halves since Diego Dominguez. All in all, they have been transformed into a side who genuinely look like they belong on the world stage, but unfortunately, this has yet to manifest itself where it really counts- on the scoreboard, and it all comes down to the breakdown. The ruck is undoubtedly the single most important battle ground in modern rugby- games are frequently won or lost around them, and when you are as comprehensively unable to compete at them as Italy proved on Sunday, there is simply nothing a team can do. You control no possession, have no ability to affect the pace of the game, can’t build a territorial advantage, and essentially have nothing to do but exhaust yourself against an attack who can pretty much pick & choose how they want to attack you. The result was demonstrated quite emphatically on Saturday, as England ran seven tries past the Italians whilst the Azzuri themselves were restricted to one piece of lucky opportunism. Brunel has done a wonderful job getting Italy this far- now he just needs to complete the puzzle.

There are many awards I could have given ENGLAND after their display: some thing about aerial ability would have allowed me to wax lyrical about the English locks again, or I could have made mention of the (entirely deserved) third MOTM award this tournament for Mike Brown who looks set to win man of the series. Then there was their frenetic speed of play, and a sign of things to come after George Ford’s adroit little cameo to finish off proceedings, but really there was only one candidate- the Demon On The Dancefloor Award for Best Try Celebration. Props rarely go into a match expecting to cross the whitewash, and on the rare occasions when they do they are generally just lucky enough to be on the end of a sweeping attacking moves. They do not expect, as happened to Mako Vunipola on Saturday, to ease themselves up from a ruck and suddenly find the ball delivered into their hands with the line at their mercy. As such, Vunipola didn’t exactly have much time to mentally prepare himself for his little moment of glory, and neither did he have hordes of team-mates ready to congratulate them (they all being at the base of aforementioned ruck). Unfortunately for him, Vunipola didn’t quite realise his isolation until very slightly after beginning his unplanned try celebration, resulting in a truly beautiful compromise between celebration and playing it cool; a little penguin hop into the air, arms flailing by his side, followed by a rather embarrassed stroll away from the line. One feels that video may come back to haunt him over the rest of his playing days.

For SCOTLAND, however, the embarrassment was collective and continuous, after what must rank pretty highly in the annals of worst international rugby performances ever (as a proud Scottish fan, it pains me to have to say those words). Being a Scotland fan at the moment is a pretty trying task, but all credit must go to those brave souls who made the trip down to Cardiff and were forced to watch their countrymen… well, let’s just leave it unsaid. They are deserved recipients of the Loyal To The End Award for Most Committed Fans. At around the hour mark, Scotland were 44-3 down, having conceded six tries already and offering next to zero resistance, but the Scottish fans were not to be defeated so easily: as the BBC camera panned around, it focused on a small core of them, standing proud in their tartan and smiles on their faces. From the depths of their lungs and at possibly the last moment one would think pride in the blue jersey were warranted,  ‘Flower Of Scotland’ rang around the stadium for all to hear- a genuinely heartwarming gesture, and a great advert for the spirit of the game.

However, the scoreline Scotland conceded was not just because they played badly; Stuart Hogg must also take some of the blame, after his dismissal (after an uncharacteristic and frankly horrendous shoulder to the face on Wales’ Dan Biggar), whilst WALES must also take due credit for capitalising quite as spectacularly as they did. In doing so, they won my It’s Not Quite Rugby League But… Award for Best Advert For Making Rugby A 14-Man Game. Without Hogg’s reliable presence at fullback, there was a hole ever-present in the Scottish line, and Wales took full advantage of their continuous overlap. 14 men is, apparently, not enough to cover the full width of a rugby pitch properly, and without the Scottish defence pressurising them in any way, the Welsh were able to secure fast, reliable ball and unleash their devastating strike runners to amazing effect. North, Roberts, Davies and Co. ran rampant, throwing it around like the most wild & exuberant of afternoon kickabouts, producing a game that felt to watch rather like an extended highlights reel or YouTube ‘best of’ compilation. Now all they have to do is prove themselves against a team who can play rugby.

After an offside call on Taulupe Faletau put paid to a wonderful Welsh move featuring enough cross kicks and clever offloads to make Will Genia need to change his underwear, Wales were in the running for the Rugby Needs A ‘Because It’s Awesome’ Rule Award for Most Cruelly Denied Try. Instead, however, the award goes to FRANCE; in what ended up as only the second game of the championship where they actually played well (for which all credit must go to Remi Tales winning his first test start), they dogged Ireland throughout and put two tries past an Irish defence that has otherwise been tight as a drum throughout. And, at the death, it looked like they’d stolen it from right under their noses- pressurising the Irish line in the 78th minute at just two points down, some good phase play sucked defenders in in classic fashion before a wicked move swept the ball right and found Damien Chouly unmarked on the right to scoot over. To a Frenchman (and indeed any Englishmen watching- a French win and the championship was English), it was the stuff of schoolboy tales and fairytales, and there wasn’t a man or woman in the Stade de France not weeping tears of elation or heartbreak- except, of course, referee Steve Walsh, who immediately called for the TMO. Video analysis revealed that the crucial pass delivered to Chouly had gone forward, leaving the Irish ahead and worthy champions. Even if they did make a meal of it and lose the resulting scrum.

IRELAND making a meal of their victory was something of a running theme during their match on Saturday; after four rounds of calm consistency, it did have to be in the title decider that they decided it was high time to earn the Stress-Related Aneurysm Award for Unnecessary Tension. Much of this came thanks to the French deciding to show up and play some rugby for a change, but the fact that the Irish appeared to choke on the big occasion and virtually stopped playing for the last 20 minutes didn’t help. Neither did Jonny Sexton. The Irish flyhalf is, at least on paper, the best in the northern hemisphere, and whilst he’s not quite Leigh Halfpenny his boot is nonetheless a reliable source of points for his team. Not so this time round- at least 3 kicks that a club kicker would have regarded as sitters went sailing wide, keeping France far too close for comfort and Irish nails ground down to the bone. My own personal theory for why it went so close, however, concerns a certain Brian O’Driscoll- in his last ever international, he clearly wanted to go out on a big one (heaven knows he deserved to), so why not make it one the of the tensest and most dramatic games of his career? I mean it’s not like it’s the winning match of his final, and victorious, Six Nations anyway or something.

OK, I’ll admit the theory falls down a bit there.

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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.

The First Test

Right, I think I have just remembered to start breathing again after a far too tense end to the Lions’ first test in Brisbane, and so I think it’s time for one of my alternative awards ceremonies. With only one game to review, I’m not going to give each team a separate series of awards, but rather one each for the key positional groups (across both sides; so both Lions’ and Australian front rowers are both covered under the same category, for example). Some of these will be individual, some will refer to a specific team, and some will just refer to the way the game played out in that position. I will also make a few more general comments at the end, just because there are one or two things I could do with getting off my chest.

OK? Right, let’s get started.

We begin with the FRONT ROW, who collectively take the Reverse Parallels Award for Strangest Resemblance of A Previous Lions Series. The series in question is 1997’s South Africa Tour, the last time the Lions actually won a series, and against all the odds to boot. The South Africans were world champions, champing at the bit for the return of the Lions (who were usually easybeats for past Springbok sides) after a 17-year long apartheid-based drought. Many salivated at the prospect of the giant South African scrum, featuring the legendary 21 stone Os du Randt among others, going up against a comparatively tiny Lions front row, but through a mixture of technique and grit the Lions were able to match their opponents and nullify the South African forwards.

If any of that sounds familiar, then it’s because a lot of people were making bones about it prior to this series, but with the roles reversed. The Australian front row incumbents, Benn Robinson, Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore are noted proponents of the loose but are reckoned to be at scrum time, whereas the Lions’ front row for this test was made up of the tour’s three strongest surviving scrummagers; Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and the scrummaging legend that is Adam Jones. And, indeed, at the Lions’ first scrum, all seemed to be in order; much like on the ’97 tour, the dominant scrum instantly sent the weaker side scurrying backwards and won a penalty, but from then on both the ’13 Aussies and ’97 Lions set about nullifying their opponents’ weapon. Throughout the match Lions fans got excited every time a scrum came along, waiting for a dominant display that never really came. Instead, the Australians used every dirty trick in the book to keep the scrum battle at least ambiguous and that first dominant scrum proved to be the only one. Indeed, as the Lions brought on their substitutes the Australian’s tactical scrummaging began to swing things in their favour, and it’s worth noting that both of the Australian’s last two crucial penalty attempts came from scrums. Whatever you think of referee Chris Pollock’s display (and he gave us plenty to talk about) he should never have been able to give those penalties were the Lions as dominant as they were ‘meant’ to be.

Right, enough about the fat boys; we move on to the SECOND ROW, and Australian captain James Horwill in particular. Horwill takes the dubious honour of the Eyes In The Back Of His Head Award for Being Victim Of The Most Eagle-Eyed Official- but I’m not talking about Pollock. The official in question is whichever sharp-eyed bystander managed to notice, and subsequently refer to the citing officer, an incident where Horwill allegedly stamped on the face of Lions’ lock Alun Wyn Jones (the citing officer presumably thought it was an accident, as he has now been cleared and is free to play in the second test.). You can view the incident here, and I would challenge you to spot what they’re talking about before the camera goes to slo-mo; I watched the match in a bar with around 200 partisan Lions fans in it, and not one of them picked it up at the time. Neither did either of the people I showed that clip to until the replay, and given the lack of reaction from the crowd there weren’t many of them who noticed it either. Whilst the incident has caused (predictably enough) much furore online, I think real credit goes to the one person who actually managed to catch it in real time.

Next come the BACK ROW and another award for an Australian. This time it’s flanker Michael Hooper, who takes the Man Of Many Faces Award for Most Impersonations. Hooper is not a regular fixture in the Wallaby squad, but then again there’s not much he can do about that when the Wallabies’ normal openside is the great David Pocock, and it was a bitter blow to the Aussies when it was announced Pocock was injured and would not be able to take part in the series. The management and those Australian pundits whose opinions I have read refused to betray a smidgeon of concern, confidently predicting that Hooper would be able to fill Pocock’s sizeable shoes. So no pressure there then.

Hooper didn’t play badly, but the game and the refereeing were not friendly to ball-snafflers of Pocock’s mould, as Brian O’Driscoll learned to his cost early on. Indeed, the real star of both back rows was Aussie debutant Ben Mowen, who did a number on Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips and in the process almost single-handedly destabilised the Lions’ entire plan of attack. I will be interested to see how they react in the second test. However, the reason Hooper gets the award this week came around the 60-minute mark, when Australian centre Pat McCabe suffered a neck injury. Low on backs replacements, Robbie Deans took the unusual descision to bring on substitute flanker Liam Gill and give Hooper a run at outside centre. That Alex Cuthbert was immediately sent up the midfield to score a try for the Lions will be laid at Hooper’s feet by some, but given that the move was a Jonny Sexton special I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, he hardly looked out of place for the rest of the match.

Dammit, why do all my posts turn into two parters nowadays? Ah well, backs next time I guess.

Lions 2K13: The Whole Package

This will be my last post on this year’s Lions squad (promise; more aerodynamics next time). I’ll probably be coming back to the tour during the summer when they start playing games, but for now I’ve got a few things to consider, beginning with the makeup of the tour party.

Of the 37 players in the initial tour squad, 21 of them are forwards; a balance that, whilst not apparently significant, is indicative of the balance of player numbers. If he is trying to cover a position for both weekend and midweek games whilst allowing for form or injury, a coach would generally take double the number of players required in each position plus one (so three fullbacks, five wingers, five centres and so on), with a few more for particularly high-attrition positions such as the front row. However, this tactic alone would create a squad of more than 40 which, given that the Lions-size squad of 37 is about the upper limit to be effectively manageable and organised for a touring party, would simply not work, particularly if there were a lot of good candidates for any one position to further force the numbers up. As such, some positions are always going to be culled of an extra man here or there, and Gatland has chosen the backs; picking just four wingers and four centres means that only one is likely to be properly rested for each game, whilst the two flyhalves will find the going especially tough with the potential to be sharing starting & subbing duties for every single match. By contrast, there are eight back rowers and nine front rowers covering just six positions between them. The flyhalf problem may be helped if Gatland chooses, as he has mentioned, to play Stuart Hogg as an auxiliary fly half, but even so problems may arise; here taking James Hook or Greig Laidlaw may have mitigated the problem further, but I presume Gatland knows what he’s doing.

That he’s taken so many forwards may indicate two things; firstly that Gatland knows how high Lions attrition rates often are (especially up front) and he wants to ensure all his forwards are used to playing with one another whatever happens, and that he thinks that is where the key battles will lie. The Australians have one of the fastest and most exciting back lines in world rugby, despite many of their players being inconsistent in their brilliance; on their day they can set a game alight and, good though the Lions backs undoubtedly are, even they may struggle to cope with them in full flow. It may well be that Gatland has decided that he thinks the Australians weak link will be up front, and that if the tight five can gain dominance over their counterparts the Wallabies will simply have no ball to play with. Whilst the Australian back three is mobile and contains, in David Pocock, possibly the finest openside in world rugby (as well as the barnstorming runner that is Wycliffe Palu), they are not renowned for their scrummaging ability and, if set on the back foot in the power stakes, could see their effectiveness drastically dim. Go back to my last post, and count the number of times the word ‘scrummaging’ was used to describe the Lions’ prop selection. I think that might reveal quite a bit, and explain why some more exciting, but temperamental, players (looking at you, Christian Wade) have been left out of the squad; Gatland’s playing the safe game.

Running counter to this theory is some of the players he’s included; the likes of Richie Gray, Tom Youngs and Justin Tipuric are known for their performances in loose, rather than structured gameplay, so why has he picked them? The most probable answer is also the simplest; things go wrong in international rugby, and sometimes the Australians will get some ball to play with. Even if the Lions can’t quite match the Australian’s loose game, they must at least be able to counter it for the time being if the needs arise. These players may end up filling the bench as ‘just in case’ measures; or it may transpire that I’m totally wrong, and that Gatland may be picking good scrummagers up front as the basis for a looser, faster game. We will see.

If solidity is Gatland’s tactic, then his game plan may well be based around ensuring set-piece ball is top-notch. This might give Alun Wyn Jones the nod over Paul O’Connell for the second row berth due to his increased lineout presence, and suggests that Richie Gray is going to have to improve his game in the tight to justify inclusion over the lineout specialists Geoff Parling and Ian Evans; whichever one of those it ends up being depends very much on in-game form, but Evans may have the edge due to his experience partnering Jones for Wales. If he does though, his mobility around the park could reap dividends at the breakdown. If this doesn’t prove the case, then expect to see Tom Croft making a surprise appearance at blindside; whilst not a traditional defensive blindside, Croft is a born Test match player and his lineout agility is second to none. There are a few dead certs elsewhere in the squad; Adam Jones at tighthead, Toby Faletau at No.8, Sam Warburton at openside flanker, Mike Phillips at 9 and Jonny Sexton at 10, but elsewhere things are a little more uncertain. There is a reasonable chance that country combos will end up coming to the fore, at least for the Welsh; the back three and back row are likely to be all-Welsh, and there is a possibility for the second row and centres to follow a similar pattern. If Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard are injured then there’s a possibility for an English front row and an even slimmer chance of an English half-back pairing (if Mike Phillips is injured, the Irish half-backs may combine), but the view of most is that this will be a Welsh-dominated test side. I hope it is not too overrun by Welshies; nothing against them as players, only the fact that the Welsh national side has failed to beat Australia on its own several times in the past. Plus, y’know, it’s a Lions tour; ‘E pluribus unum’ and all that.

Beyond those few suggestions however, few notions of team selection cannot be made with any accuracy at this stage; all will depend on how various players perform in warmup matches, and it will be intriguing to see who Gatland picks to start the opening weekend and midweek matches respectively (the opening Barbarians match excluded; that’s likely to be a bit more experimental). Either way, this team selection has revealed just how much strength their is in European rugby at the moment (I mean, just check out this article on the best British & Irish 15 not going on tour, and see how strong it is), and the tour will doubtless prove… intriguing.

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…