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 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.

So. It is done…

Yes, the party’s finally over; the Six Nations done and dusted for another year. Saturday’s matches were a mixed bunch, yet most definitely not as dull as in previous rounds. This week’s awards ceremony will be undergoing something of a reshuffle; rather than doing the matches in chronological order, losers first (as usual), I’m going to leave England-Wales until last. Anyone who saw, or even heard about, the match will probably be able to work out why.

But we must begin somewhere; IRELAND, to be precise, whose award for both this match and, arguably, their championship as a whole is the Another One Bites The Dust Award for Highest Attrition Rate. I talked in a previous post about Ireland’s depressingly high injury rate against England, and there was more of the same today; promising young centre Luke Marshall and winger Keith Earls were off within 25 minutes, and no sooner had Earls’ replacement Luke Fitzgerald entered the fray before he was limping off with a leg injury. With barely half an hour of the match played and all but one backs substitutes used, Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahoney was forced to spend the remainder of the match out on the wing, and given O’Mahoney’s efforts at the breakdown in recent matches it was no wonder Ireland lost momentum without him in the thick of things. However, Ireland’s injury rows were compounded by three yellow cards; firstly to Brian O’Driscoll after a stamp that really should have warranted red (although that would have been something of an ignominious end (if so it proves) to the international career of the greatest centre of all time), and later to Donnacha Ryan and Connor Murray. I felt rather sorry for them; trying to keep any form of structure through all that is nigh-on impossible.

ITALY also picked up a yellow card, this time to captain Sergio Parisse, but they were not hamstrung by injuries or errors in the same way of the Irish and took home not only the win but also the Maori Sidestep Award for Most Exciting Use of The Crash Ball. There were many impressive facets of Italy’s game on Saturday; their handling was superb (Parisse producing another exquisite underhand flick in the same fashion of last week), Luciano Orquera once again ran the show and some of the running rugby put on display was quite superb to watch. However, what most had me entertained most of all was Italy’s use of their forwards; whilst sending the big man through on a collision course with some poor defender is hardly a new strategy, rarely is it executed with quite the same excitement, speed and aggression that the Italians managed. No taking the ball standing still for them, no slowing down before the hit; every crash ball came at sprinting pace, and much credit is due to the Irish defence for their ability to counter the Italian efforts. All in all, a very entertaining match, a well-deserved win, and a fitting end to the career of 104-cap veteran prop Andrea Lo Cicero.

SCOTLAND‘s match against France was slightly less exciting, and a 9-9 half-time scoreline was rather more reflective of the game than similar results in the weekend’s other two matches. However, things picked up (at least for the French) in the second half and Scotland were, eventually able to get a try- in doing so taking the …Is That Legal? Award for Most Dubious Try-Scoring Tactic. With 75 minutes on the clock and 14 points down, the Scots could be somewhat forgiven for a slightly frayed temper, but Sean Lamont’s bit of very subtley-executed and rather impressive cheating was perhaps a shade too far to be really fair. Scotland had won a lineout near halfway and were putting the ball through the hands, Lamont running the dummy line- so far, so normal. What is less normal was Lamont’s subsequent decision to ‘accidentally’ finish his dummy line by running straight into Gael Fickou, knocking the unsuspecting youngster to the ground and leaving a nice hole for centre partner Matt Scott to break through, before offloading to Tim Visser for the try. The French crowd at the time appeared to express their disapproval, but referee Nigel Owens apparently didn’t see it and the try stood. If the scores had been closer at the time, I think the French would be somewhat angrier.

As for FRANCE themselves, coach Phillippe Saint-Andre could easily have won Best Half-Time Team Talk, such was the transformation in his team when they ran out for the second 40; but I think it is perhaps more reflective of their championship for Vincent Debaty to take the Swing And A Miss Award for Most Fluffed Opportunity. The move had started brightly enough, Debaty taking the ball on the run and using all of his considerable bulk to smash two desperate Scotsmen out of the way. The big prop rumbled off down the wing, and the try seemed fairly certain; Stuart Hogg remained as Scotland’s last line of defence, and France’s flying winger Vincent Clerc was jogging up on Debaty’s outside just waiting to receive the winning pass. However, so apparently engrossed was Debaty with the prospect of only the lithe, skinny Hogg standing between him and the try line that he never even looked at Clerc, and arguably was totally unaware of his team-mate’s existence. Rather than give the pass that would surely have made the five points a formality, Debaty went on his own, was (somehow) taken down by Hogg and France gave away the penalty at the resulting ruck. It was the perfect metaphor for France’s tournament; plenty of promise, an opportunity ripe for the taking, but it all amounted to nothing.

However, by far the best match of the weekend, and arguably the championship, had taken place a couple of hours earlier, where ENGLAND, who had travelled over the Severn in search of a Grand Slam, were soundly thwacked by a rampant Welsh side. I could think of half a dozen awards England could have won; Most Passionate Singing of The Anthems, Worst Rucking, Worst Scrummaging, Biggest Pissing-Off Of A Referee, but in the end I couldn’t look beyond the At Least You Didn’t Give Up Award for Most Optimistic Way to End A Game. As the game entered it’s final couple of minutes, England were well beaten; 27 points down, decidedly on the back foot and looking like they just wanted to leave all thoughts of rugby behind for a day or two. This is the time where you just wind down the clock, boot the ball out and walk off disgusted- but apparently nobody had told them out. When awarded a penalty just a few seconds from time, Danny Care (winner of the Least Necessary And Appropriate Chip Kick award ten minutes previously) decided to take the tap penalty and run for it, and his team joined in with gusto. For a minute, the England side managed to muster great energy and desire to play, showing a bit of much needed character. It might have ended with a dropped ball, but I will always take my hat off to a team prepared to have a go even when all else is lost. Or I might just be getting overly patriotic.

Also deserving of a whole host of awards were WALES; their rucking game was superb, man of the match Justin Tipuric matched only by his blindside flanker partner Sam Warburton, and even Dan Biggar managed to break free of his more customary ‘meh, he’s alright’-ness (my apologies if he ever ends up reading this; just not my type of player I guess) to operate the Welsh back line effectively and slot a cheeky drop-goal. However, the man I want to single out is tighthead prop Adam Jones, my pick for the MOTM award and worthy recipient of the Understated Lynchpin Award for Most Significant Contribution from a Single Player. Of the several areas where Wales controlled the game, the scrum was perhaps the most spectacular; England can’t have won more than two all match and their front row was getting ripped to shreds. Every scrum, the procedure was the same; the experienced scrummaging master that is Adam Jones completely nullified Joe Marler, who should have had the advantage from loosehead, before driving between him and hooker Tom Youngs to split the English scrum and force the penalty. Penalties came for collapsing, missing binds, standing up and just about every other clause of Law 20, not only turning referee Steve Walsh in Wales’ favour (I am not going to say he was biased as some others on the web have done, merely that Wales played him far better than the English) but setting England on the back foot for the rest of the game. Every time a scrum went down, we might as well have saved time by awarding Wales a penalty then and there, allowing England to build no attacking momentum. Combine that with the fact that Wales were competing properly in the rucks, slowing down ball in precisely the way that England weren’t, and all the momentum went the way of the home side. After that, victory was not long in coming.

As an Englishman, I don’t like admitting that Wales were the better side, and I certainly don’t like losing both match, tournament, Grand Slam and (potentially, although I hope for the sake of victory that it doesn’t happen) Lions places to them. But, as I said elsewhere before this weekend: “I’d be fine with Wales winning so long as they actually decided to play some damn rugby for a change”. I will quite happily accept that as them “playing some damn rugby”. Well played Wales. Well bloody played ye bastads.

Final Scores: Italy 22-15 Ireland
Wales 30-3 England
France 23-16 Scotland