Tackling AND carrying? Nah, no-one can do that.

One test down and the Lions have gone one-nil up, yet the odds on them taking the series (starting from generous prices, in our opinion) have barely moved. The Lions may have won, but they erred badly in a number of fields: selection (unbalanced backrow), tactics (Mike Philips booting the ball in the air or running into Ben Mowen), playing the referee (peep! off your feet .. peep! off your feet … peep! off your feet) and bench usage (the sight of the reserve Australian front row marching the Lions scrum backwards was an absolute embarrassment).  Australia made plenty of boo-boos of their own, especially with selection at 10 where the continued reluctance to forgive Quade Cooper is increasingly looking like the rock on which Dingo Deans will perish.  In the end the Lions squeaked home for a fortuitous victory.

Four years ago, the Lions got selection wrong too, but they looked coherent and had a gameplan to trouble the opposition. They were then playing the world champions, a team at the peak of their powers, about to win the Tri-Nations with a number of all-time greats in situ (John Smit, Bakkies & Victor, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana) – here they were playing a decent and underrated Australian team, but still an average enough one, and struggled, fading badly in the last 20. They could/should (delete as appropriate) have lost by 15 points. And this in spite of the Wallabies having four backs carried off, and losing their goalkicker and key attacking weapon Christian Leali’ifano after 42 seconds.

Even with a different selection and tactics, with no Dr Roberts and with Philips owned by Will Genia and Mowen, the Lions are up against it in this test. They got away with the first win, and the Aussies are more likely to improve as the series goes on, and surely can’t experience another perfect storm of head injuries.

If it comes to a decider, the Lions are goosed.  Why?  Well, injuries for a start.  Sure, both sides are just as liable to get them – heck, the Aussies had three players leave the field in neck braces – but if they do lose players ahead of the third test, they have a whole nation of players to choose from (well, NSW and Queensland, but you get the point).  If the Lions get badly hurt, the time for flying out emergency rations is over.  They must make do and mend with what they’ve got.  Or bring in players who are holidaying nearby.  Hello, Tom Court! Don’t suppose Lesley Vainikolo is visiting relatives in Oz?

There’s also the momentum swing-o-meter.  Should the Aussies level the series at 1-1, they’re the ones with the momentum whlie the Lions will be edgy, and they’ll expect to carry that through to the final test, just as they did in 2001.

It all makes this match something of a boom-or-bust for Gatland.  He got away with a flawed selection for the opener, and will have to make some changes in personnel and alter his gameplan a fair deal to win again.  Fate as not been kind to him, and two of his certain starters – Paul O’Connell and Alex Corbisiero – have been ruled out.  While O’Connell is the better player, at least there’s a like-for-like replacement in Geoff Parling (at least in playing terms – leadership qualities aside). At loose-head prop, it’s a choice between Vunipola, who got mashed into the turf in Brisbane; Ryan Grant, who is a better scrummager but is “limited” in the loose; or holidaymaker Tom Court. No easy solution. 

We were a little taken aback by just how poor Vunipola was in the set piece. We knew he was no technician, but we expected the Lions would at least be able to get the ball out on their own put-in, even if it was the sort of unusable rubbish that requires the scrum half to jump into the breakdown.  Alas, even that lowly ambition proved impossible.  He’ll be held back as impact reserve again, and Grant will presumably start.  Don’t expect to see Vunipola before the 60th minute this time, as Gatland will be more circumspect about changing up his front row after the way it backfired.

The backrow remains the most competitive and contentious area, and one where Gatland probably got it wrong in the first test, despite choosing from an embarrassment of riches.  After the way Will Genia ran wild and free, we’ve a really strong feeling that Dan Lydiate will come in to the equation.  While this is outright speculation, we’ve a feeling Gatty bowed to some pressure, whether from Rowntree or the English media, to pick Tom Croft for the first test, but doesn’t 100% trust him.  Now’s his opportunity to pick Lydiate with a view to shackling the Aussie scrum-half, around whom everything happens for Australia.  Stop Genia and you stop Australia.

With Lydiate and Warburton in the team, and with Vunipola unselectable because of his scrummaging, the Lions’ pack’s biggest issue is a lack of tackle-breaking ball carriers.  So there’s a chance we could see Toby Faletau selected for a bit of explosive ball-carrying. It would be harsh on Heaslip, who played well in the first test in getting through a mountain of dog work.  Faletau played for 80 minutes yesterday, which makes it odds against, but don’t rule it out.  Tackle-breaking ball-carriers who can also mount huge tackle counts, you say? What a pity they didn’t bring a multi-functional backrow forward, who is in form. Hang on, they did, didn’t they? Sean O’Brien. The Carlow chap. Likes cows and that sort of thing.  O’Brien seems to be falling between the gazelle-like Croft rock and the iron tackling Lydiate hard place, and at this stage is almost becoming something of a cause celebre. Sure, he isn’t a lineout option, but then again, with Tom Youngs throwing to the front to avoid Mowen every time, who cares? He is bang in form and the Wallabies don’t want to see him – he should play at blindside, but surely – surely! – he’ll at least feature off the bench this time.

The line-out was a bit of a puzzler.  Palla Ovale remarked at the time that he couldn’t understand why the only time the Lions went to the tail they tried to maul off it, and tried to go quickly into midfield off all the front-of-lineout ball they won.  Surely tail of the lineout ball is the only opportunity to get the ball to the backline with a bit of space in front of them?  Happily, far greater minds than our own thought exactly the same thing, proving us right in our own heads and enabling us to feel very happy with ourselves.

The Lions have to make a choice at half-back.  Not in terms of personnel, but in terms of gameplan.  Phillips had one of his worst test games in memory on Saturday and looked decidedly rough around the edges.  He’s a class player, however, and neither Conor Murray nor Ben Youngs have made a compelling case to oust him, so he’ll start again.  Sexton, of course, will also start.  Both Sexton and Phillips are alpha-halves who want to dominate and control the game.  The Lions spent much of the first test trying to use Philips’ running game to make ground, but got nowhere.  Once they started using Sexton, his varied kicking game and slick passing game caused Australia all sorts of trouble.  Gatland must sacrifice some of Phillips’ natural game and instruct him to be more of a servant to Sexton, who has the ability to bring the superb three-quarter line outside him into the game in lethal fashion.  What a pity Danny Care decided to play absolutely rubbish in the lead up to squad selection, in top form he would be a potentially superb alternative and perfect foil for Sexton, if his pack could protect him.  He’s basically a better Eoin Reddan.

At inside centre, the indications are Roberts won’t be back until Sydney, and it’s a choice between keeping Johnny Davies there or taking a chance on Manu. Davies is the probable safer option, particularly if Faletau comes in. We would have concerns about his defensive positioning facing Lilo (he occasionally drifted into the 12.5 channel and left Sexton defending a huge piece of real estate, but Pat McCabe and Michael Hooper never exploited it) but he has been playing well.  Manu has shown signs of dovetailing with BOD and there’s a compelling case to be made for his rough-hewn but often thrillingly destructive talents, espcially given the already discussed shortage of tackle breakers in the single-digit numbered shirts.

Tommy Tommy Bowe will come into the 23, but we don’t know if Cuthbert will make way on the right wing – he took his try well and didn’t do a whole lot wrong, apart from one horribly spilled ball. The progressive selector would pick Bowe (and Tuilagi incidentally) but we just can’t decide how Gatty will swing.  He appears to be saying a lot of lovely things about Bowe, but Cuthbert’s try might be enough to swing it for him.  Who knows?

We were confident last week that Gatland had made a mess of his bench, and so it transpired.  It was straight out of the Declan Kidney school of Substitutions.  He made changes too early where none were required, and then appeared to get spooked and made no more until very late on.  Vunipola looked like being the very definition of an impact reserve, but in the end he had the wrong kind of impact.  Ben Youngs should have been an upgrade on Mike Phillips – how could he not be? – but he wasn’t really much better.  In the backrow Dan Lydiate made only a cursory appearance, after all the broohaha over his selection.  This time around we’re hoping to see names like Richie Gray, Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe, so hopefully there’ll be a bit more oomph stepping off the pine.

Even with the selection we’d like, we think the Wallabies will win – they have lost Barnes, McCabe and Ioane, but the Honey Badger will probably come in (cue joy all around), Folau will move to full back (where he has played most of his rugger i.e. 12 starts from 14) and Beale will start – probably at 10 with Bieber on the wing. Their pack played well and the team should shake off the rust and play more confidently. It’s a big ask for the Lions without O’Connell and any of their three best scrummaging looseheads, but picking the right team from those available would be a start.

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26 Comments

  1. Cian

     /  June 26, 2013

    Great piece, I have to agree with all of it. Up until yesterday I was not happy about Dan Lydiate starting on the back of very little form, but I was one of the few who thought he actually out-performed SOB against the Rebels and I agree that he could be the man to put a halt to Genia’s gallop.
    With regard to Faletau vs Heaslip, they’ve both played mostly very well on the tour. I would have Heaslip in for his breakdown work but there seems to be a very bizarre confusion among the Sky team and plenty of internet commenters between dominating rucks and carrying in traffic. Heaslip excels at the former and isn’t as good at the latter, vice versa for Faletau.
    As an aside, I saw a lot of criticism of Conor Murray after yesterday’s performance, often accompanied by a statement of surprise at how well Owen Farrell played. I thought Murray’s service to Farrell was a large part of that – although he still isn’t the quickest to get the pass away, the speed and accuracy of the ball once it was in the air gave Farrell some beautiful opportunities.

    • Thanks for commenting Cian, great points. We’re equally bemused with the Sky team overlooking Heaslip’s breakdown work; they keep going on about him being similar to Tom Croft, which isn’t the case at all.

      Also agree with your assessment of Murray. His passing action is lovely and once the ball is in flight it all looks great. His issue is his speed getting to the ruck and getting the ball away from it. He’s had a reasonably good series, and should feel quite happy with himself. He was always liable to be stuck in the midweek team no matter how well he performed, because Phillips was never going to be dislodged and Murray would in all likelihood be seen as too similar to him to be an impact reserve.

      • Assuming Croft’s out, there not the remotest chance of Faletau getting in, they won’t pull both lineout options from the backrow. Likewise after the self-inflicted mistake of putting Parling in behind the tighthead, surely Evans rather than Gray will be on the bench? Very hard to see any 23 other than: Halfpenny, Cuthbert, O’Driscoll, Davies, North, Sexton, Phillips; Grant, Youngs, Jones, Jones, Parling, Lydiate, Warburton, Heaslip; Hibbard, Vunipola, Cole, Evans, O’Brien, Youngs, Farrell, Bowe; being picked.

        • Yeah, a backrow of Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau, that would never work. Er, hang on… that said, we did say Faletau was ‘odds against’ so we agree with your selection.

          I was under the impression Gray could scrum down behind the tighthead, but have to confess to not knowing what sort of experience he has there. I presume Jim Hamilton does it for Scotland. Any scrum geeks care to shed any light on this one?

    • Yossarian

       /  June 26, 2013

      From an Irish perspective Murray has been one of the big success stories.Never his biggest fan(while accepting he is our best option) i think he has really come on as a player on this tour.

  2. An enjoyable read, one of your better pieces, detailed and knowledgeable. However, on the pint of backrowers, you said we have an embarrassment of riches. On paper yes we do but no back rower has really shone. Faletau has been very good the last two games but was poor earlier in the series, Warbs has been average at best, Lydiate’s tackling hasn’t been too effective, Croft has been good at best, same with Heaslip. One trick Gatland missed was not playing O’Brien or Tipuric in either of the two proper warm up games. I would personally bring in Tipuric, SOB, and Faletau to start next Sat but I don’t think he’ll change it. I still cannot believe Robshaw is not on this tour.

    • Robshaw IS on the tour, and captaining it to boot; you’ll note how you never see Warburton and him in the same place – for instance in the 6 nations decider Warburton played but I couldn’t see Robshaw anywhere…

    • Thanks Colman. We’d love to see Tipuric and O’Brien in the test team, and were on to that one from the off. It’s a real shame Tipuric threw in a poor performance against the Brumbies, he had a bit of momentum behind him up to that point, but in the end that made Gatland’s decision easy. He’s unlucky, though.

      As for Robshaw, the poor chap was spent at the end of the season. It’s one thing being dominated by Warburton and Tipuric at the Millenium stadium, but when Tommy O’Donnell completely outplayed him in the Heineken Cup quarter final his goose was cooked. Same goes for Danny Care.

      • moreinhope

         /  June 26, 2013

        I feel for O’Brien who in any game of back row top-trumps is the card you’d want to be holding. You could argue that on current form he’s the best 6, 7 and 8 out there. (Not saying you’d win the argument but you could make a reasonable case). He has to put up with the ‘he’s not a 7’ talk the whole time (he’s still the best 7 on this island – we haven’t produced a home-grown ‘out and out 7’ since Dennis McBride) and he was even blamed for Heaslip’s poor form this season.

        As others have mentioned the most interesting narrative is the one surrounding Heaslip. Here in Ireland we began talk him up as a workhorse: ‘he’s not playing badly at all, on the contrary, he’s getting through enormous amounts of unseen, unglamorous work.’ Now the received wisdom amongst the British media is that he is a show pony. (I’m inclined still to believe the simplest explanation that he wasn’t playing all that well earlier in the season, no matter what the numbers people were telling him, and now he’s back in form).

        As WOC point out it, appears that if you can carry like Heaslip Croft and O’Brien, the default conclusion is that you must be deficient somehow in the other backrow duties. Backrow players in particular seem to only be allowed one strong attribute in the popular consciousness. If O’Driscoll can be a force in attack and defence, why not numbers 6,7 and 8.

        Nobody is quite sure what Warburton’s singular special power is right now so he has been recast as some sort of ‘ref-whisperer’.

        • Great stuff moreinhope. Love the ref-whisperer description. One of our favourite elements of Sky’s often-hilarious coverage is how it’s incumbent upon the commentators to praise Warburton’s handling of the referee every time the two come into even remote contact.

          • I prefer when Phillips is “sticking to the gameplan” when we great unwashed think he’s just getting scragged every second ruck.

        • labrecha1

           /  June 26, 2013

          Brilliant analysis. I’ve often thought the same about analysis of Rugby players and there positions.

        • labrecha1

           /  June 26, 2013

          Brill analysis, I’ve often thought the same about the rugby analysis of the backrow by pundits.

  3. @Completebore

     /  June 26, 2013

    I think Gatland will analyse by score-line and change as little as possible outside of those enforced although there are plenty of options for improvement. For my 2 cents that leaves Phillips, Cuthbert and probably Davies as lucky to be named again (if they are). I’d drop Phillips for his half-arsed jog down the field after Genia’s quick tap for the first try alone – either chase him down or don’t bother, trundling after him just looks like a guy giving an impression of working (Demented Mole pointed this out but I don’t remember seeing it mentioned anywhere else, but I haven’t been reading that widely on it). And Cuthbert and Davies just didn’t do enough to hold off Bowe and Tuilagi; didn’t do much wrong, but didn’t make themselves undroppable either.

    • I agree with dropping Phillips, for his generally poor play, but especially for his trot after Genia…I’d drop North too, for his pointing at Genia when he scored… What was he trying to say with the finger? I’m cooler than you? I can’t stand that type of crap.

  4. pete (buachaill on eirne)

     /  June 26, 2013

    Great article lads. I think it is a bit of an either or, Parling can do the lineout stuff in Pauls absence but not the power game in terms of that gainline advantage. For that reason someone has to be replaced so we can get over the gainline and indeed stop Australia from doing it too.

    In my eyes there are two options:
    1) Put SOB in at 6
    2) Put Manu in at 12

    I simply think you have to do one or the other.

    I just completed a pretty lengthy analysis of how the Lions can win (I don’t think they will either in this test) on 606v2 give it a gander if you like 🙂

    http://www.606v2.com/t45771-pete-s-analysis-for-test-2-what-do-the-lions-have-to-do-to-win

  5. Bushmills

     /  June 26, 2013

    Great post. Could I pick up on the Quade Cooper points. It strikes me that the clamor for him to be selected would appear largely coming from the Bristish and Irish media (and the independently minded WOC). Talking to a few Aussie Union fans, they will tell you he possesses an amazing bag of tricks on the field and is very exciting to watch, but is susceptible to howlers. The media seem to love the “Robbie Deans taking a stand against the enfant terrible of Aussie rugby” story, but it is more fundamental than that. Surely as Irish rugby fans we can understand that? Iain Humphreys and Paddy Jackson spring to mind.

    • Intriguing, thanks for sharing this perspective. The line about Cooper was prompted by reading somewhere from someone based in Oz (may have been Gerry Thornley, but all the Lions coverage is congealing together in my brain) that public opinion was starting to swing back towards Cooper and away from Deans.

      • Chris

         /  June 27, 2013

        Every Aussie rugby fan I have spoken to says the same thing, “If we win the series it’s great for the players, if we lose the series it’s great for the Wallabies because Deans will be out on his ear!” No one likes Deans, his continued poor selection choices have angered many of the rugby public here and his stance against Cooper now just looks like someone cutting off their nose to spite their face.

  6. Good article. It’s true Australia will improve their game, but the Lions will too. They played quite poorly on saturday,partly because of the selection. IMO, if they get the selection right(as you said) they should win.

  7. As an addendum, it seems that Mike Phillips is a bit injured. Warren Gatland says his knee is troubling with him, and there’s a decision to make at 9. Lots of people have commented on how Phillips looked out of shape and didn’t bother to properly chase Will Genia for the first try, so it’s no huge surprise.

    If he’s no fitter than last week, he shouldn’t be considered. Picking a scrum half for his physicality is one thing, but picking one who isn’t even in shape to bring that physicality leaves you up sh*t creek without a paddle. He’s a hard man for any coach to leave out, because at his best he is a test match animal, but it’s time for tough decisions. He’s one of those guys that needs to be in peak condition to deliver his best. Presumably, Murray would step in as the most like-for-like replacement, best suited to implementing the Warrenball gameplan.

    • Completely agree with you, and if Murray comes in it solves the alpha-half backs (you guys should trademark that!) dilemma, Murray will be happier to take instruction and be led by Sexton, thereby getting the Lions backs more in the game which was sorely missing in the first half last Saturday

    • Chris

       /  June 27, 2013

      Good to see someone else has found the Green and Gold rugby blog, some excellent stuff on there! They reckon we are hiding Sexton from significant contact, I haven’t noticed but I did wonder why he was on the wing against Folau for his second try.

    • A very, very odd piece.

      Rift between Sexton and the Lions? Apparently Jonny was the one player other than the captain who spoke in the pre-match huddle. Wishful thinking for me.

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