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.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…

I read a lot; I have done since I was a kid. Brian Jacques, JK Rowling, Caroline Lawrence and dozens of other authors’ work sped through my young mind, throwing off ideas, philosophies, and any other random stuff I found interesting in all directions. However, as any committed reader will tell you, after a while flicking through any genre all the ‘low hanging fruit’, the good books everyone’s heard of, will soon be absorbed, and it is often quite a task to find reliable sources of good reading material. It was for partly this reason that I, some years ago, turned to the fantasy genre because, like it or loathe it, it is impossible to deny the sheer volume of stuff, and good stuff too, that is there. Mountains of books have been written for it, many of which are truly huge (I refer to volumes 11 and 12 of Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’, which I have yet to pluck up the courage to actually read, if anyone doubts this fact), and the presence of so many different subgenres (who can compare George RR Martin, creator of A Game of Thrones, with Terry Pratchett, of Discworld fame) and different ideas gives it a nice level of innovation within a relatively safe, predictable sphere of existence.

This sheer volume of work does create one or two issues, most notably the fact that it can be often hard to consult with other fans about ‘epic sagas’ you picked up in the library that they may never have even heard of (hands up how many of you have heard of Raymond E Feist, who really got me started in this genre)- there’s just so much stuff, and not much of it can be said to be standard reading material for fantasy fans. However, there is one point of consistency, one author everyone’s read, and who can always be used as a reliable, if high, benchmark. I speak, of course, of the work of JRR Tolkein.

As has been well documented, John Ronald Reuel Tolkein was not an author by trade or any especial inclination; he was an academic, a professor of first Anglo-Saxon and later English Language & Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford, for 34 years no less. He first rose to real academic prominence in 1936, when he gave (and later published) a seminal lecture entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving works of English literature, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem from around the 8th century AD detailing the adventures of a warrior/king named Beowulf, and Tolkein’s lecture defined many contemporary thoughts about it as a work of literature.

However, there was something about Beowulf that was desperately sad to Tolkein; it was just about the only surviving piece of Old English mythology, and certainly the only one with any degree of public knowledge. Tolkein was a keen student of Germanic mythology and that of other nations, and it always pained him that his home nation had no such traditional mythology to be called upon, all the Saxon stories having been effectively wiped out with the coming of the Normans in 1066. Even our most famous ‘myths’, those of King Arthur, came from a couple of mentions in 8th century texts, and were only formalised by Normans- Sir Thomas Malory didn’t write Le Morte d’Arthur, the first full set of the Arthurian legends, until 1485, and there is plenty of evidence that he made most of it up. It never struck Tolkein as being how a myth should be; ancient, passed down father to son over innumerable generations until it became so ingrained as to be considered true. Tolkein’s response to what he saw as a lamentable gap in our heritage was decidedly pragmatic- he began building his own mythological world.

Since he was a linguistic scholar, Tolkein began by working with what he new; languages. His primary efforts were concerned with elvish, which he invented his own alphabet and grammar for and eventually developed into as deep and fully-fleshed a tongue as you could imagine. He then began experimenting with writing mythology based around the language- building a world of the Dark Ages and before that was as special, fantastical and magical as a story should be to become a fully-fledged myth (you will notice that at the start of The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkein refers to how we don’t see much of hobbits any more, implying that his world was set in the past rather than the alternate universe).

His first work in this field was the Quenta Silmarillion, a title that translates (from elvish) as “the Tale of the Silmarils”. It is a collection of stories and legends supposedly originating from the First Age of his world, although compiled by an Englishman during the Dark Ages from tales edited during the Fourth Age, after the passing of the elves. Tolkein started this work multiple times without ever finishing, and it wasn’t until long after his death that his son published The Silmarillion as a finished article.

However, Tolkein also had a family with young children, and took delight in writing stories for them. Every Christmas (he was, incidentally, a devout Catholic) he wrote letters to them from Father Christmas that took the form of short stories (again, not published until after his death), and wrote numerous other tales for them. A few of these, such as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, either drew inspiration from or became part of his world (or ‘legendarium’, as it is also known), but he never expected any of them to become popular. And they weren’t- until he, bored out of his mind marking exam papers one day in around 1930, found a blank back page and began writing another, longer story for them, beginning with the immortal lines: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

This work, what would later become The Hobbit (or There and Back Again), was set in the Third Age of his legendarium and is soon to be made into a  series of three films (don’t ask me how that works, given that it’s shorter than each one of the books making up The Lord Of The Rings that each got a film to themselves, but whatever). Like his other stories, he never intended it to be much more than a diverting adventure for his children, and for 4 years after its completion in 1932 it was just that. However, Tolkein was a generous soul who would frequently lend his stories to friends, and one of those, a student named Elaine Griffiths, showed it to another friend called Susan Dagnall. Dagnall worked at the publishing company Allen & Unwin, and she was so impressed upon reading it that she showed it to Stanley Unwin. Unwin lent the book to his son Rayner to review (this was his way of earning pocket money), who described it as ‘suitable for children between the ages of 6 and 12’ (kids were clearly a lot more formal and eloquent where he grew up). Unwin published the book, and everyone loved it. It recieved many glowing reviews in an almost universally positive critical reception, and one of the first reviews came from Tolkein’s friend CS Lewis in The Times, who wrote:

The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology… The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity that is worth oceans of glib “originality.”

In many ways, that quote describes all that was great about Tolkein’s writing; an almost childish, gleeful imagination combined with the brute seriousness of his academic work, that made it feel like a very, very real fantasy world. However, this was most definitely not the end of JRR Tolkein, and since I am rapidly going over length, the rest of the story will have to wait until next time…

Scrum Solutions

First up- sorry I suddenly disappeared over last week. I was away, and although I’d planned to tell WordPress to publish a few for me (I have a backlog now and everything), I was unfortunately away from my computer on Saturday and could not do so. Sorry. Today I would like to follow on from last Wednesday’s post dealing with the problems faced in the modern rugby scrum, to discuss a few solutions that have been suggested for dealing with the issue, and even throw in a couple of ideas of my own. But first, I’d like to offer my thoughts to another topic that has sprung up amid the chaos of scrummaging discussions (mainly by rugby league fans): the place, value and even existence of the scrum.

As the modern game has got faster and more free-flowing, the key focus of the game of rugby union has shifted. Where once entire game plans were built around the scrum and (especially) lineout, nowadays the battle of the breakdown is the vital one, as is so ably demonstrated by the world’s current openside flanker population. Thus, the scrum is becoming less and less important as a tactical tool, and the extremists may argue that it is no more than a way to restart play. This is the exact situation that has been wholeheartedly embraced by rugby league, where lineouts are non-existent and scrums are an uncontested way of restarting play after a minor infringement. To some there is, therefore, something of a crossroads: do we as a game follow the league path of speed and fluidity at the expense of structure, or stick to our guns and keep the scrum (and set piece generally) as a core tenet of our game?

There is no denying that our modern play style, centred around fast rucks and ball-in-hand play, is certainly faster and more entertaining than its slow, sluggish predecessor, if only for the fans watching it, and has certainly helped transform rugby union into the fun, flowing spectators game we know and love today. However having said that, if we just wanted to watch players run with the ball and nothing else of any interest to happen, then we’d all just go and play rugby league, and whilst league is certainly a worthwhile sport (with, among other things, the most passionate fans of any sport on earth), there is no point trying to turn union into its clone. In any case, the extent to which league as a game has been simplified has meant that there are now hardly any infringements or stoppages to speak of and that a scrum is a very rare occurence. This is very much unlike its union cousin, and to do away with the scrum as a tool in the union code would perhaps not suit the game as well as it does in union. Thus, it is certainly worth at least trying to prevent the scrum turning into a dour affair of constant collapses and resets before everyone dies of boredom and we simply scrap the thing.

(I know I’ve probably broken my ‘no Views’ rule here, but I could go on all day about the various arguments and I’d like to get onto some solutions)

The main problem with the modern scrum according to the IRB concerns the engage procedure- arguing (as do many other people) that trying to restrain eight athletes straining to let rip their strength is a tough task for even the stoutest front rower, they have this year changed the engage procedure to omit the ‘pause’ instruction from the ‘crouch, touch, pause, engage’ sequence. Originally included to both help the early players structure their engagement (thus ensuring they didn’t have to spend too much time bent down too far) and to ensure the referee had control over the engagement, they are now arguing that it has no place in the modern game and that it is time to see what effect getting rid of it will have (they have also replaced the ‘engage’ instruction with ‘set’ to reduce confusion about which syllable to engage on).

Whether this will work or not is a matter of some debate. It’s certainly a nice idea- speaking as a forward myself, I can attest that giving the scrum time to wind itself up is perhaps not the best way to ensure they come together in a safe, controlled fashion. However, what this does do is place a lot of onus on the referee to get his timing right. If the ‘crouch, touch, set’ procedure is said too quickly, it can be guaranteed that one team will not have prepared themselves properly and the whole engagement will be a complete mess. Say it too slowly, and both sides will have got themselves all wound up and we’ll be back to square one again. I suppose we’ll all find out how well it works come the new season (although I do advise giving teams time to settle back in- I expect to see a lot of packs waiting for a split second on the ‘set’ instruction as they wait for the fourth command they are so used to)

Other solutions have also been put forward. Many advocate a new law demanding gripping areas on the shirts of front row players to ensure they have something to get hold of on modern, skintight shirts, although the implementation of such a law would undoubtedly be both expensive and rather chaotic for all concerned, which is presumably why the IRB didn’t go for it. With the increasing use and importance of the Television Match Official (TMO) in international matches, there are a few suggesting that both they and the line judge should be granted extra responsibilities at scrum time to ensure the referee’s attention is not distracted, but it is understandable that referees do not want to be patronised by and become over-reliant on a hardly universally present system where the official in question is wholly dependent on whether the TV crews think that the front row binding will make a good shot.

However, whilst these ideas may help to prevent the scrum collapsing, with regards to the scrum’s place in the modern game they are little more than papering over the cracks. On their own, they will not change the way the game is played and will certainly not magically bring the scrum back to centre stage in the professional game.

For that to happen though, things may have to change quite radically. We must remember that the scrum as an invention is over 150 years old and was made for a game that has since changed beyond all recognition, so it could well be time that it began to reflect that. It’s all well and good playing the running game of today, but if the scrum starts to become little more than a restart then it has lost all its value. However, it is also true that if it is allowed to simply become a complete lottery, then the advantage for the team putting the ball in is lost and everyone just gets frustrated with it.

An answer could be (to pick an example idea) to turn the scrum into a more slippery affair, capable of moving back and forth far more easily than it can at the moment, almost more like a maul than anything else. This would almost certainly require radical changes regarding the structure and engagement of it- perhaps we should say that any number of players (between, say, three and ten) can take part in a scrum, in the same way as happens at lineouts, thereby introducing a tactical element to the setup and meaning that some sneaky trickery and preplanned plays could turn an opposition scrum on its head. Perhaps the laws on how the players are allowed to bind up should be relaxed, forcing teams to choose between a more powerful pushing setup and a looser one allowing for faster attacking & defending responses. Perhaps a law should be trialled demanding that if two teams engaged correctly, but the scrum collapsed because one side went lower than the other then the free kick would be awarded to the ‘lower’ side, thus placing a greater onus on technique over sheer power and turning the balance of the scrum on its head. Would any of these work? Maybe not, but they’re ideas.

I, obviously, do not have all the definitive answers, and I couldn’t say I’m a definite advocate of any of the ideas I voiced above (especially the last one, now I think how ridiculously impractical it would be to manage). But it is at least worth thinking about how much the game has evolved since the scrum’s invention, and whether it’s time for it to catch up.