The Second Test

OK, wow. That was quite some match.

The 2nd test on the 2013 Lions tour proved to be a tense, exciting one; an all-out battle between a committed Lions’ defence and the Wallaby attack. For 76 minutes the Lions offered up one of the best defensive displays I have ever seen on a rugby pitch (and in the process set the stage for the tensest game of rugby I have ever been lucky enough to witness), but finally the Aussies were able to put some speed on the ball for one crucial phase, sending Adam Ashley-Cooper over for the winner. Hair raising stuff, roll on the decider.

Right, now time for the awards ceremony. I think another two parter is in order…

Once again, first up are the FRONT ROW, where Benn Robinson and Mako Vunipola (but predominantly Robinson) jointly take home the Ace Up Both Sleeves Award for Best Display of Cheating. Like it or not, cheating is a part of the modern game of rugby, most prominently by back row forwards (looking at you, Richie McCaw) but also by members of the front row brethren. Rarely has this been shown more obviously than in Saturday’s battle between Australian tighthead Robinson and Lions’ loosehead Vunipola. Whilst Vunipola’s scrummaging ability is frequently underrated, it’s fairly safe to say that he merited his place in the touring party for his work in the loose rather than in the scrum. However, he is nonetheless a very powerful figure, and Robinson (also not a natural scrummager) had clearly decided that, if they were going to have a straight pushing contest, he was not going to come out on top. A decision that must surely have been settled upon entirely when Vunipola began boring in at the first scrum, to complete silence from the officials (although I should add a caveat that I think Craig Joubert otherwise refereed superbly and contributed immensely to a good game of rugby), putting Robinson under all sorts of pressure and laying the foundations for every scrum the Lions won that evening.

However, Vunipola’s somewhat unsophisticated technique did give Robinson quite a lot to work with, and over the next couple of scrums he exploited that to the full. Engaging from a low body position enabled him to get underneath Vunipola at the hit and exert some form of control over him, but if he just remained static in this position then Vunipola could have found time to regain his position (as he did at several later scrums). So, Robinson instead took the opportunity to drive slightly downwards, bending Vunipola completely illegally out of position and negating all his power. Twice in succession Vunipola was penalised for ‘going to ground’ (ie Robinson threw himself at the floor), and even though the Lions pack eventually steadied the ship all due credit must go to Robinson for every sneaky trick he pulled to negate his opponent’s power.

On to the SECOND ROW, where this time it’s Geoff Parling’s turn to take home an individual award: the I Thought You Were Meant To Be Good At This Award for Least Mastery of Area Of Personal Skill. Parling is, as the rugby media like to tell us at every opportunity, a lineout forward, not only skilled in the air but also an authoritative organiser who is well able to call the shots and get his lineout working like a well oiled machine. Not that this was particularly evident on Saturday; the lineout had worked well for the Lions last week by being rather conservative in outlook, and Parling’s efforts to use it as more of an attacking platform didn’t work quite as well as they might have. Three times his bearded visage was seen rising into the air at the tail of the Lions’ lineout, and three times he missed a clean catch and a scramble for the ball resulted. Twice it ended up going to the Australians. Indeed, the Lions got their best results by going conservative, their driving maul proving an effective weapon on at least two occasions. This could be at least partly blamed on a fairly atrocious throwing display from Tom Youngs, but Parling also failed to mount any really major challenge to the Wallabies’ ball either- he was able to disrupt it a couple of times, putting Will Genia on the back foot, but there was never any ball stolen or genuinely challenged. I wouldn’t ordinarily mind but… well Parling is kinda supposed to be really, really good at this. Meh, could’ve been worse still.

Finally for this post we consider the BACK ROW, and another individual award goes to a Lion. This time it’s captain Sam Warburton, proud winner of the Shut Up And Sit Down Award for Most Critic-Answering Performance. Warburton has come under a lot of flak during this tour; upon his being named captain, many (including me) were quick to suggest that, whatever his qualities as a player, the back row was too competitive a position to have one space already set aside for a player who may not end up being the best in his position during the warmup games. I still stand by the idea that Warren Gatland’s choice of captain was perhaps not the most sensible, but I cannot deny that his faith in Warburton’s ability was entirely vindicated by his performance on Saturday. Like all good captains he lead from the front, scoring two crucial turnovers early on and a third, perhaps even more importantly, in the second half. In the midst of a virtuoso (well, for 76 minutes at least) team defensive performance, his individual tackling display also stood out, constantly applying pressure on the Australian runners and frequently forcing them backwards; whilst he didn’t top the tackling stats (that gong goes to our old friend Mako Vunipola, with 15), he must have been damn close. He and Dan Lydiate were the standout defenders for me, and it’s almost a shame that they didn’t end up rewarded for their sacrifices with a win. He made no handling errors or, indeed, any real mistakes that I could see, and but for an uninspired showing in attack (which could be attributed the fact that a) he’s not a particularly attacking player and b) the Lions did a grand total of about 3 minutes attacking throughout the match) his would have ranked as among the standout back row displays all year.

And as for the backs? Well we can deal with them next time…

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The First Test

Right, I think I have just remembered to start breathing again after a far too tense end to the Lions’ first test in Brisbane, and so I think it’s time for one of my alternative awards ceremonies. With only one game to review, I’m not going to give each team a separate series of awards, but rather one each for the key positional groups (across both sides; so both Lions’ and Australian front rowers are both covered under the same category, for example). Some of these will be individual, some will refer to a specific team, and some will just refer to the way the game played out in that position. I will also make a few more general comments at the end, just because there are one or two things I could do with getting off my chest.

OK? Right, let’s get started.

We begin with the FRONT ROW, who collectively take the Reverse Parallels Award for Strangest Resemblance of A Previous Lions Series. The series in question is 1997’s South Africa Tour, the last time the Lions actually won a series, and against all the odds to boot. The South Africans were world champions, champing at the bit for the return of the Lions (who were usually easybeats for past Springbok sides) after a 17-year long apartheid-based drought. Many salivated at the prospect of the giant South African scrum, featuring the legendary 21 stone Os du Randt among others, going up against a comparatively tiny Lions front row, but through a mixture of technique and grit the Lions were able to match their opponents and nullify the South African forwards.

If any of that sounds familiar, then it’s because a lot of people were making bones about it prior to this series, but with the roles reversed. The Australian front row incumbents, Benn Robinson, Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore are noted proponents of the loose but are reckoned to be at scrum time, whereas the Lions’ front row for this test was made up of the tour’s three strongest surviving scrummagers; Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and the scrummaging legend that is Adam Jones. And, indeed, at the Lions’ first scrum, all seemed to be in order; much like on the ’97 tour, the dominant scrum instantly sent the weaker side scurrying backwards and won a penalty, but from then on both the ’13 Aussies and ’97 Lions set about nullifying their opponents’ weapon. Throughout the match Lions fans got excited every time a scrum came along, waiting for a dominant display that never really came. Instead, the Australians used every dirty trick in the book to keep the scrum battle at least ambiguous and that first dominant scrum proved to be the only one. Indeed, as the Lions brought on their substitutes the Australian’s tactical scrummaging began to swing things in their favour, and it’s worth noting that both of the Australian’s last two crucial penalty attempts came from scrums. Whatever you think of referee Chris Pollock’s display (and he gave us plenty to talk about) he should never have been able to give those penalties were the Lions as dominant as they were ‘meant’ to be.

Right, enough about the fat boys; we move on to the SECOND ROW, and Australian captain James Horwill in particular. Horwill takes the dubious honour of the Eyes In The Back Of His Head Award for Being Victim Of The Most Eagle-Eyed Official- but I’m not talking about Pollock. The official in question is whichever sharp-eyed bystander managed to notice, and subsequently refer to the citing officer, an incident where Horwill allegedly stamped on the face of Lions’ lock Alun Wyn Jones (the citing officer presumably thought it was an accident, as he has now been cleared and is free to play in the second test.). You can view the incident here, and I would challenge you to spot what they’re talking about before the camera goes to slo-mo; I watched the match in a bar with around 200 partisan Lions fans in it, and not one of them picked it up at the time. Neither did either of the people I showed that clip to until the replay, and given the lack of reaction from the crowd there weren’t many of them who noticed it either. Whilst the incident has caused (predictably enough) much furore online, I think real credit goes to the one person who actually managed to catch it in real time.

Next come the BACK ROW and another award for an Australian. This time it’s flanker Michael Hooper, who takes the Man Of Many Faces Award for Most Impersonations. Hooper is not a regular fixture in the Wallaby squad, but then again there’s not much he can do about that when the Wallabies’ normal openside is the great David Pocock, and it was a bitter blow to the Aussies when it was announced Pocock was injured and would not be able to take part in the series. The management and those Australian pundits whose opinions I have read refused to betray a smidgeon of concern, confidently predicting that Hooper would be able to fill Pocock’s sizeable shoes. So no pressure there then.

Hooper didn’t play badly, but the game and the refereeing were not friendly to ball-snafflers of Pocock’s mould, as Brian O’Driscoll learned to his cost early on. Indeed, the real star of both back rows was Aussie debutant Ben Mowen, who did a number on Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips and in the process almost single-handedly destabilised the Lions’ entire plan of attack. I will be interested to see how they react in the second test. However, the reason Hooper gets the award this week came around the 60-minute mark, when Australian centre Pat McCabe suffered a neck injury. Low on backs replacements, Robbie Deans took the unusual descision to bring on substitute flanker Liam Gill and give Hooper a run at outside centre. That Alex Cuthbert was immediately sent up the midfield to score a try for the Lions will be laid at Hooper’s feet by some, but given that the move was a Jonny Sexton special I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, he hardly looked out of place for the rest of the match.

Dammit, why do all my posts turn into two parters nowadays? Ah well, backs next time I guess.

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.