The Internal Struggle

There was OUTRAGE of the highest order yesterday, after Gatty unceremoniously dumped you-know-who ahead of the you-know-what on Saturday. The OUTRAGE bubbled and boiled at the injustice of dropping that-bloke-called-Brian and more than a few Irish fans declared themselves Wallaby fans ahead of Saturday.

And no doubt they are serious. Personally, we would find it pretty hard to cheer against any representative team containing Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe (unless they all signed for Saracens), but it’s a very understandable emotion. We’ve talked before about how many fans feel they don’t really have a stake in the Lions and how it’s tough to really buy into the team, so it’s quite obvious how disappointment can breed resentment.  It’s easy to talk about getting behind the Lions and how there are no nationalities, just 15 Lions (though this is easier said when the team is full of your own national heroes!), but deep down, it doesn’t really work that way for anyone.  At the end of the day, folk have an affinity with the players they adore for their club/province and nation.  There’s no instinctive reason to feel emotionally attached to a mainly Welsh team playing such reductive rugby – unless you’re Welsh, or really enjoy negative rugby.  The great binding force of the Lions crest can only get one so far, particularly when it has become so wearisomely rammed down supporters’ throats by the Sky machine.

While it’s difficult to completely disentangle one’s emotions after the whole BOD affair, it’s not so much the OUTRAGE over the dropping of Ireland’s national icon that is so deflating, but the message it sends out about the identity of this Lions touring squad.  It’s a sad indictment of this Lions coaching team when the most skilful players – Brian O’Driscoll and Justin Tipuric – are passed over for bigger chaps who can bosh harder.  Is this really the best the Lions can do?  I thought this was the pinnacle of the game, or something.

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.  This Lions squad simply doesn’t deserve to win the series (barring a sudden about-turn in performance and approach entirely out of keeping with the selection and the first two tests).  Sky will tell you that ‘immortality’ beckons for the winners, but does it really?  Immortality, for scraping out two wins (one of which was undeserved) against a misfiring Australia?  In what has been a lamentably poor quality series thus far, the Aussies have been the better side in all facets of the game, have shown occasional invention, been brave (foolhardy?) in selection (three debutants and a rookie outhalf for Brisbane), have at least two bona fide geniuses in their team and, crucially, have played all the rugby on offer (such as it has been).  They are far from a great team, and frequently go backwards in their attempts to attack, but at least they’ve tried to play with the ball.

This Lions team and squad is supposed to be the best the Northern Hemisphere (well, the old public school English-speaking Northern Hemisphere) has to offer – and they haven’t covered their Hemipshere (go Northern Hemisphere!) in glory. They have bished, bashed, shunted, huffed, puffed and boshed (in the Tests) – which should have been expected, to be frank.

This years Six Nations was an utter abomination. It started and ended brilliantly, involving the best and worst of the Welsh, but in between, plumbed the depths – the Wales-France game was simply appalling and England and Ireland got more and more dismal as the tournament progressed. And the domestic competitions weren’t much better – the Heineken Cup was dominated by the French, and won by a bosh-and-bullet bunch of mercenaries whose only try in the knock-out stages involved Europe’s most dislikeable player. Ulster and Leinster served up a decent Pro12 final that befitted a rejuvenated competition, but only Leicester Tigers really got the pulses racing.  When you’re relying on the Tigers for attacking rugby, well…

The Lions are essentially composed of Leicester and Leinster players bolted onto the (Six Nations winning) Wales squad – and it’s been grim to watch. If the Lions do manage to win in Sydney, it will be a disaster for Northern Hemisphere rugby – a Neanderthal gameplan that prizes brawn over brain will have prevailed and will doubtless become orthodoxy all the way to RWC15. At least Ireland can rely on Joe Schmidt to buck the trend, but on the squidgy February pitches even he will be up against it.  Where are the skills? Where is the daring? I’m sure we aren’t alone in thinking players don’t need to be from below the equator to be able to play an enterprising and watchable brand of rugby, while retaining enough forward power to get the Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeave going.  Fancy the Lions Tour commemorative DVD under your Christmas tree?  No thanks.  But… Immortality!

Ultimately, wouldn’t it be better to come home in a welter of hand-wringing, wondering why the best that four Nations has to offer couldn’t beat a Wallaby team that was begging, begging, to be beaten. There’s something unsettling about the thought of Gatland being vindicated having presided over such a dispiritingly awful series and after his grandstanding in dropping Brian O’Driscoll.  In Sydney, we’ll be hoping the Lions come out, and contrary to all the pre-match signifiers, give it a good lash, play some decent stuff, show well (all of them, not just the Irish), contribute to a great game of rugby and thrash the Aussies by four tries to one.  But if they set their stall out to grind and bosh their way to a win, there will be a considerable dose of schadenfreude in Cordite Towers if they get what they deserve, which is to lose.

Post-script: re the OUTRAGE – have we really gone for the ‘Justice for BOD’ line? Justice? Really? Too strong? Maybe we should ask the Egyptian public their thoughts on this ‘injustice’?

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Numero Uno, and Triskaidekaphobia

There is one story today – Gatty. Brian O’Driscoll is mere collateral damage – Gatty has picked the team he wanted for the biggest game of his career. About the team, more anon, but let’s just consider something for a second.

When rumours were flying that Gatty was going to be offered the big gig, the WRU were aghast – in 2001, the Liiiiiiiiiiiiions took their coach, and he returned a lame duck, shelled by his players who thought they didn’t get a fair crack. This time, it was agreed Gatty would take the winter off Wales to concentrate on watching Saracens (we can only assume, judging by the gameplan). But what is unavoidable is this – Gatty will be Wales coach on Sunday morning. Even if he genuinely thought his best team contained only a handful of Welshmen, can you really see him picking it, given he’ll be in charge of the same men next week?

He has to balance those two facts for this team – if he picks a shed-load of Welshmen and loses, his day job is actually easier than dropping them all and winning. It’s an uncomfortable truth, and it’s not all Gatty’s fault. The Liiiiiiiiiions took the plunge on a coach of one of the constituent nations, and it looks like it might backfire. In fact, even if they win, what damage is done to the Lions “concept” (Sky alert) by so nakedly favouring “your boys”? It’s an interesting question.

Last week we felt the team showed a refreshing lack of Welsh bias, but this week’s side is almost trying to write that abberation of a performance out of history.  ‘This is the team I’ve wanted to play’, Gatty apears to be saying, ‘and injuries to my key men have stopped me up until now’.  The hell with the breakdown, the lineout, Tom Croft, that small hooker who can run with the ball, passing in the backline – instead, let’s just try to bludgeon the opposition.

So, in fact, the selection of least resistance is this: if in doubt, Irish/English/Scottish out. But let’s talk positive first.

Given the BOD furore, the rest of the team selection has barely been noticed , but he’s injected a serious quotient of prime beef into what was an undernourished pack, and recalled Mike Phillips at scrum-half. At the risk of trying to second-guess the gameplan from the team-sheet, which has proved a fool’s errand so far, it looks more than ever that the team is set up to play Warrenball in its purest form.

The pack now has the ballast to break the gainline, and the monstrous three-quarter line is now finally in place as Gatland probably always wanted it.  With no fewer than ten Welsh starting, he’s gone for what he knows best, but that which has repeatedly – and if we hear about how close the games were one more time… – come up short against Australia, no fewer than six times in the last 18 months.  They’re going to try and run the bus over Australia – problem being Australia have quite a few nippy mopeds and sports car who could sidestep a bus blindfolded.

The decision to drop BOD will turn out to be a sentiment-ignoring masterstroke which won the Lions a first series in 16 years, or a stick with which Gatland will be beaten till kingdom come should the Lions lose.  As Irish supporters, the temptation is to call Gatland a pr*ck, adopt a ‘how dare he’ attitude, and start ironing your Wallaby shirt in protest.  But even trying to look at it with cold, hard eyes (we’re doing our best here, people, but it ain’s easy), this looks an exceptionally risky call.

Before the series, we hoped that Gatland’s plan would be to augment his straight-running Welsh backline with the subtlety that Sexton and O’Driscoll would bring to proceedings, and that their creativity and passing skills would make the difference.  So far, that has not come to be, as the backline has been stifled by a negative kick-heavy gameplan and lack of go-forward ball from the pack, and a struggling setpiece. It’s well and good arguing that the team is picked for a specific gameplan, as opposed to getting his Welsh chaps on the field, but the point is moot – it’s the Welsh gameplan, ergo he picks the Welsh players.  No room for creativity here.  That O’Driscoll should be the fall guy is extraordinary.  Davies was no less effective in his role at inside centre.  It’s worth viewing this excellent video put together by Murray Kinsella, demonstrating how the partnership has failed.  But he can bosh harder than Drico, so he’s picked.

Davies (admittedly, out of position) missed three tackles in Melbourne and the AAC try went through his real estate. On the flip side, he has played well when at 13 on tour, and it’s not his fault Gatty has picked him out of position. Still, to be selected ahead of a man who has started every Lions test he has been available for, going back 12 years, is a huge shock. It’s also heavily ironic, given it was Gatty who parachuted Drico into a game against Australia in 1999, before he’d even been capped by Leinster.

With O’Connell and Warburton already out, it also leaves the team worryingly short of leaders.  Gatland mentioned that they picked the team first and the captain second, which is fine, but in the white heat of a do-or-die deciding test, O’Driscoll’s defensive organisation and inspirational leadership would surely be invaluable. With Jamie Heaslip out as well, they have been left with precisely zero national captains in the team (whatever you make of Heaslip’s armband-wearing career to date).

The loss of those three aside, the pack looks a bit smarter this time, although Tom Youngs can be considered unlucky.  Richard Hibbard makes the cut by dint of his physique, as opposed to any particularly great rugby played on tour so far.  Toby Faletau is a good call, and for all the grunt work Heaslip has put into the first two tests, Faletau would have been unlucky to go home without featuring in the test side.  Sean O’Brien’s elevation to the team is long overdue.  The hope would have been that Gatland would go for broke, and switch the backrow wholesale, with Justin Tipuric at openside and O’Brien at 6, but it was far-fetched. It looks pretty unbalanced, and the suspicion is that Michael Hooper George Smith will be wearing a big smile today.  As much as Drico doesn’t suit the crash-bang gameplan, neither does Tipuric.  He’s the excetion that proives the rule, a Welshman who should be in the team, but isn’t.

Mike Phillips is the other fortunate starter, picked on blind faith more than anything.  Conor Murray retains his place on the bench, which is the least he deserves.  While none of the scrummies have shot the lights out, Murray has been the most accomplished over the whole series, and his newfound understanding with Jonny Sexton would have been worth exploring in the final test.  Phillips owes his coaches one for sure – particularly after the first test.

Gatty has picked a team which will delight Australia – they fear only one player in the Lions team, Sean O’Brien, and he is playing out of position to accomodate a non-carrying, non-passing tackling machine. They will be confident of winning the series, particularly if the day is dry – they haven’t had much luck so far, and it’s hard not to envisage a scenario where they get a break or two and end up ahead by double figures.

But Gatty’s team also will delight his employers – he’s looking after number one, and if the Lions win the series, great. If not, hey – the WRU and their players will be happy – which makes Gatty happy.

Postscript: the heavy doses of Lions-nostalgia have included numerous hour-long tear-soaked documentaries about the great Lions tours, the 1974 one chief among them. Every time Willie John McBride is asked about it, he is at pains to describe how, at the end of the final test, the XV went straight across to applaud the dirt-trackers – he is rightly and justifiably proud of the squad unity he presided over, and anyone from the tour insists it was a huge factor in their success. Rewind the clock back four years – the Lions, bruised and battered, went into the third test with a near-scratch side, yet played as enterprisingly as ever and took a well-deserved win home. The entire squad were overjoyed and it was clear the connection that had been made. Any thoughts on what the likes of Stuart Hogg and Drico are thinking right now?

Reductive

Ha!  What was our headline again?  ‘Get Quick Ball. Use Quick Ball. Repeat’, was it?  Joke’s on us.  ‘Hoof ball. Chase ball. Repeat’ would be more like it.  What looked, optimistially, to be a team selection to move the point of attack in fact turned out to be one sent on to the pitch to chase high balls.  It was puke rugby and the Lions deserved to lose.

Warren Gatland stands to be castigated for exceptionally reductive, negative tactics in a second test which was there for the taking against a nervous, mistake-ridden Australia.  But by relying on chasing (admittedly pretty accurate) garryowens and winning (admittedly superbly contested) turnovers on the deck, and refusing to try and play rugby with ball in hand, the Lions found themselves hoping to defend their way to victory.  Eventually the dam burst.  The Lions can point to how close they were to a series win, but the truth is that had Leali’ifano been kicking last week the series would be over.  Sure, Australia played as if they had a rifle pointed at their feet and their finger on the trigger for most of the game, intent as they were to throw the ball forward, but eventually the passes stuck, the fly-half found a running angle, and they came up with the winning score.

The most damning statistic in the ESPNscrum.com horror-show was that Johnny Sexton passed the ball ten times in the match (second most damning statistic: 15 of 20 Lions had more tackles than metres carried).  The Lions have a huge advantage at fly-half, where Europe’s finest is facing off against a player who is unfamiliar with the requirements of the position at test level. Instead of trying to press home that advantage, they have him performing a role that his deputy, the obviously inferior Owen Farrell, could easily manage.  What are they thinking?

Gatland can argue that the intention was not to reduce the gameplan to kicky-kick, and that the lack of go-forward ball presented to the halves necessitated that they adopt a conservative approach.  Fair enough, but with the team he put out, is it any wonder?  It was pretty obvious that with the backrow and centres selected, the Lions were going to struggle to get over the gainline.  Gatland could have picked any or all of Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau or Manu Tuilagi but declined on all three counts.  The media are only too keen to paint Dr. Roberts as a panacea to all their woes, but that overlooks the fact that there were alternatives in place to compensate, and also that Roberts hasn’t really played very well at all since Hong Kong.  He’s a fine player, but doesn’t have a magic wand (he has started 5 games against Australia and lost 4) . Also, the sight of Leigh Halfpenny fielding a garryowen in some space with men outside, then promptly booting it into orbit, doesn’t quite speak to a ball-in-hand gameplan.

Similarly, the strife at scrum time was only too predictable, because Vunipola is so poor in the set piece.  The medics will be working hard to get Alex Corbisiero out this week, and how they need him.  The lineout was a showcase of how muddled the thinking has got; when they’d Croft in the team last week, they threw to the front all day.  When they didn’t they went for the tail.  Confused?  You’re not the only one.

The real clanger of a performance came from Ben Youngs, who was at his arm-flapping, faffing-about worst, admittedly behind a retreating pack.  Conor Murray hugely improved the picture when he came on and is better able to control the game when on the back foot.  Are we about to see Warren Gatland go through his entire roll-call of scrum halves over the three test matches, and start Murray in the decider?  And is he about to try and rebalance his backrow once again (notwithstanding that he must replace Warburton due to injury)?  If he does, it will be symptomatic of a failure in selection, an inability to identify the form players.

The real disappointment is that in the warm-up games, the Lions at least appeared determined to play some rugby.  But any aspiration to creativity has disappeared once the test matches have begun.  It looks like the Lions have been suckered into the thinking that ‘winning’ rugby is somehow synonymous with strangling the life out of games.

It makes you despair for the future of the Lions.  We are told that this is the utmost, the pinnacle of the game, but the test matches have been, on the whole, poor to watch, and Lions have been boring.  The Aussies are in pole position to finish off the series in Sydney; they have the momentum and have shaken off their place-kicking hoodoo.   If the Lions don’t win this series, when are they going to win one?  But even worse, if they go down having barely tried to attack Australia, it would beg the question, what is the point?

Geech’s 2009 Lions won many friends because of the enterprise they showed.  They lost, but they ran one of the great teams of the professional era mighty close, were distinctly unlucky and went down swinging playing some great stuff in an era where great stuff was few and far between; 2009 was the year of the ELVs, remember.  In doing so, they put the soul back into a franchise that had suffered huge damage in 2005.  If Gatland’s team perform in Sydney as they did on Saturday, they will have undone that work. The next time we see them, they’ll be going to New Zealand.  Good luck with that one.

Get Quick Ball. Use Quick Ball. Repeat.

Warren Gatland has named his team for the second test, and the big decision has been made at scrum-half, where Mike Phillips, who looked to be operating below 100% in the first test, carries the can.  Rather than replacing like for like and replacing him with Ireland’s Conor Murray, who even looks a bit like him, he’s gone with Ben Youngs, who’s a totally different player, a nippy nine who’s all about high tempo and quick tap penalties.

Elsewhere, Mako Vunipola starts.  We thought he’d be held back as reserve again, but Gatland will be hoping that having Adam Jones on the other side of him will be enough to drag the scrum kicking and screaming through 80 minutes.  Before the tour started, the Lions could have reasonable hopes of using the set piece as a weapon – now it’s fingers-crossed time.  At least Vunipola offers a strong carrying threat in what is a pack short of gainline breakers.

To nobody’s surprise, Dan Lydiate starts at 6.  We know what he’s there to do, so let’s hope he does it.  O’Brien mercifully gets called up to the bench, where he finds himself beside Tom Croft, who’s covering the second row.  If last week’s bench was light on impact, this time Gatland has swung the other way and both could be explosive against tiring legs in the last 20 minutes.  The price to pay is that Alun-Wyn Jones is now a protected species.  Were he to get injured, a second row of Parling and Croft would leave the Lions worryingly short of power.  An already creaking scrum could be decimated (ref: last 20 in Brisbane)

Back to the scrum-half business, which has serious consequences for what we can expect from the Lions.  Warrenball is predicated on a monstrous nine who can commit tacklers and bring in huge runners around the fringes.  Bosh! Smash! Kapow! This team looks like a serious deviation from Warrenball.  With a backrow containing three ruck-smashers in Lydiate, Warburton and Heaslip, the aim must surely be to win oodles of silver-platter ball for Ben Youngs.  Youngs struggles on the back foot, where his game can become a tangle of arm waving and poor decisions, but with decent service, there are few quicker at getting the ball away to his fly-half.  It might just suit Jonny Sexton, who can unleash the three-quarter-line, which is loaded with gifted strike runners.  It does look like the plan is to go around Australia rather than bash through them.  If they can get the ball into North and Bowe’s hands in good positions, how can they lose?

The trouble with the plan is that in order to generate quick ball, you need to punch your way over the gainline.  With no O’Brien, Faletau, Phillips or Tuilagi starting, who is going to make the hard yards?  Jamie Heaslip and Mako Vunipola will have to put in some serious shifts.  The other minor issue is that as far as we can make out, Ben Youngs and Sexton have yet to play together on the tour, and therefore ever.  For what looks a fairly natural partnership, it’s a bit nuts that their first appearance alongside one another is in the pivotal second test.

Gatland has shown some ruthlessness in dropping tryscorer Cuthbert in favour of Bowe, who is a player he appears to value very highly.  It’s a marginal call, and Bowe came out the right side of it.  With Toby Faletau unlucky not to feature in a test squad yet, despite playing some great rugby, nobody can accuse Gatland of having a Welsh bias.  He certainly appears to have his favourites, and one ould certainly make a case that the test team was picked in advance of the plane touching down in Hong Kong, but his favourites aren’t necessarily Welsh.

There were a few surprises in the Aussie team too, not least that they are sticking with James O’Connor at 10, in spite of Kurtley Beale starting.  We thought they’d move them around a bit, with O’Connor on the wing and Beale at 10.  The first test was marked by each team having one half-back in princely form and one playing like a drain.  At least the Lions have sought to address their issue.

And where the bloody hell is the Honey Badger?  We are outraged.

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.

Dark Side of The Moon

Watching the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiions match as Kurtley Beale lined up the sure-to-be-matchwinning penalty, it seemed the men in red were about to lose.  We’d resigned ourselves to feeling disappointment, only for  – hang on a second, what was that?  Disappointment?  This is the Lions, the pinnacle of rugby, about to have the first win of the series scratched off with the last kick, and all we could muster up was a sense of disappointment?  ‘Fraid so.

In fact when the Lions had won the match, we almost felt guilty cheering.  It was a flukey win, and the players – O’Driscoll especially, and Gatland too in fairness to him – had the good grace to look pretty sheepish in their post-match interviews.  This was ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ stuff if ever we saw it. If Ireland has accomplished the same after Owen Farrell slipped, we’d be drinking deep from the well of schadenfreude, and, without putting too fine a point on it, absolutely bloody loving it.  But we felt sorry for Beale.

Had Beale scored the winning penalty, it was not about to become a moment etched into our souls forever, like some losses, which are so awful you never quite forget them, and can recall just how you felt at the time if you remember hard enough. I’m thinking of Vincent Clerc’s try at Croke Park, after which I could barely speak for half an hour and couldn’t bear the thought of drinks in the pub; Leinster losing to the Ospreys, coughing up a historic double in the dying minutes.  Every rugby fan will have their own.

It would have been more a feeling of being sad for the players, especially the likes of Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll whose careers deserve a winning Lions series on their ‘palmeras’ when they retire.  But it was not about to be a gut-wrenching, week-ruining defeat.  But why?

At times, the Lions thing just gets a bit much.  It’s great fun, and the concept of four countries coming together for a lengthy tour is obviously a winning one, but it often feels a bit like we know it’s the pinnacle of rugby for everyone involved because… the commentators on Sky keep telling us it’s the pinnacle of rugby for everyone involved.  We know it means a lot to the players to play for the Lions, but is that not because the act of being selected is an achievement in itself, being recognised as the best player in your position across the four nations?  The specific act of playing for the Lions rarely amounts to much, as it mostly involves getting beaten.  Has such hyperbole ever been drummed up over such a bunch of serial losers?  For all the talk of the spiritual nature of the shirt and the greats that have gone before, they have mostly handed down a legacy of losing test matches.  The successful tours are eulogised ad nauseum precisely because they are so rare.  Four combined nations, bringing together about 75% of the rugby talent the northern hemisphere has to offer, and they can’t even beat a single nation.  No wonder the French sneer at us.  Well, when they’re good, at least.

The matches are generally exciting and there is something great about seeing the four nations come together and witnessing, say, Jamie Heaslip and Sam Warburton embracing at the final whistle yesterday.  But we fall just short of wetting our knickers over it in the same way Stephen Jones and Ian McGeechan – men who would have the entire rugby calendar altered to put the Lions at the centre of it – do.  There is a grain of truth when we say that the moaning about selection is more enjoyable than the games themselves.  We have written in the past about Irish fans not feeling a sense of ownership of the national team in the same way that they do of their province.  Well, who owns the Lions?  Errr… Geech? Willie John McBride?? Sky Sports???  No doubt for those following the tour, it’s easy to buy wholesale into the mega-hype, but for those a continent away on their couches, it’s hard to feel that the team represents you as a supporter.

Plus, it all gets a bit Harlem Globe-trotters – when you have the cream of Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland thrown together, the temptation is to treat the whole thing as a kind of exhibition. Instead of cursing Israel Folau for all that cash he gets, or calling Michael Hooper a cheating scumbag, or saying Berrick Barnes kicking is worse than his moustache, you find yourself being the ultimate sportsman, and enjoying the achievements of the opposition. For one, Egg kind of sort of wanted Beale’s kick to go over – for the better team would have won, for the drama of it, and for Beale himself. When Israel Folau got the ball from Ben Mowen with three men still to beat – all excellent defenders – our heart rate quickened, and not in a not-that-goon-Chris-Ashton way, but more in a visceral I-really-really-love-this-sport kind of way.

Without getting too Thinking Fans Guide to the World Cup * about it, the Lions is a bit like listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.  You know it’s fantastic and the feats on display are hugely impressive.  You’ll certainly return to it again and you enjoy listening to it.  But it doesn’t quite stir the emotions in the same way as The Stone Roses, Van Morrisson’s Astral Weeks or the third Velvet Underground album.  No, that’d be your club.  Or your province.  Or your country.

Now, where were we.  Oh yes.  Sean O’Brien has to – HAS TO – start the second test… But he won’t.

* this was a book that came out for the soccer world cup in Germany in 2006 – it was possibly the most right-on middle-class do-gooding sports book ever written. The basic message was that nationalism was so uncouth – so George W. Bush, so property boom – that it was better to support countries based on who they were. Into good wine, food, and classical music – Azzuri! Into developing world land reform issues and wearing those shawls everyone who has been to Macchu Picchu has – Bolivia! Into high tackles, boshing and paradise – Samoa! Ok, maybe not the last one, but it was eye-gouging (Argentina!) stuff.

Nerves-a-jangling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Drum Roll] The Test Team

The day we’ve all waited for is almost upon us.  Gatty’s about to name his test team!  Get ready with your most nationalistic, parochially driven fervour (where are the Ulster players! How come there aren’t any Cork men!).  Before we look at that, though, a few words on yesterday’s defeat…

There was a smidge of hysteria on twitter in the aftermath of the pitiful defeat, but really, it’s too early to let the panic set in.  The team Wazza names tomorrow will bear little resemblance (in fact, probably none) to that which started yesterday.  The Lions will be getting a serious upgrade, not least in the tight five, but in particular in the back division.  That area of the team had a decidedly patched-up appearance to it, with a three-quarter line made up entirely of new arrivals, one of whom was making a bizarre, fleeting appearance.  Gatland and his management team won’t be especially upset, and said beforehand that this week was all about winning the test.  He gave his test team the ultimate protection.

All that said, it’s not the ideal outcome.  The role of the dirt trackers is supposed to be to keep the wins coming and be seen to create competition for places.  With the test team not even named yet, a handful of players should have been looking to present an unanswerable case to Warren Gatland.  This did not come to pass.

Gatland saying before the match that he was happy to lose the game and focus on the test probably didn’t send out the right message to the players.  There’s nothing like handing a team a bunch of excuses to lower their playing intensity.  Is it any wonder the tight five didn’t look especially interested in risking their health around the breakdown?

The game also exposed Gatland’s decision not to bring a third fly-half.  Although Ben Youngs had a game to forget, a player with more experience in the 10 shirt outside him would still have directed traffic a little better.  The decision to overlook the claims of James Hook or Ian Madigan looks a bit of a folly.  It’s hard not to sympathise with Stuart Hogg, a quicksilver full-back who has been denied the chance to press his claims for a test shirt by being forced to muck in in a position where he has minimal experience.

Against that, one has to balance things up against the fact that the Lions backs are really quite terribly injured.  If North, Roberts, Tuilagi and Bowe were all fully fit, we’d doubtless have seen a proper backline here.  It’s a reasonable decision not to risk any more of his able bodied test candidates.  Amid the noises demanding that Gatland is seen to honour the tradition of the Lions, it should be remembered that we are living in an age different to any previous Lions tour, one where injuries and how they are dealt with play a huge part in a team’s success or failure.  As for Stuart Hogg, what chance has he of usurping 0.5p anyway? Maybe there have to be a couple of sacrificial lambs on the tour for the greater good.  All Lions are equal but some are more equal than others.

With that in mind, here’s what we think Gatty is going for in tomorrow’s test team.

Front row: Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones

Doubts remain over Vunipola’s scrimmaging ability but he is fearsome in the loose.  Seemingly flown out as an impact player, fate has handed him a more prominent role with Healy and Jenkins at home, injured.  Tom Youngs has impressed with his unfussy, busy performances and is the best of a ropey bunch when it comes to throwing.  Adam Jones is an A-grade scrummager.

Second row: Alan-Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell

This one more or less picks itself, despite the best efforts of the impressive Geoff Parling.  Jones and O’Connell are test match animals, but they failed to provide the necessary beef in South Africa, and a change of tack was required for the second test.  Gatland presumably reckons that against Australia he can afford to go with two athletes (and another off the bench) and manage without a specialist tightead-scrummaging lock in the Shawsy / Hines mould.

Back row: Tom Croft, Sam Warburton, Jamie Heaslip

Time to make your peace with Sam Warburton at 7, and to be fair, Tipuric didn’t make this call any harder with a tentative showing in yesterday’s loss to the Brumbies.  Tipuric at his best is sensational, but perhaps amid the hyperbole we need to bear in mind that there are days when he fails to get out of the fringes of the match, and yesterday was one of those.  Sean ‘Penalty Machine’ O’Brien didn’t really do his chances much good either, and Tom Croft was at his best against the Waratahs.  Can he bring that performance again in the test?  One can never be sure with Crofty, but at his best he is devastating, and if the hooker can throw straight, he might even deliver some off-the-top ball in the lineout.  Jamie Heaslip probably just – JUST! – holds off the challenge of Toby Faletau, one of the few to emerge with credit yesterday, but the Welshman can consider himself unlucky if he does miss out.  Heaslip will need to be at his best in the first test.

All in all, it’s a slightly lightweight pack.  Tom Youngs is small by hooking standards, there’s no secialist tighthead lock and Tom Croft is another willowy specimen.  Where’s the beef?  It’s a gamble going into the first test with such a light pack, and ominously, the very error that Ian McGeechan reckoned cost his team the series in 2009.  That was South Africa, this is Australia and the challenges they pose are very different; Gatland will be reckoning he can get away with it this time, but it might neutralise just how much the Lions can target the Aussie scrum and maul.  Never give a sucker an even break and all that.

Half-backs: Mike Phillips, Johnny Sexton

No arguments here. At scrummy, Youngs and Murray have both flattered to deceive when starting, but made an impact off the bench. It was always going to take something special to dislodge Phillips from the team – he is a key part of Gatty’s inside ball, bosh it up the middle gameplan – and we haven’t seen anything special from the backups. Outside him, it’s Sexton by miles – he has played right on the gainline and got the backs moving and looking threatening – he will be the first Irish starting test outhalf since … Ollie Campbell? Owen Farrell has continued his patchy form from season end, and Stuart Hogg is entitled to have a right old moan – he travelled as a 15 who can provide emergency backup at 10, but has played as a 10 who can give emergency backup at 15. He hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do in an environment which should suit his style – if he sees Simon Zebo or Rob Kearney in the test 23, he can feel hard done by.  It has surprised us how little gametime Phillips and Sexton hve had together – around 50 minutes by our reckoning.  Hopefully they’ve been tethered together in training.

Centre: Jonathan Davies, Brian O’Driscoll

Outside Sexton, Davies is arguably the third choice inside centre, but he’s flying – Oooooooooooooohh Jamie Roberts MD crocked himself against the Tahs, and Ooooooooooooooooooohh Manu Tuilagi is struggling to shake off a niggler and get match-fit. In will step JJV, who is having a cracking tour. Cause for concern? Definitely, despite the talent of both men – not only has Davies extremely limited experience there, but he has struggled with the blitz they want to employ. Again, this partership has had minimal gametime on the pitch together.  Having said that, BOD will make any player playing with him look brilliant – Roberts got player of the tour last time out on the back of O’Driscoll. The last player preferred for the Lions 13 jersey to Some Bloke Called Brian was Oooooooooooooooooooooohh Scott Gibbs fully 16 years ago.

Outside backs: George North, Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny

Halfpenny is bulletproof these days – he doesn’t miss kicks or tackles. Unlike in 1997, the hosts might test the kicking fullback under the high ball, but everything he touches turns to gold at the moment. It’s a different story on the wing. Of the first choice pair, Tommy Bowe will miss the first test but George North is passed fit – let’s hope he’s properly match fit. In Bowe’s place will come Alex Cuthbert – destructive on his day, he has weaknesses which can be (and have been) exploited, with the Reds taking him to the cleaners. With the turning circle of the Titanic, the Lions won’t want to see him going backwards.  Huge wingers coming into midfield channels and feeding on disguised passes from Jonny Sexton is almost certainly going to be one of the most prominent patterns the Lions will look to bring to the first test, so it will be a massive relief to Gatland that he has two giants ready to go, even if he’d prefer Bowe at 14.

Bench: Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Rob Kearney

No shortage of impact.  Expect the front row to come on more or less en masse.  They may even improve the scrummaging, with Hibbard and Corbisiero stronger in that department than the starters, and Cole no slouch either.  Parling has been one of the revalations of the tour and terrific off the bench, pinching lineouts and restarts within moments of coming on.  O’Brien always looked a likely first reserve in the back row due to his versatility, and the fact he brings something different to the starters – explosive carrying ability.  Has Ben Youngs done a Danny Care on it and played himself off the squad?  Just maybe; Murray is less of a gamechanger but looks the better bet of the two right now.  Farrell takes his place by default, and in the outside back division it looks like a shoot-out between Kearney and Zebo.  Zebo has made an impact since arriving, but Kearney, better able to cover full-back, looks the pragmatist’s choice.

Meanwhile, the Australia team has been announced:

Australia: Robinson, Moore, Alexander; Horwill, Douglas; Mowen, Hooper, Palu; Genia, O’Connor; Lealiifano, Ashley-Cooper; Ioane, Folau, Barnes.

Bench: Slipper, Fainga’a, Kepu, Simmons, Gill, Phipps, Beale, McCabe

Amazingly, the Australians might have the power edge in the front five but the Lions look far more mobile. Horwill is a tough player – captain and the pack leader, he keeps the Wallaby front five together. In the back row, Mowen is a good carrier and an excellent lineout option – expect him to move to 8 if Gill comes on for Palu to make the breakdown a war zone. Gill and Hooper are both bang in form – Dave Pocock will be a loss (as we have covered before) but not as big as two years ago when Fez and SOB made hay in his absence. The front row cover is poor, and Rob Simmons is the second row backup.

In the backline, Justin Bieber starts at 10 – he may not fnish the series there (Beale or possibly Cooper will) but he attacks the gainline well, and, especially with Lilo outside, has every chance of exploiting any dog-legs the Lions might leave. Lilo keeps Pat McCabe out of the Brumbies team, and has been given the nod here for the first test.  Barnes clings to a place, holding off Nick Cummins with  Israel Folau on the wing – turning out for Straya in his third code. The mega-hyped Folau has the potential to be a real earner for the ARU star, especially if he turns out to be facing Cuthbert or Zebo.