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…

Advertisements

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

Where do we come from?

In the sport of rugby at the moment (don’t worry, I won’t stay on this topic for too long I promise), there is rather a large debate going on- one that has been echoing around the game for at least a decade now, but that seems to be coming ever closer to the fore. This is the issue of player nationality, namely the modern trend for foreign players to start playing for sides other than those of their birth. The IRB’s rules currently state that one is eligible to play for a country having either lived there for the past three years or if you, either of your parents or any of your grandparents were born there (and so long as you haven’t played for another international side). This state of affairs that has allowed a myriad of foreigners, mainly South Africans (Mouritz Botha, Matt Stevens, Brad Barritt) and New Zealanders (Dylan Hartley, Thomas Waldrom, Riki Flutey), as well as a player all of whose family have played for Samoa (Manu Tuilagi), to play for England in recent years. In fact, Scotland recently played host to an almost comic state of affairs as both the SRU and the media counted down the days until electric Dutch wing Tim Visser, long hailed as the solution to the Scots’ try scoring problems, was eligible to play for Scotland on residency grounds.

These rules were put in place after the ‘Grannygate’ scandal during the early noughties. Kiwi coach Graham Henry, hailed as ‘The Great Redeemer’ by Welsh fans after turning their national side around and leading them to eleven successive victories, had ‘found’ a couple of New Zealanders (Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson) with Welsh grandparents to help bolster his side. However, it wasn’t long before a bit of investigative journalism found out that there was no Welsh connection whatsoever, and the whole thing had been a fabrication by Henry and his team. Both players were stopped playing for Wales, and amidst the furore the IRB brought in their new rules.  Sinkinson later qualified on residency and won six further caps for the Welsh. Howarth, having previously played for New Zealand, never played international rugby again.

It might seem odd, then, that this issue is still considered a scandal, despite the IRB having supposedly ‘sorted it out’. But it remains a hugely contentious issue, dividing those who think that Mouritz Botha’s thick South African accent should not be allowed in a white shirt and those who point out that he apparently considers himself English and has as much a right as anyone to compete for the shirt. This is not just an issue in rugby either- during the Olympics, there was a decent amount of criticism for the presence of ‘plastic Brits’ in the Great Britain squad (many of them sporting strong American accents), something that has been present since the days of hastily anglicised South African Zola Budd. In some ways athletics is even more dodgy, as athletes are permitted to change the country they represent (take Bernard Lagat, who originally represented his native Kenya before switching to the USA).

The problem is that nationality is not a simple black & white dividing line, especially in today’s multicultural, well-travelled world. Many people across the globe now hold a dual nationality and a pair of legal passports, and it would be churlish to suggest that they ‘belong’ any more to one country than another. Take Mo Farah, for example, one of Britain’s heroes after the games, and a British citizen- despite being born in, and having all his family come from, Somaliland (technically speaking this is an independent, semi-autonomous state, but is internationally only recognised as part of Somalia). And just as we Britons exalt the performance of ‘our man’, in his home country the locals are equally ecstatic about the performance of a man they consider Somali, whatever country’s colours he runs in.

The thing is, Mo Farah, to the British public at least, seems British. We are all used to our modern, multicultural society, especially in London, so his ethnic origin barely registers as ‘foreign’ any more, and he has developed a strong English accent since he first moved here aged 9. On the other hand, both of Shana Cox’s parents were born in Britain, but was raised in Long Island and has a notable American accent, leading many to dub her a ‘plastic Brit’ after she lead off the 4 x 400m women’s relay team for Great Britain. In fact, you would be surprised how important accent is to our perception of someone’s nationality, as it is the most obvious indicator of where a person’s development as a speaker and a person occurred.

A simultaneously both interesting and quite sad demonstration of this involves a pair of Scottish rappers I saw in the paper a few years ago (and whose names I have forgotten). When they first auditioned as rappers, they did so in their normal Scots accents- and were soundly laughed out of the water. Seriously, their interviewers could barely keep a straight face as they rejected them out of hand purely based on the sound of their voice. Their solution? To adopt American accents, not just for their music but for their entire life. They rapped in American, spoke in American, swore, drank, partied & had sex all in these fake accents. People they met often used to be amazed by the perfect Scottish accents these all-american music stars were able to impersonate. And it worked, allowing them to break onto the music scene and pursue their dreams as musicians, although it exacted quite a cost. At home in Scotland, one of them asked someone at the train station about the timetable. Initially unable to understand the slight hint of distaste he could hear in their homely Scots lilt, it was about a minute before he realised he had asked the question entirely in his fake accent.

(Interestingly, Scottish music stars The Proclaimers, who the rappers were unfavourably compared to in their initial interview, were once asked about the use of their home accents in their music as opposed to the more traditional American of the music industry, and were so annoyed at the assumption that they ‘should’ be singing in an accent that wasn’t theirs that they even made a song (‘Flatten all the Vowels’) about the incident.)

This story highlights perhaps the key issue when considering the debate of nationality- that what we perceive as where someone’s from will often not tell us the whole story. It is not as simple as ‘oh so-and-so is clearly an American, why are they running for Britain?’, because what someone ‘clearly is’ and what they actually are can often be very different. At the very first football international, England v Scotland, most of the Scottish team were selected on the basis of having Scottish-sounding names. We can’t just be judging people on what first meets the eye.