Mea Culpa (ish)

Ok, ok, we were wrong. Gatty was right. All previous criticism was undeserved. It’s about time Willie John McBride apologised to him. Etc etc.  For all the talk of the backrow and the centre selection, the most important man on the pitch was the drafted-in loosehead Alex Corbisiero.  Take a bow Corbs, you go home a hero.  But to give Gatland his dues, he got the series win he set out for.  We many never be lovers of Warrenball, but on this occasion, it was good enough to beat an ordinary Australia and for the Lions to a first series in 16 years.  Whatever you say about Gatland, his teams have a habit of winning test matches.

The beefy pack and potent carriers selected for the third and final test by big Wazza did the job – establishing dominance in the set piece and being able to bash over the gainline at will can be a useful combination (who knew?!). Without a platform, and with an ineffective outhalf, the Wallabies couldn’t come back from a horrible start and fell to pieces in the final quarter.

It was great to see the Lions finally playing some rugger, so our dread at the prospect of horrorball winning the series thankfully didn’t transpire, so credit to Gatland – he has done what he came to do.

What is most strange about the whole thing, particularly in light of all the macho posturing about the Wallaby forwards in the build-up to the series, was that it took him three tests to target them – the light and leggy lineout team of the first test followed by the tacklers of the second played into the Wallabies’ hands. Only the instransignce of Dingo Deans refusal to pick Quade Cooper, followed by the unfortunate earlier injury to goal-kicker Christian Leali’ifano in Brisbane ultimately saw the Lions through.

Gatland in fact got plenty wrong on the tour, almost never getting his best team on the pitch.  Even in the triumphant final test, the first 50 minutes was marred by Mike Phillips’ lethargic passing.  It was only when Conor Murray came on that the backline finally got moving.  And whoever knows how Sean O’Brien was entirely left ouf of the matchday squad for the first test.

Helpfully, Australia were also poorly set up.  The failure to find a means to get Quade Cooper on the pitch has proved a grand folly, and the curious dropping of Michael Hooper for the final test never looked a smart call.

Just as odd is the difficulty in identifying Lions who had a really great tour. Unlike in 2009, when the plane was littered with Immortals (Sky alert), only Alun-Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Alex Corbisiero and Leigh Halfpenny could conclusively be said to have had truly great tours. There were lots of injuries and mis-selections, a number of others played in fits and starts.  Don’t forget the Lions looked a rabble for the first two tests.

The final game made it into Stephen Jones’ top five ‘greatest Lions days’, a list any day would aspire to get into, but in truth this wasn’t an especially memorable tour.  One suspects from the outside that the players probably enjoyed Geech’s happy-clappy 2009 tour of South Afric more – that team played a better brand of rugby, and played a huge part in a decade-best match in the second test.  But this tour had to be won, and they won it.  Had they lost it, they’d be staring down the barrel of New Zealand in four years and a near-certain five series defeats on the trot.  The whole concept of the Lions would be called into question.  Gatland has effectively bought the Lions a future.

He has got the job done, and, will be able to go back to his job at Wales with most of his players still happy with him – his two immediate goals from the Lions tour. The third goal, the longer one, would have been that he gave a credible audition for the BNZ job, but it’s hard to see anyone from the NZRFU being impressed by unsure selection, Warrenball and a bizarre desire to not press home an obvious advantage over the opposition. Beside all that, the Wallabies are considered easy meat in New Zealand, and coming close to losing won’t look good.

It’s been an odd series, that’s for sure. Tense and competitive, but rarely all that high quality. The Lions come home immortal (does that apply to Brian O’Driscoll I wonder), and the Wallabies proceed to tear each other to shreds – Deans has been fired, and James O’Connor is heading towards scapegoat-ville for his perceived off-field slack attitude. The Australians were wonderful hosts in every way – bringing great beaches for topless photo-shoots, competitive pre-test games, and doing their utmost to ignominiously lose the series – finally succeeding in Sydney.

The deep worry was that if the Lions couldn’t win this series, what could they win, but thankfully the 16-year clock has been reset. This tour certainly won’t have as good a highlight series as 1997 (or 2001, or 2009) but it’s a winning one, and, ultimately, that’s what matters.

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28 Comments

  1. ORiordan

     /  July 8, 2013

    Even Jezza Thornley has been a wee bit contrite. Between “assuredlys” he said “we [social media and in some punditry] appear to have let ourselves down a little bit on this one”

    Thank feck the Lions won, and won well, because if they had lost, the Irish meeja whipping itself into a lather of righteous indignation calling for Gatland’s head would have been far worse than anything Sky has inflicted on the sport.

    The scenes of joy from the players and fans after the game, and the classy statement from BOD about what the victory meant to him has hopefully caused a few commentators to catch themselves on.

  2. Leinsterlion

     /  July 8, 2013

    Corbiseiro. Corbiseiro. Corbiseiro. Corbiseiro. Aussies passed more, had more meters gained with ball in hand, but none of it matters if you dont have a scrum. Like vs England in 07, AUS are undone by having props that follow Lindemann’s criterion by melting at the sight of an English scrummager.

  3. ORiordan

     /  July 8, 2013

    Would Aussie scrum also have been dismantled if Healy or Jenkins had been fit? I really don’t know the respective merits of all these players as scrummagers but it is a fairly tale for Corbiseiro that the third choice LHP, there because of injury to others, ends up being a hero.

    • ORiordan

       /  July 8, 2013

      Make that “fairy tale” and fourth choice!

      • TJ Hooker

         /  July 8, 2013

        I don’t think Corbiseiro was really fourth choice. He was injured for most of the season and for that reason was not selected. Dare I say it was perhaps a lucky break for Gatty that Healy and Jenkins were injured: Corbiseiro is a more destructive scrummager and his contribution was the winning of the series.

        • Of course he was fourth choice… Healy was first choice, Jenkins the dependable Welsh lad was next, Vunipola was the “impact player”. Several players who’d been injured most of the season – Lydiate and Kearney come to mind – were selected. So Corbisiero was overlooked, and it was, as you say, something of a lucky break he ended up out there.

          I don’t think Healy or Jenkins would have failed any worse (they can scrummage, the Aussies can’t). But at least the Lions had stacks of options there.

          Some of the positions were incredibly light on talent. None of the hookers could throw, and who would have thought (even Munster fans) that Conor Murray would be the best scrumhalf on tour by several country miles?

  4. In terms of standouts, George North has to be there for me. He scored what will doubtless be the class of 2013’s equivalent to the ’01 BOD wondertry, which also has the equivalent Miles Harrison gasping/squealing (he has been unLEASHED!!!), and gave the standout moment of the second Test when he and Folau (one of few standouts for the Wallabies) showed their WWE skills.

    • abitofshoepie

       /  July 8, 2013

      Parling’s tap tackle was one of the moments of the series for me, great athleticism just as the Wallabies were running through gaps in the defense.

  5. Dave W

     /  July 8, 2013

    It was a great match result, and a win for the Lions both in terms of game and series. Which is what was needed. So Gatland deserves credit for this, he did exactly what he had to do. That said, he’s not come out of it smelling of roses, and I don’t mean just for dropping O’Driscoll. This was an Australia team that was there for the taking, and we should have won all three tests comfortably (maybe I’m underestimating them). Sure, the Lions were unlucky with injuries, but so were Australia.

    Gatland said that he wasn’t able to enjoy it as much due to the “vitriolic” comments in the press. That’s a crock of shit. My instinct there was that that was his way of saying “F*ck you to all you people who questioned me, I was right you were wrong, nyah” without actually coming out and saying it. It was a victory despite Gatland in some regards, as much as because of him in others. You can’t say that victory vindicates every single decision across the tour, because it simply doesn’t.

    His selection across the board was odd in some regards. Phillips in the third test, Murray came on and showed why he should have started. Warburton as captain (big shout to him, I still don’t believe he was the form player, or should have been captain, but he played a cracker of a second test and was very impressive in his role as captain as well as coming across as a top bloke). O’Brien not being in the squad for the previous two tests, only really got in due to injury to Warburton. O’Driscoll dropped, still wasn’t the right decision, even given the result*. Tipuric not really getting much game time in the tests. That’s just naming some.

    * I was delighted that Davies had a good game in the last test. He was in the middle of a media shitstorm not of his making. He’s a quality player (no BOD, but who is?) in his own right, and I’m sure the last week wasn’t a comfortable one for him either.

    On a more positive note, Halfpenny had an absolute belter of a game, and a tour. Absolutely deserving of the player of the tournament title. Corbisiero and Jones played a blinder of a scrum, and as I mentioned before Warburton grew on my as captain, regardless of what my opinion was before the tour. Faletau was great, that rotation with Heaslip was one of the decisions Gatland got totally right. They both played very well while on for Tests. North was another who impressed across the tour, he’s going to be scary to play against in February. AWJ another who impressed, both as captain of the last test and before.

    So all in all, very happy with a Lions win, it was great to see especially to see how the players reacted after the victory – all of them, and not just the ones on the field. There are reports that Gatland wants to continue on in 4 years time … after his performance this time around, I really hope that’s not the case. He was here to get us a win, extend the life of the idea of the Lions, but not to lead it for years ala Geech.

    • Great stuff Dave, found myslf nodding in agreement from start to finish.

      The thought of Gatty coming back in four years time makes me shudder a bit to be honest. He was there to ensure th Lions had a future… but it’s a future without him!

  6. TJ Hooker

     /  July 8, 2013

    The biggest disappointment for me was that Gatland failed to get the team to gel at any stage, until he basically resorted to picking the backbone of the Welsh team (as is his right) who played some decent rugby on the back of a dominant pack (something which was highly dependent on who happened to be ref).
    The other bum note was the poor warm-up matches against de-powered opposition. Most were hardly worth watching (the Reds game excepted).

  7. mikedragon32

     /  July 8, 2013

    I still fail to see the need for any contrition, nor the grounds on which Gatty has been vindicated for his selection at outside center.

    Absolutely, full credit for the series win, I’d take it under any circumstance, if I cared enough about the Lions, however what did Davies do in the third test that O’Driscoll is not capable of doing? My somewhat unqualified viewing of the game saw Davies make three carries (two of which were productive).

    Given the game plan was to beat the Wallabies up front and that the ball rarely got beyond J10 in attack as it was constantly recycled to wave after wave of hammer ball, one could argue that you could have any old pair of centres out there and still have the same effect.

    I still feel that the dropping of BOD was as much a message to his own players as it was a lesson to BOD – don’t criticise the game plan. In this day and age, it’s good to have some honesty in post-match interviews, but it seems that Gatland and Sky at least seem to be of the same opinion that it is more important to polish a turd than it is to give an honest assessment of personal and team performance set against the context of preparation and game plan.

    How long before we end up with nothing more than soccer-style “at the end of the day” and “happy for the team” clichés in the post-match analysis?

  8. B

     /  July 8, 2013

    Analysis at the end of this tour is different to if it were a regular nation’s summer tour, there is little impact on the autumn internationals or next years six nations in comparison to a poor summer tour. With that in mind all this tour will be remembered for in time is a win, as is right. However for the moment we should remember that if Aus had a kicker in the first test, or if the refs had been picked in a different order then there would have been a very different result. I only say this because while gatty and many welsh probably believe he can do no wrong at the minute, the reality is this was the narrowest and one of the luckiest wins you will see for a long long time. I said last week that Wales should now be found out by the other six nations teams and I still believe and hope that this will be the case in 2014.

  9. Not that we’ll ever find out, but how much of what happened in the second half was player led? Maybe I am being grossly unfair to Gatland but I just can’t see his tactics or strategy in that second half blitz of tries.

    Sexton primarily seemed to decide he wasn’t going to kick the leather off the ball and chose to run or distribute. That in turn seemed to galvanise Davies and Halfpenny to do the same – which immediately killed any chance Australia had of getting back in the game because the Lions actually USED the possession they had. Maybe I am being unfair but that’s what I picked up from watching the game…

    I am pleased for the players and backroom staff involved but overall I’m not going to remember this series that fondly. Completely confused selections, zero risk rugby for the most part just made it a frustrating series.

    As the guys say above, Halfpenny apart, it’s difficult to pick out standout performers. SOB to me, was head and shoulders of everyone in the pack despite only playing 60 odd minutes in the tests, swiftly followed by AWJ who was very effective on Saturday.

    Out back, North and Sexton stood out for me, Murray can feel hard done by re lack of game time but he looked unbelievably classy when he did get on – both on back and front foot.

    All in all, Schmidt can be a happy man coming out of this. Healy shouldn’t be out for too long, nor POC and all the rest of the Irish Lions are coming back with reputations and ability enhanced or confirmed.

    Plus, we now have significant insider knowledge of Wales’ operations and strategies…roll on 6 nations!

    • ORiordan

       /  July 8, 2013

      Maybe SOB’s great performance with Lydiate and Faletau was because he was playing in a better balanced back row than he does with Ireland 😉 No show ponies or backrowers lurking out on the wings there…

    • I felt Sexton’s placed chip for North was the turning point in the match. The Wallabies were getting their tendrils round the delicate parts, the momentum was starting to move acutely in their favour, we’d cleared a few times only for them to come straight back, but it would have been easy – especially as Sexton can kick a long way – to just nail it into their half and regroup. Well, who dares wins, and if you can set it where you want it (had me off the sofa) and you have Lomu North chasing it, why settle for a Myler option.

      The try that followed, however, was 100% unadulterated unfettered Warren Gatland rugby. Forwards running off nine more than ten, a zealous adherence to going one way, using the width of the pitch and getting to a touchline before ripping it the other way… build it on the presumption that the other side won’t have the upper hand physically, and that’s the Gatty way.

      From the lineout they used North (bit of a creaky move, timing all wrong – as an aside!), then forwards forwards, rumble rumble (another aside – one reason we saw less of Sexton than is customary is because of this Wb pattern, whereas both Leinster and Ireland play more off ten than Gats’ teams have done of late), and then Murray – quite deliberately – goes right when it’s just Halfpenny and Bowe against load of yellow shirts, and then right again, again when outnumbered initially (though the Lions came round the corner).

      The effect, however, was to move this tight group of Oz defenders further to the Lions’ right (it worked) creating problems for the Wallabies on the other flank. Then, when you’ve hauled the defence to the side you go the other way, leaving them short on numbers and ultimately struggling to blitz or crowd you out, as you’ve the full width of the park to work with and it’s relatively straightforward therefore to get outside the vanguard of a blitz.

      I was shouting at the TV for them to go full left at this point, as the Australian players were so bunched on the right, defending against nothing. However, the clear out on the Lydiate carry was decent so that was probably the better option – I certainly don’t want them to go back and try again – Sexton was able to hit the deeper attacking line and from there it was mostly draw and pass as the defence was in bits, finished off with great support from the out half.

      Apologies for waffling – but it was an/the exemplar of Warrenball. Credit where it’s due.

      • Cian

         /  July 8, 2013

        Great post, always good to see some in-depth analysis of where a score comes from.

      • Yep, great explanation & something I didn’t pick up when watching the game (haven’t had chance to re-watch it yet). The gameplan worked a treat for that try in fairness.

      • Brilliant, insightful analysis Larry. Thanks for posting it on here.

  10. rachel685

     /  July 8, 2013

    The whole “vindication of Gatty” narrative in the media now is perhaps inevitable, but it’s irritating all the same. The criticism of Gatland’s tactics after the dismal second test was completely warranted; the fact that he managed to get a lot of things right on the third attempt, mostly with respect to having done his homework on the ref and picking the right pack accordingly, doesn’t negate everything he got wrong in the first two Tests. In some ways – most obviously the selection of O’Brien – it actually highlights how big, and easily avoidable, some of those mistakes were. I really hope he doesn’t come back again in 4 years’ time, especially given the quality of opposition (which was somewhat lacking in this case).

    Some positives, though, for almost all concerned (although not the Scots; one can only hope that Hogg’s confidence hasn’t been dented by being forced to play out of position so often). Murray looks like he’s getting better all the time; perhaps exposure to Phillips has, if anything, taught Murray how to avoid making the mistakes of the SH to whom he’s most often compared. I can’t wait to see himself and Sexton together in green next season, with Schmidt at the helm.

    • Lop12

       /  July 8, 2013

      Id say exposure to Rob Howley has probably been a key factor in what appears to be some positive improvement in Murrays game over last month. Pass sharper etc. If you couldnt learn from Howley you are at nothing.

      Probably doesnt have anyone at either Munster and/or Ireland camps with same knowledge and expereince to bring him on like that. Stringer could have filled that role in Munster but has been on loan for good chunks of last few seasons. Backs coach with Ireland currently an ex RL player, who with all due respect, would have little understanding of the technicalities and nuances of being a top class 9

      • Seiko

         /  July 9, 2013

        Lop – a lot of exposure to Rob Howley hasn’t done Mike Phillip’s passing game much good.

    • Agreed, rachel685. There was a sense of ‘what might have been’ when we were watching the second half. They had the smarts to play attacking rugby once they got the right men on the pitch. O’Brien not being picked initially was a joke decision.

  11. don_cherrys_conscience

     /  July 8, 2013

    WoC….shame on you.

    Remember this line from your last post: “While we’ll be cheering for the Lions on saturday, there is a goodly portion of our being that feel the best result for all concerned is an Australia win?” Plus, all the moans about “boshing” to a victory and test series win.

    Now, the point of view here has suddenly changed to “This tour certainly won’t have as good a highlight series as 1997 (or 2001, or 2009) but it’s a winning one, and, ultimately, that’s what matters.”

    There was so little creativity and brilliance over the three games, and this is supposed to be one of the showcases of world rugby. Rather than take a nap, I stayed awake to watch Bulls-Sharks, and I don’t really care for Super Rugby. There was more daring and more action in the first 5 minutes of that match, than in most of the Lions series in total.

    Seriously, why you guys feel the need to align yourselves with the mainstream “end justifies the means” press, I don’t know. That viewpoint is stagnating the game in multiple ways. To me, there are serious problems with the current structure and implentation of the Lions concept. Winning a series should not stop one from questioning why, at a minimum, the style of play cannot be more ambitious.

    • Good post, fair points. We did also say, though, that we hoped the Lions would come out and play some decent rugby and (weirdly prophetic moment) thrash the Aussies by four tries to one.

      Opinion has to allow for what happens in the event. After two tests, the Australians had played the better rugby, but after the third it was hard to argue that they were worthy of winning the series. They were hopeless.

      Your final paragraph is correct. Gatland isn’t necessarily vindicated in anything, and we were at pains to point out that while the Lions won, Gatland still made plenty of mistakes, and the tactics were still rubbish for the most part. For all that, though, he still won the series, which I guess was all he cared about, and we can’t lose sight of that.

      All in all, though, you’re right. If the Lions is to mean something more than just a summer tour, it has to be about more than scratching out a series win any old way. For one thing, the level of rugby they played in this series will come up woefully short in 2017 against BNZ.

  12. Very good win in the end.

    Warrenball, if that’s what the name is now, is more of a general structure than a total prescription, and it can be ugly or pretty depending on personnel. Sexton’s try at the weekend was a template Wb score, wouldn’t call that hard to look at.

    Think your wrong about the players’ feelings – they’ll take the winning over however pleasant an experience they enjoyed in 2009.

    A flawed tour – have there been other kinds? – but a winning one. Well done Gats.

  13. For all the bashing of Warrenball, at least it works…unlike Kidneyballs, which also stunk and wasn’t even effective.

    Having seen a sum total of zero minutes of Lions rugby after the Baa-Baas match, I will look forward to resumed WOC service after the summer break.

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