Judgement Call

We are struggling to think of anything as unbelievable (in this sense of not being believable) as Dylan Hartley being sent off in a Premiership final for calling Wayne Barnes a “f*cking cheat”. Its just so crazy. Consider this:

  • He is captain of the Saints
  • It was one of the biggest games of his career
  • He had previously been warned by Barnes for verbals
  • He was due to fly out on a Lions tour in a matter of days
  • Barnes had flagged his desire not to be making high-profile decisions, following some previous controversies in Premiership playoffs (e.g. Chris Ashton getting binned for being lamped by Manu)

As sporting meltdowns go, it takes some topping – Zinedine Zidane and Richie Tennenbaum are about the only ones we can think of.

Hartley will miss the Lions tour, for which Rory “Nice-but-throws-awry” Best has been called up in his stead. Best is the classiest of chaps, as evidenced by his tweet in the aftermath of not being selected initially – he referred to how this paled into insignificance compared to the bigger things in life, such as the Nevin Spence tragedy.

Like injury being Ireland’s best selector, perhaps Hartley’s meltdown has been Gatty’s – there is a recent history of late callups playing key roles in Lions’ series (Paul Wallace, Tom Croft) and Besty, although clearly third choice right now, has a chance to do the same. Having said that, he is clearly third choice by now – unlike Tom Youngs (Premiership Player of the Year) and Richard Hibbert (standout hooker in the Six Nations), and wasn’t selected initially for a good reason – he simply wasn’t playing well enough.

What it also calls into question, however, is Gatty’s judgement – he considered Hartley to have the talent and mental capacity to thrive on a Lions tour – that assessment is in tatters after Saturday, and if the tour starts to go wrong, it will  be used as a stick to beat Gatty with. He’s been rowing back a bit since Saturday, talking about how he agonized afterwards had he made the right decision, and talked about Graham Rowntree’s input, but the buck stops with him, and he picked Hartley.

The Lions, more than any other team, consider that you are just minding the jersey for the next man, and the semi-mythic status of the red jersey reflects that. For example, Gerald Davies was just keeping his shirt warm for Ugo Monye, and he’ll pass it on to George North, and so on.

Without getting too teary about it, any discussion of the Lions is incomplete without a reference to “character” – is Player X a Lion, they’ll say, which has a greater implication than his ability – it talks to more earthy qualities, like smiling through midweek games with NSW Country and being a “good tourist”.  Hartley always struck us as an odd selection, even leaving aside our Besty-love – he routinely cracks under pressure, and has accumulated multiple bans. Gatty’s faith in him has been shredded in spectacular fashion – let’s hope he gets more calls right than wrong from here on.

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.

Post-coital Bliss

Although Whiff of Cordite is physically split between Dublin and (Ooooh) Bath, one day out from THE game, we are of one mind on our musings:

The half-time turnaround is obviously the key – what happened? We think Dylan Hartley’s injury had a huge effect on the Northampton team. We can envisage a half-time dressing room of few words and few stepping forward to plan a close-out of a match all-but-won as Hartley received treatment. This is in contrast to the Leinster dressing room, where BOD himself alluded to the leadership being shown by Jonny Sexton, no doubt in addition to O’Driscoll himself, plus Cullen, Heaslip, Horgan and Reddan, amongst others. The Saints looked unsure of themselves from from the start of the second half.

As soon as Leinster got the first score, you got a sense the tide had turned irrevocably. From the 41st minute on, it was the Saints who were falling off tackles, whose set-piece was crumbling, and with none of the bloody resistance that had done for Ulster. Perhaps the inevitability was felt by the Northampton players as well – they themselves were on the other end of an eerily similar game just 2 weeks ago – how the Leeds players must have felt is an interesting question.

The Leinster selection was wrong. All year, Joe has picked on form, not reputation, and has reaped the benefits, building a much deeper squad throughout the season. Fitzgerald was again poor yesterday, falling off several tackles (notably against Foden in the 67th minute) and not showing much in attack – McFadden should have started. The McLaughlin/Jennings call was more marginal, and form was less of a factor – but with Jennings in place, the back-row looked much better balanced. Also, Locky’s first-half scrummaging was poor – Mike Ross will not have been amused with his detachment. In the second half, the Leinster 8 got the shove on straight away, helped by everyone muscling in.

Whiff Of Cordite had a huge amount of respect for Northampton as a club and a team before this game, and has even more after it. The daring nature of the Northampton gameplan was uber-refreshing, and the team literally gave it all. The post-match actions of the team, led by captain and coach, of staying on the field for as long as Leinster did showed huge respect, and will hopefully give these guys the hunger to scale the peak themselves. The experience of yesterday will stand to this team, and we suspect there will be many more titanic battles between these 2 sides in the near future.

And finally, the referee was excellent. Romain Poite has received a fair degree of heat from the Irish media, but Whiff of Cordite has only praise for his display. The stronger team in the scrum was consistently rewarded with penalties, and his positioning for the Dorce non-try was perfect, as was his reversion upstairs just in case. One very slght caveat – Barnesy made an argument in commentary for a possible penalty try for a bat-down with 3 outside during the advantage being played for Dowson’s yellow, but he went back for the original offence. Maybe WoC’s hero in Tara Street will give him the, eh, credit he is due.