It’s Alive!!!

The best test of last weekend (and November so far) was the France-Australia showdown in the Stade de France. In the gold corner were a Wallaby team coming in on the back of the traditional single-digit victory over Wales (but they were SO close this time – if only they didn’t <insert brain freeze here> they’d always beat the Southern Hemisphere sides) and in the blue corner a French team that is impossible to predict to any degree whatsoever – any result between a 10 point French win and a 40 point Wallaby win (as per two years ago) was a possibility. The relevance for Ireland was obvious – not only are the Wobs the next victims in the Joe Schmidt I-always-said-he-was-the-best-coach-in-the-world Ireland bandwagon, but the French are the team we’ll need to beat if the easier path to an historic RWC semi-final is to be realized.

In Ireland, we have a complicated relationship with the French – we disdain the way their club sides roll over away from home, lecture them on culture and passion, encourage them to be more like us in kicking corners and showing discipline; yet simultaneously go weak-kneed at Yoann Huget’s expressive eyebrows and wet ourselves at the prospect of being on the receiving end of a Wes Fofana piece of brilliance. In recent years, we’ve turned around our addiction to defeat – draws in 2012 and 2013 were bested by that incredible win in the Stade de France in March. Amazingly, we haven’t been beaten by France since Tomas O’Leary played himself off the RWC11 plane with that suicide pass in the Palindrome; and only once in the last 9 meetings (W2 D2 L5) have we lost by double digits.

Madcap French coach ™ Philippe Saint-Andre broke the habit of a lifetime and actually picked the same side as a week before – this was both surprising and concerning – is there something to worry about all of a sudden? Seems like there was – the French came out to bash the Aussies up front and stop them getting the kind of quick ball they could have fun with. The front row not only did their thing, but introduced the monstrous Samoan-Frenchman Uini Atonio to the world – we hold our hands up and confess to not watching much Atlantique Stade Rochelais – but we missed a phenomenally strong carrier and a destructive scrummager. Uh-oh.

Also, the French love a beefy second row to smash rucks and add a chunk of power to the scrum. Yoann Maestri has often flattered to deceieve a little – he never quite plays as well as he looks. On Saturday, he did, and had the Australian forwards scattered asunder on several occasions – the French urgently needed an injection of ugly brawn to the pack, and Maestri may have come of age at just the wrong time for us. Above all though, was the sustained excellence of Thierry Dusautoir – like Paul O’Connell, who brings the Munster and Ireland teams up about 30% every time he plays, Dusautoir carries the French to a high level and keeps them there. The man who haunts even Ruchie’s dreams is their key man.

Equally, the imposition of the Waratahs defensive system to the Wobblies wasn’t going to plan – the non-Tahs were struggling and the French outhalf Camille Lopez was carrying the ball right to the gain-line and through them. Lopez has been seen as the future for a couple of years now but has either been held back or got injured – he might look like a student bum looking for summer work on a vineyard, but he plays like a ballerina and had les bleus purring. He even laid a couple of eggs on restarts to remind us he is at heart an enigmatic Gallic superhero, who probably smokes 20 a day and sups beer at half-time, a la Bernard Hinault. Incredibly, this was his first game in le Stade, as it was for Teddy Thomas, who scored a brilliant individual try.

For Ireland, it was all a bit nerve-shredding. Because it looked to be dying on its feet, but IT’S ALIVE, and it has the power to dash our RWC dreams with one insouciant flick of its incredibly good-looking tail.  But let’s not forget the coach is still a lunatic, and who would safely put money on even ten of the starting fifteen making it to the World Cup team.  Camille Lopez won’t have it all his own way over the next twelve months and they could be back to fiddling around with second-raters before we know it.

In terms of the short-term goals, the Wobblies look there for the taking. Cheiks has said he is targeting the sagging behemoth that is England, and 5 or 6 changes are likely (including Portly returning in some capacity). Unlike against the Boks, we will have no qualms about mixing it with their forwards, so a subtly different gameplan is possible – and judging by the defensive shenanigans in evidence Saturday, less boot and more passing might be in order. But not that much more – it’ll be up to Ireland to keep the game structured; the looser it gets the better it suits the Wobs.  Some variation on the tried and tested formula of smashing the breakdown with ruthless accuracy and utilising Sexton and Murray’s ability to guide the team aroud the right parts of the pitch looks to be in order.  Ireland might use their attacking maul a bit more.  It worked a treat in the Six Nations and the Wobs are the sort of team against whom it can be harnessed to good effect.  We have a great chance to go 3-for-3 this November and end the year in 3rd in the rankings, but the medium-term goal of an RWC semi-final just got a little more complicated.

First Box Ticked

So the Schmidt era is off and running – the scoreline was certainly more impressive than the overall performance – Samoa might have been fed a 50-burger by the Big Bad Boks in their last game, but South Africa added 20 points in 20 minutes after Oooooooooooooooohh Alesana Tuilagi got sent off for straight-arming Jean de Villiers’ twin brother, but before that you need to go back to 2009 when France won 43-5 for a similar result against Samoa.

As for the performance itself, Ireland maintained their intensity for 80 minutes, played with increasing accuracy and precision. After an underwhelming first 40, Ireland got some patterns going in the second half and purred away. Sure, they were helped by injuries to key opponents, but you still have to go out and take advantage of it. Seeing an Ireland team finish strongly was an alien experience as well, and the replacements kicked the team on, as opposed to muddling it up. Positive.

In terms of selection, the irony is that the more progressive a pick was, the more of a success it was.

PJ at outhalf had a solid game, linked play well, kicked his goals in an assured fashion, and used his boot increasingly well tactically as the game went on. The Kildare Lewis Moody might seek contact as much as Shontayne Hapless, but he got through a mountain of work and was certainly more prominent than his more heralded colleague on the other wing. Sure, this might be as much as you can expect from him at this level, but that doesn’t mean  there is no place for it – he’s unlikely to be first choice when everyone is fit, but is a pretty good reserve to have.

At loosehead prop, Jack McGrath was responsible for giving Ireland a really good platform up front and was given man of the match on debut (albeit rather romantically from Wardy) – not bad. He reminded us of the impact (in a different way admittedly) another young Leinster loose-head prop made on Ireland debut a few years back. Who knows, this whole “competition for places thing” might even catch on. Chris Henry started the game well, and Ireland’s backrow even looked – whisper it – balanced until he was forced off with injury. His international career has been bedevilled by poorly-timed injuries and it’s a real shame, for he adds a different element to the other flankers in the squad.

Peter O’Mahony had a great game on the other flank.  Our main beef with him is that he can go long stretches of the game without involvement, but he showed a great nose for the action.  For the last try, he sniffed the turnover on the cards and quickly got into the role of scrum half and moved the ball at the first opportunity.  And Sean O’Brien, well, he’s just Sean O’Brien.

Pleasenst surprise of the day was Eoin Reddan, who we expected may be about to adopt the sort of role Chris Whittaker had for Australia – sitting on the bench for 80 minutes in every game.  But for all Murray’s brilliance, Eoin Reddan – on his day – is still the quickest in the country at getting the ball to 10, and has a role to play in the last 20 minutes of test matches.  Expect to see him around the 60 minute mark again against Australia.

On the other side of the ledger, the “sure we know what they can do” selections didn’t work – Mike Ross was under pressure for most of the game, Mike McCarthy looked too cumbersome for this level and gave away silly penalties, and Gordon D’Arcy was all over the place. Considering all three were picked for solidity, it was effectively a waste of three picks. How much worse could Ireland have been if say Marty Mooradze, Dan Tuohy and Stuart Olding were picked. For the Wobblies game, Luke Marshall and Paul “Minister for Passion” O’Connell will come in, but we’ll still be stuck with Ross. Thankfully, the Australia scrum won’t give him much bother, but then its straight into BNZ with the options either to pick him again, or dump in Deccie Fitz or Moore at the deep end.

However, the worst aspect of the entire day was the venue. When Ireland were under pressure in the first half, far from getting behind the team, the crowd spent its time engaging in Mexican waves, even while Tusi Pisi was lining up a shot at goal. Imagine if we were playing in, say, Twickenham, and the crowd cheered a wave while Johnny Sexton was lining up a kick – the horror! Then there was the sand section – the last game on this pitch was a couple of weeks ago when the soccer team played Kazakhstan, and the weather has been pretty clement – couldn’t we have prepared a better field of play? When the Palindrome was a library in previous times, we have always been assured that the Mass time kickoffs never suited us, and we preferred a drink-fuelled evening start. Well, we had one of those, and the crowd were disengaged and distracted.

Anyway, we don’t have the answers to that, but its mighty annoying.

Looking forward to Oz, it would be nice to see the upward curve continue – another cohesive and inventive performance will do that, break the cycle of one decent show a series, and give us something to build on for BNZ. The result itself will probably be dictated by how much space Quade Cooper gets and how we deal with it – if our defence plays like it did in the first half, we’re going to see Israel Folau and co dotting down multiple times. Consistency of performance has eluded this team for a long time, and that has to be priority one. If we lose, let us at least hope that we have made the Honey Badger and co work for it.

Ostrich Deans

True story #1: two Wallabies players missed the team bus to training before the third Test and followed in a taxi. When asked to apologise to their teammates, one said “I’m sorry I didn’t order room service”. The coach did nothing, much to the dismay of the rest of the squad. We’ll reveal who the two players were at the end.

True story #2: it’s been reported that the ARU had decided to dispense with Dingo’s services before the Lions series even started – Deans was officially unaware of this, but its hard not to see him connecting the dots, particularly with Ewen McKenzie and Jake White treating him as a dead duck in public

Post the firing of Deans, the Wallaby camp is beginning to wash its dirty laundry in public, and it ain’t pretty. We previously opined that if the Lions couldn’t beat an Australia team begging to be beaten, who would they beat, but now we can ask an even stronger question – how did the Lions come so close to losing the series to a team with a lame duck coach, low morale and self-destructing superstars?

Understandably enough, it was Gatty’s selections that inspired the bigger debate in these parts, particularly because of the you-know-who decision, and the madcap preference for Tom Croft and Dan Lydiate as ball carriers ahead of Sean O’Brien. Whatever you think about the beefy Kiwi’s picks, at least they won the series, no matter the fortune involved. On the other side of the fence, Dingo Deans made some massive calls of his own, and they were largely catastrophic.

When one looks back on the Test series, the obvious reason why Australia didn’t win was their failure to made productive use of good primary possession. In the first two tests, they owned the scrum, lineout and football, yet lost by one point. When the Lions got on top, they won the final test by 25 points. And this all when Australia had the best scrumhalf (and player) on view, while the Lions hummed and hawed and placated an obviously unfit Mike Philips. Only with Conor Murray on did they look even reasonably effective.

While we aren’t buying the standard Sky winger-playing-at-ten line (he has plenty of experience at ten in Super Rugby), putting his eggs in the James O’Connor basket was a series-defining and disastrous decision by Deans. While O’Connor improved as the series went on, and showed occasional flickers of his talent, he never looked able to get his backline moving – any of the exiled Quade Cooper, an out-of-sorts Kurtley Beale or even Christian Leali’ifano would have been a better option. Indeed, having seen how Cooper filleted the Lions even when behind a beaten pack in Suncorp earlier in the tour, it is probable the Sydney test would have been a dead rubber with him in the side.

In the second test, Michael Hooper played a blinder, and became especially prominent with Sam Warburton gone – Deans repaid this performance by dropping him for the heroic George Smith. While the recall of Smith was a great story, dropping Hooper (and Liam Gill) wasn’t very smart, and his explanation to Gill (“You can talk abvout loyalty when you have 100 caps”) wasn’t very conducive to squad harmony. In the event, Smith was quite clearly reeling from a blow to the head early on and trundled around Sydney seemingly unaware of where he was.

To his credit, Ben Mowen is a massive find, one of the players of the series who looks likely to be a key Wallaby leader for the coming years, and Christian Leali’ifano is the kind of dead-eyed goal-kicker Australia have lacked for many years.

In many ways, Deans was on a hiding to nothing having fallen out with his best player and alienated the Wallaby fan base (such as it is) – and we now know he wouldn’t have got a new contract anyway – but not taking the chances offered up by an average Lions outfit over a three test series, having stuck your stall out was pretty unforgivable.

We’re likely to see quite a few changes in the Wallaby side in the run up to RWC15. McKenzie made a point of insisting all players would be forced to make the team bus on time. It’s probable the tiresome twins will see a sabbatical from Wallaby duty for some time until they get their heads in gear. Cooper and Matt Toomua will contest the 10 shirt in their absence and that of Berrick Barnes, who, along with Digby Ioane, is probably heading north. Henry Speight will be Wallaby-eligible at year end, and from him, Jesse Mogg, Israel Folau (presuming  he stays in union) and the Honey Badger, the Wallabies will pick a fresh-looking back three. Which makes Will Genia, Lilo and AAC the only constants in the backline.

In the pack, there is lots of talk Ben Alexander won’t be seen again, with James Slipper and Sekope Kepu contesting for the long-time Wallaby weakness at tighthead prop. Scott Sia and Siliva Siliva are the future at 1 and 2 respectively – expect to see them tour in November, as backup to Stephen Moore and Benn Robinson.

Another problem position is number 8, where Cliffy Palu had an anonymous series – in the absence of Scott Higginbotham, the only other options are moving Ben Mowen back or promoting Jake Schatz. A partner for James Horwill is needed in the second row as well, where Kane Douglas was fairly ineffective.

In the rush to thump chests and talk about 16 years of hurt ended, Northern Hemisphere rugby needs to recognise the Lions struggled for five-sixths of the Test series against a shambolic Wallaby team low on morale, that didn’t like its coach and had no recognisable gameplan – this was the weakest opponent the Lions faced in many many years. The likely improvement from here until RWC15 shouldn’t convince anyone that the Wallaby team they defeated wasn’t one that the New Zealanders or South Africans (or French, possibly) wouldn’t have swatted aside with ease.

The test series was thoroughly enjoyable for the drama and selection banter involved, but lets not kid ourselves about its quality. The more one hears about the Wallaby camp this summer, the less of a historical (immortal!) achievement the series victory looks – but hey, they happen rarely enough, let’s try and savour it. As long as we also try and learn something from it.

Postscript: if you haven’t worked out who the players are, go off and write 200 lines: “Willie John McBride owes me an apology”, then in no less than 10,000 words write a fair and balanced appraisal of Warren Gatland. End it: Love from Stephen.

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.

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?

Lions Post #4: Wallaby Opensides

Newsflash (from a few weeks ago): David Pocock is out of the Lions series. Result! Sure weren’t the Wallabies clueless when he pulled out of the World Cup pool game with Ireland? Yes, they were, but that time they brought in blindside Ben McCalman who played in a backrow so unbalanced it made Deccie blush.

This time out, they have serious depth at openside – such that Pocock’s place was, if not quite under pressure, then at least ably backed up by Michael Hooper and Liam Gill.

Hooper is a classic pilfering groundhog in the Heinrich Brussow mould – squat and tough to dislodge, while Gill, as a taller man, is a great linker as well as a ruck-disruptor. Both have looked at home in the Wallaby shirt, and the competition with one another (and previously Pocock) looks to be driving them to high performance levels.

In the wild card corner, there’s George Smith, newly-returned from Japan and playing fantastically well – it would be a great story if he were to play a part, and he’d become the first man to play in 2 series against the Lions. Dingo has ruled it out though… for now. Colby Faingaa – brother of the useless hooker/centre twins (and Irish qualified) is the ‘youthful promise’ option.

The concensus Dahn Undah was that Dingo was going to start Pocock with Hooper on the bench to bring in as a second openside to create havoc as the Lions tired – there would be a lock on the bench to cover blindside, with the underrated Scott Higginbotham able to cover 8 [Aside: don’t worry Deccie, using the bench tactically is unlikley to catch on]. That plan still holds, but with Hooper and Gill as the names – unlike in RWC11, Australia will be able to cope without Pocock.

The knock-on effect is that Gatland’s assertion that his team will need a specialist openside to beat Australia still holds, and spells good news for the rejuvenated Sam Warburton, and in particular the exceptional Justin Tipuric, whose game looks tailor made for the hard ‘Strine grounds. The hugely admirable Chris Robshaw might just miss out on the test jersey.

Seconds Out… Palla v Egg Round Two: Bloody New Zealand v Strylia

So, after round one, Egg is in front, by a nose.  But even he, despite his gloating, admitted he ws lucky and Wales should really have won.  Onto tomorrow’s game, which had better be a whole lot better, and we expect it probably will be.

Egg Chaser says: Australia will beat New Zealand

Egg Chaser must admit, he is much less confident about this one than he was about France, but letsgo with it.
This Australia team have beaten New Zealand in Australia and Hong Kong, the only place missing is in the land of the Long (All) Black Faces. And they will surely not have a better chance to do so, given NZ are missing Carter and are carrying not fully fit versions of Ruchie and Kieran Read.
And make no mistake, NZ without Carter are very human – in spite of having the best pair (or trio!) of centres in the tournament, they laboured against Argentina, and didn’t score a try until the 63rd minute – and this is the same Argentina side that Scotland nearly beat!
The Wallabies have defended stoutly in the tournament to date, conceding only 3 pointers to Italy, Ireland and the Boks, although, as noted in our France preview, NZ can actually score tries (we think).
If Pocock and Ruchie negate one another, the Aussies have the flamin’ back line to wreak havoc. While Quade Cooper has been, ahem, average in the RWC to date, he’s the man NZ fear, and he can be magical. I think the tyro back 3 might nick a couple of tries, and NZ may just fall short again.
Although, since its in Eden Park, that’s probably not true. Australia by 3.

Palla Ovale says: more Eden Park woe for Aussies

All evidence in front of me points towards a New Zealand victory.  Much has been made of the Aussies’ Tri-Nations-winning performance over the Kiwis, and the mental fortitude they will get frmo it, but that was back in Strylia; not in Eden Park, where they almost never win.  It will take something approaching a miracle performance for Australia to get a win in Eden Park in a world-cup semi-final.

The only miracle so far is that the Aussies have made it this far.  If WoC ever becomes a millionaire, the first thing we’ll do is hire a bunch of forensic scientists to work out how on earth they beat South Africa.  If their set piece, ball retention and out-half are even 20% as bad as they were in the quarter-final, there is no chance whatsoever of New Zealand failing to get over the try-line and punish them.  If Autralia’s set piece is poor again, the margin of victory could be as much as 20 points.  Quade Cooper’s form is atrocious – it does look like the pressure of being Public Enemy No.1 has got to him.

That said, Australia will hardly be as bad again.  The sight of the black shirts should bring out something better in them, but it will hardly be enough.  The Kiwis injury troubles are being overstated – Israel Dagg and Richard Kahui are back in tandem – they’re only really missing one player, albeit a crucial one.  But while we’re on that topic, Aaron Cruden looked happier to be there against Argentina, and should provide more presence than the ghostly Slade.

New Zealand by more than a score.

World Cup Quarter Finals 2: Squeaky-bum time

Okay, so we;re nought from two after this morning’s matches, but that’s not going to stop us having another go at it for tomorrow’s gmaes.

The top half of the draw is giving us a sneak preview of next years Quilmes/Castle/Fosters/Steinlager Quad-Nations (or whatever its going to be called) – although South Africa won’t usually play Australia in weather this bad, and Argentina won’t have as short a journey next time.

South Africa-Australia:

The clash of the kind-of titans – two teams that should stand to benefit from Dan Carter’s injury, but that have enough weaknesses to make you think twice about actually backing them. South Africa topped Pool D with a 100% record, but didn’t really convince against either Wales or Samoa, scraping wins with experience and self-belief as much as anything. Australia flashed against Italy, but then got beaten up by Ireland, and cruised past the minnows.

The Boks were quite content to let Wales and Samoa have the ball and contest the tackle furiously in their own 22 and defend aggressively and physically. In the last ten minutes of both games, they looked strong and confident. But we aren’t quite sure that will work against the best backline in the tournament (by far, now that Carter is injured). Australia will look to David Pocock to snaffle some ball, and try to bring Beale and O’Connor into the line to work their magic.

When Berrick Barnes was being pencilled into the Wallaby team, we were feeling good about predicting them to edge it, but its Pat McCabe, so we aren’t as sure. We think the Boks are going to miss Frans Steyn, especially for his long-range goal threat, and if Schalk Burger isn’t the most visible forward on the field, Australia should have enough to score 2 tries and scrape home. Wallabies by two. Maybe.

New Zealand-Argentina:

Panic stations – its here! The Rugby World Cup knock-out stages. Sans Dan Carter – disaster. Consequently, there are 3 things New Zealand want from this game:

  • Colin Slade needs to start looking world-class, very quickly. There is huge pressure on the young lad, and this is going to be the easiest game of the remainder of the competition – anything sub-par and it could be Weepu at 10 for the semi
  • Ruchie and Kieran Read to get 60 high intensity minutes and avoid aggravating their injuries – without these two, NZ aren’t going to win
  • No more casualties, especially to the centres – Ma’a Nonu has been one of the players of the tournament up to now, and Smuddy and SBW have shown real class

Now, they obviously need a win too. That’s pretty much guaranteed, but don’t expect a blow-out – New Zealand aren’t familiar with the knock-out format, and they will be content to feel their way back post-Carter and professionally put away the Pumas. Paradoxically, fireworks and a stroll will make them more nervous than an up-the-jumper mudfest. Argentina will savour the stage, but without Fernandez Lobbe and Hernandez, and with their gnarled front-rowers beginning to look their age, it is a step too far. NZ by 20.

PS. we’re one step closer to a France v New Zealand final, with New Zealand missing Ruchie and Dan Carter.  We’re expecting the host nation to implode with anxiety if such an eventuality comes to pass.

World Cup Preview: Australia

Group C Opposition: Ireland, Italy, USA, Russia

Pedigree: More than respectable – took Bill home in 1991 and 1999, each time the outstanding team in the competition. Dragged to the final in 2003 (and almost won it) by their outstanding half-back combination – George Gregan’s refrain of “Four more years mate” in the semi will freeze Kiwi blood for a very long time.

Players to watch: [WoC Ed: Just look at the age of these lads …] Gregan’s spiritual successor Will Genia (23) is the man who makes the Wallabies tick, although it’s Quade Cooper (23) who gets the headlines – though, with footwork like he has, its kind of deserved. Outside them you have the similarly talented Kurtley Beale (22) and James O’Connor (21). All 4 won’t even be at their peak until 2019 – be afraid, be very afraid.

Good Tournament: This time last year, a semi-final may have been acceptable. After keeping pace with NZ throughout last season, followed by the Reds Super Rugby success this year, its looks like a final appearance is the minimum requirement.

Bad Tournament: Being put out by any team that doesn’t copy that funny pre-match dance Munster patented in 2008.

Prospects: After throwing their toys out of the pram following an Andrew Sheridan-inspired destruction in 2007, Australia paradoxically managed to get running rugby banned by the IRB for 2 years. Luckily, everyone saw sense, and the emasculation of Morne Steyn has coincided with an upturn in Aussie fortunes, helped, of course, by the emerging talent mentioned above.

Robbie Deans has patiently been building towards this tournament for a while – as recently as 2009, they only won one Tri-Nations match. In that tournament, Deans blooded some of the players that now backbone his team, included Cooper, O’Connor, Genia, David Pocock and Ben Alexander.

From 6 back, they have a huge amount of options – even captain Rocky Elsom is under serious pressure for his place from the superb Scott Higginbotham, whose Tri-Nations appearances off the bench have been outstanding. And in the back division, they have piles of creativity and danger – as we write, Matt Giteau can’t make the 22, and Berrick Barnes’ un-retirement is a footnote. The problems lie further forward. Like Ireland, they have only two props who can scrummage, and Deans has found it difficult to settle on a hooker and second row combination – they can occasionally get mauled up front, and there are only so many times you can turn that around.

In a tournament like this, there is always a requirement to tough out games, particularly at the business end, which may not suit the Wallabies – the semi-final against England or France already looks like a flashing warning light. Despite the advancement in the last two years, 2015 is probably a more realistic target.

Verdict: They should beat Ireland, and will have to dig deep to negotiate a very tricky semi-final (especially if France click), but New Zealand will be a bridge too far. Beaten finalists.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle … Part 1

Today and Thursday we’ll run through the the potential Lions team to play against Australia in 2013. We’re going to start with who we see in pole position, who to watch for, who needs to improve and who will be too old. I’m going to cup the testicles of the forwards and ask them to cough today, and Palla will be giving the backs a thorough probing on Thursday.

As time goes on, we plan to re-visit our team, and presumably try to rationalize why we got it so wrong.

Unlike backs who can burst into the first team and stay there, forwards tend to improve incrementally. Hence most bolters are backs – we expect that any forward who could tour would be in first team by now – don’t expect too many shocking names below.

Front Row:

Pole position: Gethin Jenkins, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole. Jenkins might be 33 in 2013 but he is still the best loose-head in the NH, although Cian Healy will be hard on his heels by then. Healy’s international team-mate Mike Ross is probably better than Cole now, but won’t be in 2013. Hartley could be captain but for his accent.

Look out for: Alex Corbisiero and the returning Matt Stevens at prop, and the future Irishman Richardt Strauss at hooker.

Needs to improve: Ross Ford, although as a non-awful Scotland player, he will probably tour anyway. Matthew Rees is the easy option but he is pretty uninspiring.

Too late for: Jirry certainly, possibly Adam Jones and Rory Best as well. Euan Murray checked out a while ago.

Second Row:

Pole position: Richie Gray, Courtney Lawes. These 2 are the future. Lawes added proper meat to his game last season, which was especially evident against Ulster. Paul O’Connell will tour as an elder statesman, but probably not start.

Look out for: Dan Tuohy – Ireland have not produced a real dynamic lock forward in a while – if Tuohy takes Donncha’s shirt next year, he will be the ideal deputy for Gray.

Needs to improve: Alun Wyn Jones’ athleticism might be very useful in Oz, but he will need to get back to 2008 form.

Too late for: Tom Palmer, Nathan Hines and Donncha. Presumably the miracle man Shawsy will have finally gone by 2013. Biiiiiiiiiig Bob might be too old (and immobile) as well.

Back Row:

Pole position: Sean O’Brien, Sam Warburton, Jeamie Heaslip. SOB just pips Fez for the blindside shirt, but the Samoans showed how raw power can upset the Wallabies, so Fez might still take it. Warburton is already a key man for Wales, and could be Welsh captain by 2013. Heaslip could be Lions captain.

Look out for: Tom Wood – if he continues his upward trajectory, he will contend for the 6 shirt. Ben Morgan becomes Welsh next year – the young Scarlets number 8 is a huge prospect.

Needs to improve: If John Barclay becomes the John Barclay on 2009, he has to go. The above goes for Johnnie Beattie as well. Tom Croft has the game, and just needs to re-discover his career momentum – the blinside flank is a crowded place. Le Hasque can cover both flanks, but needs to be a little more skillful.

Too late for: Wally *sniff* – what a man.