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…

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006 Nations: From Rugby with Love

And so another weekend of Six Nations rugby action has rolled around again, which means an awful pun in the title (for which I apologise unreservedly) of my regular awards ceremony post. So without further ado, onto the first game.

We begin with ITALY, takers of a major scalp last weekend against France and takers this weekend of the Running Into A Brick Wall Award for Sheer Determination and Bloodymindedness. Italy won last week thanks to their fluid, offloading-centric game plan, smashing into the French defensive line and putting them on the back foot, and commentators across Europe have been quick to praise coach Jacques Brunel for his work in transforming Italy’s playing style for the better. The Italians tried much the same tactic against Scotland, who they had high hopes of beating after their heavy loss to England last Saturday, but whether it be the wet, stodgy conditions of Murrayfield (in stark contrast to last week’s faster pitch at the Stadio Olimpico) or the sheer quality of Scotland’s defensive effort, Italy simply could not get the Scots to open up. And yet, credit where it’s due, Italy did not give up. It would have been easy to simply say ‘this isn’t working’ and to try and revert to a less well-practiced kicking game (which would have hardly helped matters against a ruthlessly efficient Scottish lineout), but Italy took the brave option of sticking to the game plan they’d practiced and continuing to probe at the Scottish defence. That they failed to breach their line until a beautifully executed set play less than ten minutes before the end, despite controlling both territory and possession, could be said to demonstrate that this tactic was a failure, but it is perhaps more of a testament to the Scottish tackling and counter-rucking display.

As well as taking the defensive victory, SCOTLAND also take home the Don’t Mind If I Do Award for Fijian-style Opportunism. Scotland controlled next to none of the second half possession, and a minority of it in the first, content instead to ensure the Italians were not going to breach their line; which, given the newfound danger presented by the current Italy side, wasn’t a bad move. This could have been a recipe for a very, very boring match, but such a spectacle was saved by the Scottish back division’s ability to sniff out and exploit the tiniest of scoring chances. Of Scotland’s four tries, two were breakaways courtesy of tiny mistakes from the Italians. Possibly the best moment of the match came from Scotland’s full back Stuart Hogg, who managed to intercept what would otherwise surely have been the scoring pass from Luciano Orquera before running 80 metres for a try. Sean Lamont added Scotland’s fourth after noticing the ball unguarded and legally playable behind an Italian ruck, and Matt Scott nearly picked up his first international try early on after a well-placed grubber kick through conjured up an opportunity from nowhere; only Tobias Botes’ superb covering tackle meant the Scottish centre had to wait half an hour for his try.

Onto Saturday’s other game, where FRANCE’s Maxime Machenaud picked up the Come On Guys, Work With Me Here Award for Best Solo Performance In An Otherwise Dour Team Display. France played their match against Wales in much the same vein as they had against Italy; looking decidedly lethargic throughout, only fullback Yoann Huget ever looked like he was trying to actively do anything rather than waiting to be magically handed the ball with the line at their mercy. The only other player to achieve any obvious sense of activity from the French starting lineup was Machenaud, winning his second Six Nations start at scrum half, and looking every inch ‘Le Petit General’. Small, energetic and feisty, he positively bustled back and forth across the pitch with all the haste and enthusiasm that a scrumhalf should, and as such he appeared a genuine threat. Unfortunately, he was taken off after just 50 minutes in favour of the more calculating and arguably skilful Morgan Parra, but in a game in serious need of kicking off that may have proved France’s death knell.

WALES themselves pick up an award that could very well have been France’s had Machenaud not impressed me so; the Is It Over Yet? Award for Most Boring Game. The entirity of the France-Wales match was reasonably well summarised by the half time 3-3 scoreline, with the vast majority of the game being played between the two ten metre lines. At 10, Wales’ new flyhalf Dan Biggar produced an up and down display, combining some great tactical kicks (including one sweetly-placed grubber to force Huget to concede the lineout) with some rather poor general play and one or two howlers. The game’s final 16-6 scoreline was frankly flattering, and although I will not deny that Wales’ try (a beautiful chip from Biggar into a minute gap that all 6ft several of George North somehow managed to pop up in and bound over from) was both well-executed and well-deserved, I’m not entirely sure Wales can have a definitive claim to having won the game so much as France lost it. Still, at least Wales managed to break their duck, and the weather was most certainly not in their favour for a fast, free-flowing match.

The boredom award could quite easily have applied to IRELAND during their almost as dull game with England on Sunday, but instead they pick up the rather self-explanatory Bar Of Soap Award for Dreadful Handling and the Ooh… Ouch… Award for Biggest Casualty list. Ireland were hamstrung early on in the game when their instrumental flyhalf Jonny Sexton came off with a calf strain, but these things happen and many would argue that his replacement Ronan O’Gara’s more conservative approach was better suited to the wet, dreary conditions. However, last week’s try-scoring winger Simon Zebo was soon off the field as well with what later transpired to be a quite serious metatarsal injury that has ruled him out of the rest of the competition. Zebo was soon followed by Mike McCarthey (knee), Brian O’Driscoll (ankle) and Donnacha Ryan (back) on the injuries list, with all three joining Sexton as doubts for Ireland’s upcoming game against Scotland. Perhaps surprisingly, none of these injuries came about (as far as I could tell) as a result of foul play; in fact the only person committing such an offense was Irishman Cian Healy when he attempted a stamp on Dan Cole’s ankle. Whilst Cole was apparently unaffected, Healy was cited and is very unlikely to be available for Scotland as well in a position Ireland desperately need him to fill. Ireland’s next squad may be shorn of a few key branches.

Finally we come to ENGLAND, also contenders for the boredom award until Ben Youngs’ adroit chip set centre Manu Tuilagi up for the Sleeping Goalkeeper Award for Most Fluffed Up Opportunity. After Owen Farrell’s beautifully placed kick to the corner put Rob Kearney under pressure and forced an English lineout on the Irish five-metre line, England looked set for their best opportunity of the match; and when referee Jerome Garces awarded them a penalty advantage after Ireland infringed at the resulting maul, the chances looked even better. With the safety net of a penalty in place, Youngs poked his head up from the back of a ruck and began sniffing for even the remotest of opportunities; and spied an undefended space in the Irish in-goal area. With deft precision, he hoisted his kick over the Irish defence and directly into the gap, and as Tuilagi rushed onto it a scoring opportunity seemed certain. However, a bouncing rugby ball is a funny old thing, and presumably Tuilagi wasn’t expecting the ball’s first bounce to land as precisely into his chest as it did. He half-fumbled the catch, and as he reached up to take the ball as it began to fall down again he caught his arm on Keith Earls, making a last-ditch effort to stop him. He missed the catch, the ball went dead, and it was left to Farrell to slot the resulting penalty,and another one 5 minutes later, to secure England the win, and their place as the last undefeated team in the championship. How long that record will stand is another matter entirely…

Final Scores: Scotland 34-10 Italy
France 6-16 Wales
Ireland 6-12 England

The Six Nations Returns…

…and with it my weekly awards ceremony, as last year, for the weekend’s matches. To be honest, I haven’t had much time to think about these, so enthralled with the actual games as I was (over 150 points and 17 tries scored; absolutely fantastic stuff), but I think I’ll just dive straight in with the first match of the weekend.

First, we must turn to WALES, who take the dubious honour of the Year-Long Nostalgia Award for Most Dramatic Fall From Grace, reclaiming a title they won in both 2006 and 2009. Last year the Welsh, after a proud performance at the World Cup the previous awesome, had their ranks positively blooming with talent and good form. Behind the scrum, Rhys Priestland was still hanging on to some of his outstanding 2011 form, Jamie Roberts was in the kind of hard-running, defence-busting mode that won him three Lions caps in 2009, George North (alongside, to a lesser extent, Alex Cuthbert) was terrorising defences through a mixture of raw speed and power, and Jonathan Davies’ smooth running and handling in the centres was causing him to be mentioned in the same breath as New Zealand’s great Conrad Smith. The team seemed unstoppable, battering, bludgeoning and otherwise smashing all who came before them as they romped home to the Grand Slam.

And then the slide began. Since they took the title against the French 11 months ago, Wales have lost eight games on the trot, of which Saturday’s display against Ireland was only the most recent. After some pretty dire performances against the southern hemisphere sides during the summer, a few traces of hope were salvaged during the autumn from close losses to the likes of Australia. Some of the more optimistic Welsh fans thought that the Six Nations may signal a new return to form for their players; but an opening match against Ireland proved unforgiving. The Irish put 30 points past the Welsh in 50 minutes with only 3 in reply, and although Wales mounted a spirited comback it all proved too much, too late.

On, then, to IRELAND; more specifically to left winger Simon Zebo, who takes the Nyan Cat Award for Most YouTube-Worthy Moment from George North in this fixture last year. Whilst North’s little moment of hilarity was typical of a player whose size and strength is his greatest asset, Zebo’s piece of magic was a more mercurial bit of skill. After Dan Biggar (the Welsh flyhalf) decided, for reasons best known to himself, to aim a kick straight at the face of the onrushing Rory Best, the Irishman managed to gather the ball on the rebound and set off for the line. Realising he was being pushed for space, he elected to throw a beautiful long pass out to captain Jamie Heaslip. If Heaslip were able to flick the ball to Zebo, sprinting along his outside, there was a fair chance that the winger could make the corner; but the skipper was under pressure and could only manage a flick off his knees. The pass was poor; thrown at knee-height about a metre behind the onrushing winger, most moves would have ended there with a loose ball. But Zebo produced a truly magical piece of skill– as the ball seemed destined to disappear behind him, he turned and flicked at it deftly with his left heel, before gathering the ball one handed and continuing his run; all without breaking stride. He may not have got the try, but from his bit of sublimity prop Cian Healy did, and thus Zebo will be forever honoured in the hall of fame that is YouTube.

Onto Saturday’s second match and SCOTLAND, proud takers of the Holy Shit, How Did That Happen Award for Biggest Disparity Between Score and Performance. In all honesty, the Scots were never not going to struggle against their English opponents; Calcutta Cups are always ripe for upsets its true, and there’s nothing the Scots like better than being mistaken for the underdog, but they had not won at Twickenham for 30 years and the current team was probably not in the best shape to break that duck. A new side under a new coach (Scott Johnson), they had taken last place and the wooden spoon in last year’s Six Nations, even losing rather badly to Italy, they reached a nadir during the dire loss to Tonga that ended their autumn series and led old coach Andy Robinson to resign. By contrast, the Auld Enemy were ebullient after their emphatic win against New Zealand in November, and some smart money was being put on them to take the Six Nations title this year. And it showed during the game; for all Jim Telfer’s pre-match comments about the England side being ‘arrogant’, the young English side were clinical and efficient, winning twice as many breakdowns as the Scots and Owen Farrell kicking everything he could get his boots on. Nonetheless, the Scots put in a pretty damn good show when they could; new winger Sean Maitland opened the game’s scoring with a neatly taken try in the corner, and fullback Stuart Hogg not only set up that try with a dazzling 60 metre break, but eventually grabbed one of his own and was probably the best back on the pitch. Johnnie Beattie was sublime in the back row, and if it wasn’t for England’s clinical territory game then they would certainly have managed a scoreline far closer than the 20 points it ended up being. We’ve all played games like that; you think you’re playing well and putting up a good fight, scoring some points, and then look up at the scoreboard and think ‘how did that happen?’

As for ENGLAND, centre Billy Twelvetrees takes the Carlos Spencer Award for Most Impressive Debut Performance (and, incidentally, the Staff Sergeant Max Fightmaster Award for Best Name- dunno why, it’s just cool). England have in recent past been rather good at debuts (Freddie Burns last year enjoyed a sound beating of the world champions as his first cap), and much speculation was put forward before the game as to whether the young Gloucester man could fill the sizeable hole left by the injured Manu Tuilagi. As it turned out, he did so splendidly; despite a somewhat ignominious start to his international career (ie he dropped the first ball that came his way), he spent most of the match running superb lines that often threatened the Scottish centre pairing and kept the tempo of the match nice and fast. To cap a great first performance, he even picked up England’s third try, running a typically lovely angle to seemingly pop up from nowhere and slip straight through a gap in the defence. Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing if he can make it a habit.

And now to Sunday’s match, where FRANCE take the When Did I Get In Last Night Award for Least Looking Like They Wanted To Be On The Pitch. France are always a tricky bunch to predict, and their last visit to Rome ended an embarrassing defeat that lead coach Marc Lievremont to dub them cowards; but they’d fared the best out of all the northern hemisphere sides in the awesome, beating Australia and Argentina convincingly, and Frederic Michalak, once the French equivalent to Jonny Wilkinson, was back on form and in the No. 10 shirt. To many, a trip to face the usually table-propping Italians was the perfect warmup before the tournament really hotted up, and it seems the French may have made the mistake of thinking the Azzurri easybeats. It quickly transpired that they were not; Italy’s talismanic captain Sergio Parisse grabbed an early try courtesy of fly half Luciano Orquera, who had a stunning game and lead for most of the first half before a try from Louis Picamoles and some good kicking from Michalak put the French in front. But at no point in the game did France ever look threatening; in the first 25 minutes Italy controlled nearly 75% of the game’s possession whilst France seemed content to wait for mistakes that the Italians simply never made. They seemed lazy, lethargic, even as the precious minutes towards the end of the game ticked away, and never matched Italy’s sheer commitment and drive at the breakdown. Even when they did get good ball, the Italian’s surprisingly impressive kicking game meant they rarely had the territory to do anything with it.

As for the ITALY themelves, they (and Luciano Orquera in particular) take the About Bloody Time Award for Finally Finding A Fly Half. Italy have always had strength in the pack thanks to such men as Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, but behind the scrum they have always lacked class. In particular, they have lacked a good kicker ever since Diego Dominguez retired, allowing teams to be ferocious in the breakdowns with only a minimal risk associated with penalties. Kris Burton and Orquera both tried and failed to ignite the Italian back division, growing in strength with the achievements of Tomasso Benvenuti and Andrea Masi, last year, but yesterday Orquera ran the show. He and Tomas Botes at scrum half kept the French pinned back with a long and effective kicking game, whilst Masi’s incisive running from full back and an energetic display from centre Luke Mclean meant the French were never able to establish any sort of rhythm. With their backs to the wall and their fingers not yet pulled out, the French were sufficiently nullified to allow the Italian forwards to establish dominance at the breakdown; and with Orquera’s place kicking proving as accurate as his punts from hand, the French were punished through both the boot and the tries from Parisse and Castrogiovanni. An outstanding defensive effort to keep the French out in the final 10 minutes and two lovely drop goals from Orquera and Burton sealed the deal on a fantastic display, and the Italians can proudly say for the next two years that the frequently championship-winning French haven’t beaten them in Rome since 2009.

Final Scores: Wales 22-30 Ireland
England 38-18 Scotland
Italy 23-18 France