Lion Kings

Something has been nagging at us recently – why are the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions favourites for the test series? On Betfair right now, the Lions are 1.7 and the Wobblies 2.6. We’re a bit confused. We don’t argue with the idea that this looks a good Lions squad – they’ve a nice blend of experience from four (and eight …. and twelve!) years ago and young tyros, have an excellent fly half, and are playing in the easiest place top tour of the three Southern Hemisphere biggies.

But … favourites? Part of us thinks that no invitational team, no matter how many of Ian McGeechan’s tears are stitched into the shirt, should ever beat a test nation worth its salt. Another, more romantic, part watches the footage of the 1974 tour and thinks anything is possible. Still … favourites?

The Six Nations, opening weekend and final game aside, was an abomination this year, characterised by stodgy rugby, low skill levels and 6.5’s (Justin Tipuric aside). The best two club teams in the Northern Hemisphere, Toulon and Clermont, have precisely one representatives on tour – Toulon bench-warmer Gethin Jenkins. Admittedly, that is partly out of choice of the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions coaches; and the other standout of recent years, Leinster, have six.

Recent statistics aren’t imposing, but are certainly in the Australians favour:

  • Since the last Lions tour, Australia have won 12, drawn 1 and lost 8 of their 21 homes games – four of the losses have been to New Zealand, one to South Africa and one to Samoa
  • They have beaten Wales (3), Ireland (1) and England (1) in that period, and lost to England (1) and Scotland (1) – thats a 5-2 win-loss record at home
  • Australia have eight successes in a row against Wales, and have won 17 of 20, with one draw, since the game went open]
  • Last November, the Australians won in Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium

Also, what about the world rankings? Australia are third, a cigarette paper behind South Africa, and with some daylight between themselves and England (4), Wales (5), Ireland (9) and Scotland (10). The Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions are composed of the cream of those four (plus Matt Stevens), but in reality, the Test side is going to be mostly a Welsh-Irish composite, or, in other words, a fifth-ninth composite. Does fifth-ninth beat third? Maybe.

We think the Lions favouritism is actually majorly driven by all the doubts surrounding this Aussie team. The bond between management, players and fans seems loose, at best, right now. Their best player is out in the cold (for the moment). They have a propensity to occasionally lose to inferior sides. But still, the best side in Super Rugby so far this season is the ACT Brumbies. The Queensland Reds won it the year before last. Its only halfway through the year for them, unlike their opponents. It just seems odd that the Lions are so fancied, and for the first time in living memory.

Since the Invincibles tour, the Lions have won two Test series from nine – 1989 in Australia and 1997 in South Africa. In 1989, the team was dominated by England and Scotland sides that went on to complete memorable Grand Slams  and contest a RWC semi-final in 1991. The 1997 South African tourists largely laid the template for the new pro-style Lions tours, with shorter duration, rampant commericialism and dewey-eyed reverence for a concept that seemed not to have a modern relevance.

This team will be dominated by Wales and Ireland – and Wales have lost all eight games against Australia in the last four years, while Ireland are coming off their worst Six Nations ever. The Liiiiiiiiiiiiions will need to call on all of that history, and hope that the players can rise to the occasion. Its going to be a massive challenge, and we are struggling with the idea that the Lions are genuine favourites.

ADDITION TO POST:

We’re aware Betfair odds (and to an extent bookies odds) are driven by supply and demand, but they are also driven by rational investors. Is it rational to have the Lions at 1.7?

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24 Comments

  1. Cian Hyland

     /  June 4, 2013

    There is a Toulon player in the squad…just nit-picking, though he was just a well played spectator in most big games.

  2. Dave W

     /  June 4, 2013

    Looking at the injury list the Wallabies have, I think it’s the best chance of the recent tours that the Lions have of winning a series. I personally wouldn’t have them as favourites, after all they are only together for a few weeks by the time the tests roll around – even if they do supposedly contain the best players from the home unions.

    Given it’s Gatland and a predominantly Welsh setup, I think it’s going to be a case of “look at the games we lost so recently by so little and improve the areas where that team is weak. Parachute in a few top notch players from England/Ireland into that team and we should overcome the last minute losses and beat these pesky buggers”. I get the impression that seems to be the mindset.

    I’m just hoping that Gatland doesn’t pull a Kidney and always revert to the players he knows over possibly superior players in contentious positions (No. 8, Wings, for example).

  3. Stevo

     /  June 4, 2013

    Underestimating the Wallabies seems to be a perennial failing in this part of the world (the British & Irish Lions part, that is). Over and again you hear talk about powder-puff front rows, indisciplined playmakers, or whatever this year’s fatal flaw in their make-up happens to be. And then they come to Europe and win at least 3 out of 4.

    I think there’s a couple of reasons behind it. First of all there’s always a need to feel that one of our nations can crack the top three, that we can count on beating at least one of them and the Wallabies are naturally the ones we target. Secondly, the flaws that we identify in their squads usually are there, they just happen to be past-masters at compensating for their shortcomings. Rugby more than most field games is unforgiving of imbalance in your team’s make-up, but the Wallabies only usually get exposed against BNZ, or more occasionally South Africa.

    One other thing, I’d suggest that Australia’s real best player is currently nursing a cruciate ligament injury.

  4. The fact Gatland is in charge and has been involved in the Lions before is another factor that goes to their strength. He knows what the Lions is about, and knows some of the main players in the squad inside out from his time with Ireland and Wales.

    A lot of faith is put into the fact that there seems to be the right blend of experience with youth in the squad. The likes of O’Driscoll,Jones and O’Connell have done it all before and will be able to make life easier for first time tourists such as Hogg,Murray and Tuilagi.

    Hopefully in the build up to the test matches Gatland will mix up the match day squads, and give everyone a run out so the squad is fresh and as injury free as can be for the first test Brisbane on the 22nd June. Injuries to Timani (confirmed as missing the tests) and Higginbottom (assessment to come), coupled with the exclusion of Cooper and other areas of concern (Beale) have meant that the Wallabies look short of bringing their best hand to the table. Saying that I agree that it is a tough ask for the Lions, and the form of the Aussie teams in the Super 15 can’t be ignored. Should be great viewing.

  5. Pedantic post but the only reason the Lions are favourites is because punters in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have put down a fortune with the bookies due to romantic hopes and memories of past conquests. The bookies are simply mitigating risk by having the odds so short on the Lions.

    The odds don’t reflect the actual chance of a Lions series win at all!

    • Pedantry accepted. But there does seem to be a general acceptance (both here, and in Australia) that the Wallabies are outsiders. We’re simply not swallowing that

    • contraflow

       /  June 4, 2013

      Very true Rob. The odds are reflecting the dewy-eyed squanderings of the British and Irish public who can’t wait to get in line for their 4 yearly rugby-rodgering. The manipulative Sky ads have sent the masses teeming into Paddy Powers to be financially sodomised, poor saps.

    • solidalarry

       /  June 4, 2013

      I should read the comments before posting.

    • While this may have been true in the past with bookmakers odds its far less true in today’s globalised betting markets. If Paddypower, for example, were to let the odds on Australia lengthen massively due to large amounts of bets being placed by Home Nations betters on the Lions then they would see a large influx of Australian money betting on Australia as a result. Which would bring the odds back to a market equilibrium.

      With worldwide betting availability a major concern of bookmakers has become limiting arbitrage opportunities – this also lessens their ability to move the odds as a response to bets received.

      Overall it means the bookies odds are much more grounded in reality than in previous eras when they may have been more influenced by such sentimentality.

      • Whole-heartedly agree with this – 1.7 for the Lions represents something more risk-neutral than it ever did.

        That said, British bettors are renowned for patriotic betting – witness the ludicrously short odds on England to win the soccer World Cup every time it roles around, and the received wisdom that British bookies used to make their annual profits on Tim Henman and Jimmy White. If this money is significant relative to the depth of the market, it will have some impact. Personally, I believe it is marginal, but the argument is certainly there to be made.

  6. Bookies’ odds are determined by where people place their bets, in a bid to secure a balanced book (ie. the house always wins).

    Not a betting man myself, but I presume in normal circumstances the distribution of betting closely resembles what one might call realistic odds. The Lions aren’t really normal. I agree with you guys, Australia are the likely victors – but if a serious proportion of the punters’ collective wedge has gone/is going on the Lions, which doesn’t strike me as especially surprising, the odds as they stand are no shock.

  7. Spice

     /  June 4, 2013

    I dont buy it. Yes they have beaten the majority of NH teams over the last year or two but all have been extremely tight. Without romanticising about ‘moral victories’ there was an element of luck involved added to an absolute spanking from France and a loss to Scotland. They were also exceptionally un-impressive in the Championship last summer. IMO the difference traditionally between the NH sides and the Wallabies has been their athleticism (Springboks=brute force ; ABs=Everything). The Aussies traditionally produce great athletes and their conditioning is second to none. This lions team definitely does not lack athletes and will not be held back by the stragglers of each individual nation. None of the B+I nations will have any hang-ups about beating the Aussies (except Wales bizarrely). Of the last 3 tours the Lions were desperately unlucky in 2. This Wallabies side has nothing on their 2001 counter-parts and I think the Lions certainly deserve the favourites tag. 3-0 Lions series win!

  8. Don

     /  June 4, 2013

    I’m surprised by this piece lads. Oz have big problems, their coach is on the way out, the players don’t fancy playing for him, they DO have a light front row (its not an expression, its the truth) they are missing key players in key positions…
    The only thing that could ruin it for the lions is Gatland. Never been a big fan and I completely agree with whoever above said hes using the Welsh team template and putting in quality from other countries using the so-near-yet-so-far line.
    One other point about your piece. ACT are the best in super 15 so far.
    Honestly? Big deal. Munster were and Leinster are (to be fair) the best club sides in Europe. That does not always translate into a winning international team.

    (Totally agree the Leinster are line could be a bit premature with a new season still to come. But I stand by my blinker-ness)

  9. Yossarian

     /  June 4, 2013

    Is it a little like the way in Ireland we always fancy our chances against the Aussies but in reality we haven’t beaten them in oz since 79 or something?we have a good record here and the World Cup victory was significant but in practice we always think we have a better shot than maybe we do.(a bit like beating the French-always think we will,doesn’t actually happen)
    I think the Aussies lack the depth of BNZ and SA so they can look more vulnerable but they have some serous quality players and the same advantage every team playing the lions has, they have played together.
    A welsh template will struggle to beat the Aussies but I don’t know if there is time for a more complex attack pattern to be developed.(easier to get the general movement of bringing forwards around the corner and up the short side than the complexity of a team like leinster)

    • I never think we’ll beat France, even when they’re crap, which has been a lot recently.

      If it wasn’t for the All Blacks I’d count them as our bogey team.

      Our post-2000 record (or, and this is topical, is the real watershed in Irish rugby the appointment of Warren Gatland as coach?) against Oz and SA is vaguely respectable.

  10. So is “Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions”, the official way to spell that chant WOC? I’m that excited about the tour I’ve even been putting some thought into my chanting! I’d hate to have the emphasis wrong when I’m roaring in the stands! Imagine the embarassment!

  11. Rich

     /  June 6, 2013

    Fair enough article – our team will be mostly Welch players and they don t do well against Aussie’s – although their issue was clearly with Pocock who is not playing.

    “Izzy” has improved dramatically since my last discussion, but it is worth remembering that if he is selected he will be on debut for the Wallabies as will a few others. He will slot in at FB with probably Barnes at 10, Lealifano at 12, AAC at 13. No Digby for 1st test which is a huge bonus for us, along with no Pocock as noted above and George Smith out also – more than likely Hooper at 7 – and although quick he is very average.

    Our game plan is pretty apparant – run over the top of them, any 50/50 decisions will be decided on weight, we will have 14 units and BOD on the field and much as i will disagree with selections as much as anyone, I just think in this series Lions will be too strong

  12. WoC, when are we going to see your starting XV for the Lions first Test? Can’t wait for the mile-long comments bar under that one. May even wade in myself. Superb blog btw, friend of mine (& former Leinster schools player) put me on to it a couple of weeks ago. Delighted to find you. Right, flattery aside, now break out your Lions teamsheet!

    • Thanks for the complimets arran. We’ll be looking at the test side this week for sure, and make our predictions on the series too.

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