Nerves-a-jangling

Warren Gatland has staked his money on the setpiece, and the Lions being ahead after an hour.  In the marginal calls he’s gone for Tom Youngs for his better throwing, Alex Corbisiero for his scrummaging and Tom Croft for his lineout work, as well as the potential he offers for long range tries.  It’s all set-piece and no phase play.  He’s left Vunipola out of the starting team and O’Brien out of the squad entirely, taking out his two best carriers.  You could add Toby Faletau as the third best, and he’s not in the squad either, though Heaslip is strong in that regard.  The best chance of getting over the gainline looks to be through the scrum-half and the wings.  Will Paul O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones be pressed into carrying duty?  And how will that affect the Lions at the breakdown, an area they have struggled at times so far?

By far the strangest call is the selection of Dan Lydiate on the bench.  Lydiate is a Gatland favourite, but hardly an impact substitute.  He offers little in attack or at the set-piece.  His speciality is generating high tackle counts, marking out specific ball-carriers and ruling the gain-line.  Whatever about the merits of leaving Sean O’Brien out of any team, leaving him out for a fellow who isn’t even playing all that well is entirely another.  We felt Lydiate’s chances had receded after he failed to start either of the most recent games, because he is a player that appears to need the game-time, being just back from injury after a lengthy layoff.

He’s a man to protect a lead rather than chase a score.  He also offers little in the way of flexibility.  If Sam Warburton goes down injured – as happens frequently – Tom Croft will move over to openside.  Heaven help us, the Lions would never see the pill.  Sean O’Brien ticked all the boxes for the role of first reserve, and has been playing much better than Lydiate, who appears rusty since his injury.  It’s a bit of a pet selection, let’s hope it’s not costly.  We get the feeling Gatland ultimately wants Lydiate in the test team, and perhaps doesn’t fully trust Tom Croft.

Another strange selection on the bench is Maitland , who has failed to impress on the tour to date.  Simon Zebo outplayed him against the Waratahs and, again, appears the more impactful option.  Dare we suggest that this smacks a little of Power of Four tokenism?

The rest more or less picked themselves, with Cuthbert and Davies deputising for the injurd Bowe and Roberts.  As Dr Roberts diagnosed himself to nodding, confused medical staff against the Tahs, Gatty was surely sweating upstairs – and not just from being in such close proximity to Graham Rowntree. Roberts was not only the only specialist inside centre on tour, but he is/was a key component of the inside pass / bosh-it-up-the-shortside gameplan that the taciturn Kiwi ™ came to Oz with. In his absence, and that of Ooooooooooooooooooooohh Manu Tuilagi, it will be Johnny Davies lining up alongside Brian O’Driscoll in the centre. It’s always going to be a challenge getting your combinations right with such a limited lead-in time, and you certainly need the run of the green – losing half of your first-choice three-quarter line certainly doesn’t fall into that category.

In the second row, Alun Wyn Jones and Superman are forming the type of combination they threatened to four years ago, and they won’t be facing the greatest second-row in history. They wil at least be facing Tom Youngs who is the best thrower of the three available, but it will be a case of fingers crossed at lineout time – the one thing all three have in common is that they don’t look or play much like Jockey Wilson. The Wallabies will have noted that.

The other two glaring on-field weaknesses are at the breakdown and with the blitz defence. The tourists have yet to fully hit their stride at ruck time, but both the squad sevens would prefer Dan Lydiate to be in ironman form and not still getting up to speed. This has been an area of presumed Lions advantage since David Pocock got crocked, but that is being busily re-assessed. O’Connell and Jones are formidable breakdown forwards, but one or both could be asked to mke a high number of carries in a pack which is light in that area.

Getting everyone on board to the defensive system is proving a challenge as well – Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley enjoyed great success playing flat and threatening the gainline, in fact, the Lions looked to be hitting panic stations any time Cooper got the ball. The Wallaby inside backs – Will Genia, James O’Connor and Christian Leali’ifano – will surely have taken note, and doglegs will lead to Israel Folau running one on one with Alex Cuthbert – gulp.

This is an extremely difficult series to call. Injury-free and first choice, man-for-man, the Lions look stronger – Johnny Sexton looks the most capable fly-half in sight, they have a better set piece, and a phalanx of impactful backrow forwards (excepting, regretably, the one who will be required to make an impact – Lydiate). Their goal-kicker cannot miss. Australia look likely to without two of their three best players (Cooper and Pocock, with Genia the third) for the series.

But Australia have some in-built advantages – they have no worries about creating new combinations in three weeks, don’t have to farm the Japanese Top League for injury cover, and are at home (notionally in the case of Melbourne). What’s more, it’s going to be extremely close, and the Wobblies have an imposing record when that’s the case.

Since the beginning of 2011, Australia have played in 15 games which have been decided by seven points or less – they have won 13 (including against the likes of New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Wales and England), drawn one (NZ) and lost one – against Scotland in an absolute hurricane in Newcastle last year. That is a serious record in clutch games. The presumption from a lot of fans in the Northern Hemisphere is that Australia have a soft core, but that is far from the truth – they are experts at eking out results.

That, a settled squad, home advantage and niggling injuries are beginning to swing the momentum away from the Lions – the loss of Healy and Jenkins has left huge boots for Corbisiero and Vunipola to fill, and injuries in the afore-mentioned three-quarter line are dampening expectations, which have been sky high to date.

Be certain of one thing, there will be some epic rugby ahead – this summer has only just started its twisting and turning. Who’s going to win? Whiff of Cordite are united on this one in predicting a 2-1 series victory for Australia.  Predicting victories for Northern hemisphere sides (even, or perhaps especially, conglomerate ones) over the Southern hemisphere big three has proved an expensive strategy in recent years, and probably in distant ones too. The Lions will need to come out firing on all cylinders and win the first two tests to win the series, and , to be frank we can’t see it. If they are to win one, it will need to be the first, and to do that, they will need to be ahead after 60 minutes. Do they have the requisiste Plan B on the bench? Not in our opinion.

Backing the Lions to win anything is usually a guarantee of losing money.  Everyone is keen to talk up the great tradition of the Lions, but it is ultimately a losing tradition.  In this age, where defensive organisation and trust in established systems count for a huge amount of a team’s success or failure, can the Lions really put together winning recipes in a few busy weeks?  We expect they’ll come up short, but if they can win the series, it will be Gatland’s greatest triumph and he can expect to be head coach of the Kiwis when next they change coaches.

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38 Comments

  1. Buckfast Bertie

     /  June 20, 2013

    “Power of Four tokenism” – shame you have spoiled an otherwise excellent piece with this comment

    • Bushmills

       /  June 20, 2013

      On the contrary, I thought it was a rather elegant way of expressing what most people are thinking. Maitland can play one position and has been generally disappointing on this tour. On purely rugby terms, it is difficult to justify his selection on the bench.

    • I agree with Bertie, actually, think that’s cheap.

      Heard a lot about how well Zebo played on Saturday – I saw him fluff a chance in the first minute, not make a brilliant start, and be decent thereafter. That may sound harsh, but we have rarefied heights and standards in place here.

      Maitland fluffed one in his first match too – worse, probably, too – but has been there the whole time. Do not underestimate the fact that this is a team sport and being a better part of the team set-up has a huge advantage. All other things being equal, Zebo might be a better choice than SM in a couple of weeks, if that’s the dilemma, with more time in situ. However, hopefully we’ll be on the North/Bowe ticket for tests two and three.

      Both Zebo and Maitland play right across the back three, so there’s no difference in flexibility.

      • I dunno, fellas, it’s worth asking the question?! By any measure Zebo totally outplayed Maitland last week. Maitland’s a fine player who had an excellent season with Glasgow but he hasn’t really brought his best form with him on the tour. Zebo has had an undoubted impact. Not being there from the start has not stopped Corbisiero getting a start, though it’s a different situation, of course.

        • TERMAGANT

           /  June 22, 2013

          On this issue, totally agree with Whiff. I thought Kearney was such a foregone conclusion at 23. that I had to re-check the screen more than once.

          Maitland is in the squad for one reason only – he is (barely) Scottish.

      • JT64

         /  June 20, 2013

        How exactly did Zebo butcher a try? His foot was just in touch, and the Tahs defender (can’t remember who) made an excellent covering tackle. Think you’re being harsh on Zebo.

        Think he might have gone for Maitland as we’ll certainly see him on for North around 65 mins. He is more physical than Zebo so expect to see more of the same with him punching holes up the middle. The lack of ball carriers mean North & Cuthbert are in for a long day at the office on Sat 🙂 Be interesting to see how they utilise Heaslip.

        • Saul Evans

           /  June 20, 2013

          He had the ball in his wrong hand, which was then not free to hand off the tackler. Schoolboy error.

    • I think the phase should be “Power of Fourish tokenishism”, since Sean Maitland is about as Scottish as Michael Flatley is Irish.

    • Spice

       /  June 20, 2013

      Agreed. If there is any bias in place here I reckon it is one of a Kiwi nature. If power of 4 tokenism was in place I hink Stuart Hogg would have been a beter bet. Gatland has picked ever Kiwi born player available to tour and seeingly has a lot of trust in Maitland.

      This all being said I dont thin SMs inclusion is a biased one, as he had an excellent 6Ns and rabo season, but has been in-different on tour. 50-50 between himself and Zebo, probably edged it on virtue of significantly more experience at full back and 2 starting wings who would be completely out of their depth if moved back there. Kearney and Hogg would have also been viable options. If he wanted impact off the bench there are few better than Hogg.

      • Spice

         /  June 20, 2013

        *again excuse the typing.

        • toro toro

           /  June 20, 2013

          Spice is right (ooh, Brucie Bonus earworm…); a more obvious candidate for Maitland’s spot, a more solid performer all tour long, and a more versatile substitute would have been Hogg. So while I don’t think “tokenism” is unfair, it’s inaccurate.

          I don’t buy the Kiwi angle, mind you. There were two in the squad; the other was catapulted to the front line when everybody else in his position got injured the moment the tour started, and has since been dropped.

          • Spice

             /  June 20, 2013

            3-Hartley

          • Spice

             /  June 20, 2013

            I reckon he would have picked Thomas Waldrom had they not needed an additional seat on the plane for his various chins.
            Correct me if I am wrong but I am pretty confident that there has never been 3 Kiwi lions before and it is strange that it comes with a Kiwi coach atthe helm.

          • Dan

             /  June 20, 2013

            Hartley is a dickhead, but I don’t think he was picked ahead of Best because of his Kiwi roots.

            Corbisiero has just been picked ahead of Mako.

            Maitland: hmmm. I think his Super rugby experience and the fact that he is used to beating the Wobbly players in that form worked in his favour.

          • Manga's League

             /  June 21, 2013

            It’s pure conjecture but I reckon there was an element to his thinking that the kiwis would not fear the Aussies at all. Plus Hartley is full blown kiwi- no roots- only moved to uk at 16.

      • “Gatland has picked ever Kiwi born player available to tour”

        I think you’re forgetting the mighty Michael Bent…

  2. Xav

     /  June 20, 2013

    Enjoyable read. Agree with the prediction of a series loss, especially if anyone in that first test backline unfortunate enough to be injured. Scrum the best hope for Lions?

    • Dave W

       /  June 20, 2013

      Assuming it’s refereed well, yes. If it goes the way we’ve seen, with the opposing scrum moving backwards on the hit, we could have a lot of free kicks against the Lions.

  3. The Regulator has picked pretty much the side I’d have selected from what’s available; I have no confidence whatsoever but that’s normal, a Pavlovian reaction to approaching matches honed during years of being an Ulster and Ireland fan.

    Going to be brilliant though, independent of the result.

  4. abitofshoepie

     /  June 20, 2013

    You hit it on the head with this piece….the crucial selection is that of Lydiate over O’Brien on the bench….The Lions have very little tackle breaking threat to come onto the pitch if the game begins to break up in the final 30 mins. Gatland is basically conceding that he will be happy to have a backs to the wall defensive display instead, inviting the Wallabies to run at them. Hope I’m wrong, but I expect the Wallabies to steal a win in the last 10 mins.

  5. Yossarian

     /  June 20, 2013

    I seriously doubt the fitness levels of warburton and lydiate,they have both looked wrecked in the second half of the matches they started. God help us if something happens to heaslip early in the match. If it comes down to the bench I think we will lose. A back row of a tired lydiate(assuming aforementioned nightmare situation)warburton and croft with Farrell for sexton and maitland for north(has his injury fully recovered?) in the back line are the kind of combinations you wouldn’t expect to win a Heineken cup semi final.

  6. Len

     /  June 20, 2013

    The starting xv is about as good as we could expect although I’d be inclined to start Lydiate and spring croft on the hour once DL has tackled the convicts to a stand still (neither would be in the match day xxiii if I were selecting it). The bench looks very weak and you’d feel none of them could come on take control and make any real impact. I’d have preferred Hogg or Zebo over Maitland and I’d have gone with TF on the bench (having started SOB). If warns is going to pick up an injury I hope it’s before Saturday as him coming off would knacker our back row. The only way I could see us surviving that would be to move JH to 7, TC to 8 and bring DL on at 6, and lets be honest that’s a Hail Mary play.

  7. Good piece big man – my query is regarding Gatty’s utterances in the grand Lions tradition of ‘we don’t want to show our hand too much at this stage’ etc etc.

    Has this ever amounted to more than one or two flashy but ineffective backline moves? Has a Lions team ever genuinely bamboozled the opposition with a tactical switcheroo?

  8. Rava

     /  June 20, 2013

    “Tom Croft for his lineout work, as well as the potential he offers as cover on the wing.”

    Fixed that sentence for you.

  9. Lydiate really is a mystifying selection – it smacks of either:

    1. WG’s only real homer selection (if in any doubt go with a Welshman)
    2. Gross arrogance that we’ll be out of sight by 60 min mark and only need to maintain a lead

    I just can’t see any logic behind it. He’s a specialist 6, unfit and out of form and offers zero positive, attacking impact. Vs SOB who is adaptable, fully fit, in form, and offers 100% positive, attacking impact.

    Just flabbergasted by that call.

    Re Zebo Vs Maitland, I’d have gone with Zebo for the unique talents he has but I can rationalise that Maitland has been in camp, will be intimately familiar with the calls and therefore is why WG went with him on a marginal call…

    I do seriously worry for go forward ball from the forwards… 9, 11, 14 really the only go forward ball carriers. 7, 8 will be rucking, 6 will be swanning about on the wing waiting for a glamour try whilst watching his fellow forwards do their actual jobs.

    The optimist in me still says each Lion is better than their opposite Wallaby number individually, but the pragmatist in me says combinations wise Lions will really struggle.

    Wallabies by less than 5.

    • Saul Evans

       /  June 20, 2013

      The rationale is simple. The Lions are seriously light at the breakdown – which I think will cost us the game. With a wannabe centre and winger in the back row Gatland will shore up the most important facet of modern day rugby if his gamble of Heaslip and Croft together doesn’t work.

      By then though it will be too late…

      • Cian

         /  June 20, 2013

        I’ve seen this explanation on quite a few forums at this stage, I think it makes absolutely no sense. If Gatland thought there was a significant chance that Croft-Heaslip-Warbs will not be able to do the job at the “most important facet of modern day rugby” he would start with a back row that could. Risking the breakdown for the sake of wide carrying from the off is a nonsense strategy – it makes infinitely more sense to do it the other way around. Do you seriously think Gatland is thinking “well, this back row are very likely to make a balls of things in a terminal way, better get ready to haul one of them off very quickly”?

        The real motivation behind this interpretation of the squad back row seems to be to have a dig at Croft and Heaslip’s breakdown work.

        • Just Croft’s, Heaslip is phenomenal at the breakdown.

          • Dan

             /  June 20, 2013

            Yeah, to be fair, Leicester are known generally for their shite forwards – Croft is just another in a long line of Welford Rad show ponies.

        • Saul Evans

           /  June 20, 2013

          It’s a back up strategy – but Yes I agree he should have done it the the other way around. He should have started Croft and Heaslip together. O’Brian or Lydiate at 6, or O’Brian or Faletau at 8 would be a much better balance in my view

      • Amiga500

         /  June 20, 2013

        Heaslip is the best rucking 8 in the squad… (albeit an argument could be made for SOB).

        Tom Croft is a wannabe-winger hanging around somewhere on George North’s outside shoulder. If Dingo has his head screwed on, he’ll get Gill on for Palu early doors to show up the awful selection of (as far as the breakdown goes) a non-existent 6 to start and a passive 6 as backup.

        Australia to win the breakdown in the first half, dominate the breakdown in the 2nd half and, if Beiber is in good form at 10 for Aus, clean the Lions clock (unfortunately).

        • Saul Evans

           /  June 20, 2013

          Lydiate a passive 8 – really? Are you related to Heaslip

  10. Connachtexile

     /  June 20, 2013

    I have to say after reading this I thought why didn’t Gatland bring out Downey and Banahan? I know individually they’re not the most talented individuals but they would slot in to Gatlands system smoothly meaning he wouldn’t be rejigging his attack/defence methodology and could do the job just as well as the likes of inexperienced Wade or the over the hill Williams. Essentially it’s a like for like system with Downey coming in for Roberts as a big ball carrying 12 (and Downey is a hell of a defender) and Banahan a big lump on the wing who could catch diagonal ball and cause up-set while North is getting better. What do you guys think?

    • To be frank – we would question our entire rugby philosophy if the Oooooooooh factor was so crucial we needed to bring James Downey and Matt Banahan on a Lions tour. Downey is 5th choice Irish inside centre right now and Banahan is barely mapped by Lancaster. Going that far down the depth chart just to bosh it up the middle seems a bit unambitious

  11. Shelflife68

     /  June 21, 2013

    Good piece, agreed with your earlier selections but have no complaints with the starting lineup.
    Serious problems with the ommission of o brien, makes no sense at all and I hope it doesn’t come back to bite us. Maitland was very poor in his last game and seems to have left his form behind him. Zebo I felt offered more.
    That said if we are 5 points ahead and lydiate comes on and tackles the wallabies to death we will hail it as a master stroke.

  12. Rich

     /  June 21, 2013

    Totally agree with this – that bench has no impact at all – O’Brien did nt have a great game vs Kimlin but the whole team got hammered. Lydiate does the basics but if we are 15 points down what will he do? Odd.

    Croft did what was expected – runs in a 40 metre try vs Tahs and he is once again the great white hope – would have reminded Gatland of the 1st test vs SA last time when they were hammering us up front and he was…..on the wing, At the highest level a team cannot afford the luxury of a Tom Croft – he is supposed to smash everything in front of him – he will be the weak link tomorrow night. Only adv is that Mowen is at 6 on debut, not a great player but could be got at early on – a good leader but often gets himself isolated/turned over etc. Hooper gets bigged up a lot but is yet to convince, always top of metres covered etc but usually in the wrong direction.

  13. The starting 15 looks ok but I would worry about the selection of two set piece specialists (Croft and Corbisero) coupled with the generally light pack we have. Although Grey or Evans haven’t been stand out so far they’re both giants and specialist tight locks. If your already giving away so much for the set piece why not go the whole hog? Mowen, Donglas, Horwill are all huge men so I’m not expecting huge proceeds from mauls or pushover trys 🙂 Expect to see POC have to carry a lot and have a poorer showing for it.

    I can’t help feeling there are a lot of guys I wouldn’t fear in a Rabo game on the Lions team. You could have a backline with Farrell, Maitland, Cuthbert and Davies in it at some point and I think they’ll struggle if that comes about. Davies looked great but against very poor opposition but in general I have been nonplussed by him for years. He’s not quite a bosh and not quite a passer.

    Aussies by 5 are as our bench fails to make an impact.

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