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

Episode 6: Return of the Nations

The Six Nations returned this weekend, bringing with it some superb running rugby, some great tries, and the opportunity to make the rubbish pun in the title of this post (sorry). As usual, scores at the bottom, and hit BBC iPlayer or Rugby Dump afterwards to watch the highlights if you didn’t see the games- they were awesome

First up are ITALY who take the Oh God, The Cliches Will Be Horrendous Award for Causing the Most Obvious Game of Two Halves (although weirdly the BBC half-time analysis during the other two games described both first halves as ‘a half of two halves). The first half of their match with Ireland was a great contest, with the Italian underdogs matching the Irishmen point for point (despite their traditional kicking issues) to go in at the break 10-10, courtesy of a lovely try from Sergio Parisse.
Then came the second half, during which the intriguing contest of the first appeared to go straight out of the window the moment Wayne Barnes blue his whistle. Italy secured little possession, and their forwards were powerless to stop the Irish backs trampling all over their Italian counterparts, making break after break and running in four tries, including two in the last two minutes as Italy appeared to just roll over and give up. Considering how well they have done in the last two weeks, and indeed in last year’s championship (including a very tense, narrow loss to the Irish), this was a reminder that they still have a way to go.

IRELAND themselves picked up a more individual award, namely the Sorry, Were We Watching The Same Game? Award for Most Baffling Man of the Match. Ireland had many standout players in their rout of the Italians- Tommy Bowe scored a brace on the wing, Keith Earls was running well in the centre and scored a try of his own, and Paul O’Connell was seemingly omnipresent in the lineout and breakdown. Two of my tips for MOTM were Stephen Ferris, who made at least two clean breaks and was tackling like the immovable object he usually is, and Rob Kearney, whose aggression whilst running would have made the bravest defender start to whimper. And Man of the Match went to… Jonny Sexton, the Irish flyhalf.
Now, Sexton is a good player, and the typical media view of him appears to be somewhere between Dan Carter and God, but he was not MOTM. From my point of view, he was playing quite well, but certainly nothing like his best and wasn’t even inspiring his attacking line like he had been in previous weeks. Man of the Match? Not a chance.

Onto the next game, in which ENGLAND picked up the consolation Are You Blind, Sir? Award for Unluckiest Refereeing Errors. Any rugby player will tell you that no referee, no matter how good and no matter what the match, can see everything, and there will be always things that they miss. To his credit, referee Steve Walsh (who himself won the Hugh Jackman Lookalike Award) did spot most things and overall refereed well, but several of those that he did miss or got wrong went severely against England. One example that sticks in mind occurred midway through the second half- with the English back line under pressure, flyhalf Owen Farrell (who had an absolute stormer) tried to simultaneously flick the ball onwards while avoiding the unwelcome attentions of Welsh centre Jonathan Davies. As he did so, Davies tackled him and knocked the ball on, sending it flying upfield. This should have been an English scrum, but with Walsh on the wrong side he allowed play to go on, from which Wales made 30 metres, won a penalty and got a lucky 3 points.
More controversial, however, and something that will prove a source of bitterness for years to come methinks, occurred right at the end. With England needing a converted try to draw level, they launched one last desperate attack, including one attempted crossfield kick that was inches away from a score. Finally, wing David Strettle launched himself at the line and, although swamped by three Welsh defenders, appeared at first glance to have touched it down over his head. Multiple video replays appeared to show the same thing, but the TMO was unsure as to whether Strettle had exerted sufficient ‘downward pressure’ and, as it says in the laws “if there is any doubt as to whether a try has been scored, a scrum must be awarded”. With time over, Walsh called no try, blew his whistle, and Wales were victorious. Was it a try? I think it was (as do all my English friends), but hey- it’s happened now. But Wales- you got lucky. Very lucky. (Although I must say, Strettle did himself no favours in the post-match press conference by making at least 2 laws mistakes that didn’t exactly help his case)

As for WALES, they can thank their win due to a mixture of a rather fluky try from Scott Williams (how he got the ball of the strongest man on the pitch I will never know), and their work in gaining the Leonidas, Eat Your Heart Out Award for Best Defence. Despite Manu Tuilagi sitting Rhys Priestland on his arse at every possible opportunity, and England’s defence being solid as a rock too, the Welsh defence was awesome. MOTM and Welsh captain Sam Warburton saved a sure-fire try with a one-leg tackle on Tuilagi, the most powerful runner out there, that stopped him dead in his tracks, and it was that desperation and urgency with their backs to the wall that kept the English away from a try, and prevented Strettle’s try from being in any doubt. Added to that was George North’s beautiful hit on Owen Farrell, just after Farrell’s equally beautiful chip through, and just after his impressive placement of the ball, considering he’d just been hit by a train of a tackle. You can see it in appalling quality here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edFYLea7n2Y, or with sound on the highlights video- gotta be one of the best of the tournament so far.

Finally we come to Sunday and SCOTLAND‘s clash with France, in which the Scots picked up the Oh Shit, You Are Actually Quite Good Progress Prize. Every rugby man worth his salt knows what Scotland’s problems have been in recent years- tries, or more importantly, a lack of them. In players Sean Lamont, Max Evans, Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair Scotland have always had some undoubtedly potent backs, but they never seem to be able to finish anything, or to provide that moment of magic that leads to a welcome 5-point boost. However, within 10 minutes of the starting whistle on Sunday, first starter Stuart Hogg changed that when, in tandem with some great vision by Greig Laidlaw, he scooted over in the corner to open the scoring for Scotland. From that moment on, Scotland were a changed team from the one we have seen in recent months- fast, open, free-flowing and exciting to watch. Hogg was constantly threatening from full-back (once running straight through what looked like a solid wall of French defenders), Laidlaw kept up the good work from fly-half, and the back row were their usual brilliant selves. When Lee Jones got try no. 2 (courtesy of what I’m sure was a bit of outrageous cheating from John Barclay), the result seemed immaterial, for Scotland were playing well at last. Although, to be honest, the win would have been nice.

And so we come to that game’s victors, FRANCE, winners of the Sporting Underdog Films Are Never Going to Happen In Real Life Award for Mercilessly Grinding Out wins. France were not overwhelming in their victory- they were not spectacular and, for a French side, surprisingly lacking in flair. While the Scots surprised and encouraged everyone watching, getting the Murrayfield crowd behind them and setting themselves up for what would have been a historic win, the French were comparatively calm and collected in their manner. While their rather shoddy defence let them down on occasions, in attack they were clinical finishers, getting one try courtesy of a killer line from Wesley Fofana, and another from a simple 2-on-1 from a clean line break. Lionel Beauxis’ drop goal to finish it off at the end epitomised their performance- nothing flashy, no tension, no dramatic try attempts as they struggled to break the Scottish line- just calm, efficient finishing and just performance ability. Some would say Scotland were the moral victors- but the French made sure that was not about to happen.

Final Scores:
Ireland 42-10 Italy
Wales 19-12 England
France 23-17 Scotland