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.

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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…

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