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.

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…