Outrage Bingo Cards at the Ready

The moment we’ve all been waiting for has arrived; the Lions squad is out!

Ultimately it was a slightly underwhelming announcement with few of the fireworks some expected Gatland to provide.  The late bolts from flair players went largely unrewarded, and Simon Zebo, Christian Wade, Ian Madigan and James Hook will all have to look to national summer tours for rugby, injury call-ups notwithstanding.

We got much right in our predictions, and some things wrong.  Kearney snuck in the door as one of three specialist full-backs.  At centre they’ve chosen a strangely unbalanced crew, all 13s and only one 12.  Is Brian O’Driscoll being considered for the role of inside centre, or at least providing cover there?  How this pans out will be interesting.  As such, it’s even more surprising that no utility back has been selected.

The third tighthead – a position where we really struggled to identify a worthy player – went to Matt Stevens rather than Euan Murray.  Stevens looks somewhat past his best, but with Dan Cole and Adam Jones already universally agreed upon, the role of third man is of limited importance.

At fly-half, where Jonny Wilinson’s credentials were apparently re-considered at the last.  Farrell has survived the late challenge and travels as one of only two 10s.  He can consider himself a very lucky boy.  It leaves Jonny Sexton with a virtual walk-in to the test team.

Robshaw Misses Out

Picture the scene.  The English side you’ve captained have won four from four in the Six Nations, having beaten the All Blacks in November.  Your leadership of the team has been roundly praised.  Win your final game – a tricky one against a resurgent Wales in Cardiff – and you are a grand-slam winning captain in a Lions year.  In short, you are in the box seat; immortality beckons.

But the game in Wales is a disaster.  The Welsh – with a backrow containing two breakaways – play at a tempo that you cannot live with and the result is a hammering, 30-3.  It even swings the championship their way on points difference.  But at least the Heineken Cup to come, there is a chance of a reprieve, and your club has a manageable quarter-final, at home to a Munster side having a ho-hum season.  But unthinkably, you lose, somehow allowing the Munster players to dominate collisions and the breakdown.  Your own performance is totally dominated by some unknown fellow, Tommy Donnelly, or something.  How has this happened?  Suddenly, from Lions captain, you’re facing an anxious wait, and the best you can hope for is (Lions bingo moment) a stint as mideek captain, manning it up with the dirt trackers…

So it came to be that Chris Robshaw missed out on Lions selection.  And it’s hard to argue with Gatland’s selection.  In the event he’s chosen flankers with highly specialised talents, rather than hard working types who don’t excel in any particular area.  On the openside, he has breakdown specialist Warburton and exceptional link-man Justin Tipuric.  Both are specialist 7s.  On the blind side he’s given himself healthy variety with an outstanding ball-carrier in Sean O’Brien, a super-fit all-action tackling machine in Dan Lydiate and a superb linout operator with the added bonus of terrific pace in Tom Croft.

Croft has nothing like the work rate of Robshaw, but he is a technician in the set piece and his outside break and fend can occasionally result in 50m gains (you could even say that Croft’s pace will be needed on the hard grounds – scatch off another Lions bingo square).  It’s the specialist versus the generalist, and the specialist has won out.  England might be content to put out backrows made up of three identikit six-and-a-halves, but that sort of rugby is anathema to Gatty, and he’s been vocal on the topic for over a year now.

Reprieve for the Irish

On saturday we thought the papers selecting nine Irish Lions were being generous to themselves in the extreme.  We had it at seven.  In the end, we upped it to eight, making room for Conor Murray late in the day.  In the event they’ve got nine, one less than England but six more than Scotland.  It doesn’t square with the Six Nations table.  Gatland has essentially given these high quality players a reprieve: ‘Look, chaps’, he appears to be saying ‘the Six Nations was rubbish but you and I both know that Deccie was a busted flush and the team was a mess.  I know you’re better than that and we’re going to put all that behind us and teach these Aussies a lesson about rugby’.

With Wales having come up just short against Australia in every recent encounter he knows he needs to add some of the Irish (specifically Leinster) guile and craft to the square-and-straight approach favoured by Wales, in order to make the difference.  It looks like he’ll be going with the Welsh 12 and outside backs, plus Sexton and O’Driscoll – but don’t bet against Bowe squeezing in by Test time.  They’ll bring some subtlety to proceedings, creating space, running angles, bringing the big Welsh runners into play in a more subtle fashion, rather than just trying to bash holes and getting nowhere.

Among the Irish selected, a number will be likely test starters.  Sexton, Healy and BOD are in pole position, and the likes of O’Connell, O’Brien, Healsip and Bowe would have a very strong chance of making the test team once they bring their best form.

Those looking to complete a full house on their Lions Outrage bingo cards should be directed to English websites, where no doubt their low representation on the touring party will not be going down well.  At the height of Robshaw-mania mid-Six Nations, the Torygraph projected a Lions team with no less than seven English forwards.  This will not be coming to pass.  Further outrage is likely to be garnered on the tour itself, where much of the English look like midweek material.  Tom Youngs, Matt Stevens or Owen Farrell for the test team?  No thanks.

One of the English forwards going is Nice Guy Dylan H*****y – it’s heavily ironic for Rory Best, for after the Ulster evisceration of the Saints in Franklins Gardens, containing a total Hartley-domination by the Armagh man, you would have got very long odds on Hartley going and Best not. Best has essentially played himself off the plane with some desperate lineout work in recent months.  Hartley’s Northampton haven’t exactly been the toast of Europe this season, and he lost his England jumper to Tom Youngs – it’s hard to convince oneself he’s a richly deserving tourist.

Sam The Eagle is Captain

Gatland has looked past the huge experience and inspirational leadership of the two Irish candidates, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, instead sticking by his Welsh captain Sam Warburton.  It looks a risky call.  There have been doubts over Warb’s form and fitness over the last twelve months (O’Driscoll and O’Connell are also regularly on the treatment table, it must be said) and it wasn’t long ago he was out of the Welsh starting team, dropped for the electric Tipuric.  It also appears he declined the opportunity to captain Wales in their final game, in a desire to focus on his own game.  Selfless act, taking one for the team, or a shirking of his duties?  In the event Wales played brilliantly and Warb was superb, so he probably deserves the benfit of any doubt.

It leaves the touring party looking very Welsh indeed.  Welsh coaches, Welsh captain, large Welsh contingent.  Given the large number of Welsh in the party, they might have responded better to a new, outsider’s voice.  Is there a risk of the tour group breaking into factions?  Gatland being Gatland, he doesn’t tend to pay lip service to politics (he once picked a team containing 13 Ospreys for Wales) and would be of the mind that his best man for the job is the best man for the job, and that’s that.

To be fair to Gatland, he has done his best to play down the significance of the role, even saying it will have no bearing on selection and he will happily pick a test team without his captain if that’s what’s required.  Nonetheless, those steeped in – Skyhype alert – the culture and history of the Lions will know the significance of captaining the touring party.  This is Sam’s moment, he must deliver on it in the matches themselves, which, although a sideshow to the main event of selection, can be worth a passing glance.

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Liiiiiiions – The Back Division

‘Immortality’ is just 24 hours away according to the Skyhype machine.  You don’t even have to play well to be immortal these days, just getting named on a touring panel and playing a few non-test games in Australia on Wednesday nights is apparently enough.  But then we all know the truth – the endless speculation and selection of the squad, and ultimately of the test team is what the Lions is all about, as opposed to the matches, which the Lions almost always lose anyway.  So, with that in mind, on with the show…

Scrum Half: Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs, Conor Murray

The only certainty here is that Mike Phillips is traveling.  In spite of mucking around in the lower end of the Top 14, he appears able to show his class when the occasion demands it.  His performance against England in the Six Nations was a reminder that no other European scrum-half can dominate matches like he does.  Outside of Phillips, things get tricky. It looks like two from four between Greig Laidlaw, Conor Murray and the two Englishmen, Danny Care and Ben Youngs.  It all rather depends on what Gatland is looking for to compliment Phillips, who will doubtless start the test matches.  A like-for-like replacement?  That’d be Murray.  A totally different player to provide a Plan B?  Try Ben Youngs, who’s all about tempo.  An impact substitute?  Danny Care, who excels against tiring defences, would fit the bill.  Or someone who can provide versatility and cover 10 in midweek games?  Greig Laidlaw is the man.  We got a touch overexcited a few weeks back and proclaimed Care our test staring outhalf, prompting him into a series of eye-wateringly bad performances.  He may now miss out to his compatriot Youngs.  Conor Murray’s recent form probably just squeezes him onto the plane.

Outhalf: Jonny Sexton, Owen Farrell, James Hook

Jonny Sexton has been de facto test starting 10 for some time, and has hit form promptly on his return from injury.  Options to back him up have been troublingly lacking since Rhys Priestland went from crisis to injury – with the exception of the glorious, un-ageing Jonny Wilkinson. If Toulon had any notion of releasing their prize asset for a muckaround against New South Wales Country to give him a chance to prove his fitness to Graham Rowntree, he’d be on the plane. But they won’t, and he won’t be either.

Owen Farrell seems the likely beneficiary, despite his vast shortcomings as a fly-half.  On Sunday, one canny tweeter noted that he was the third best Lions-eligible fly-half on the pitch in Saracens’ gloomy defeat to Toulon.  He will be a fortunate tourist – it’s mad that an extra week watching videos of Gareth Edwards is considered better preparation than a Top 14 final, but hey, there you go.  With only two dedicated 10s traveling, a utility player will probably be included in the touring party.  The obvious name is James Hook, and Sky were only too happy to turn Friday night’s Amlin semi-final into the ‘Will James Hook Go On The Lions Show’.  Hook can play 10, 12, 13 and 15, has Lions experience, and speaks with a Welsh lilt – he fits the bill. He’s under pressure after an impressive late dash from Ian Madigan, but the Leinsterman may just miss out due to lack of experience, though he might be first reserve.

Centres: Jamie Roberts, Ooooooooooooooohh Brad Barritt, Brian O’Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi

Jamie Roberts, once fit, is a guaranteed starter, and there are a lack of test class options to back him up.  Brad Barritt is an iron-clad defender and little more, and will have ‘midweek’ written all over him.  Outside, it’s two from three between O’Driscoll, Tuilagi and the resurgent Jonathan Davies.  O’Driscoll’s leadership, class and partnership with Roberts are surely worth a last hurrah.  His form for Leinster is excellent.  Take your pick between Davies and Manu; we’d lean slightly towards the Ashton-lamper – and not just for that, his power and eye for a gap will discommode the Wallabies more than Davies defence and intelligent lines. Stephen Jones flew the highly interesting kite that BOD was being considering as the Test 12 – if that is the case, and with Hook in the squad, Davies might squeeze out Barritt.

Wings: Tommy Bowe, George North, Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland

An area of no little depth.  North will be a Lion, the rest are uncertain.  His compatriot Cuthbert mixed the downright awful with the outstanding in the Six Nations.  He can be a defensive liability or unplayable in attack, sometimes both in the same match.  Sean Maitland oozes Kiwi class and is at the core of Glasgow’s superb finish to the season.  Bowe has looked pin-sharp since returning and is proven class.  He probably just – just! – edges out Simon Zebo, who is a touch unlucky – he picked a bad time to look nervous on Saturday, but he’s probably only one injury from a call-up.  Tim Visser, an out of form Chris Ashton and a fastman like Cristian Wade are probably on the radar but just outside the squad.

Full Back: Stuart Hogg, Lee 0.5p

Rob Kearney excelled on tour in 2009, and was so good in 2012 that it seemed unthinkable he wouldn’t be on the tour.  His claims are looking shaky right now, and he is relying on Gatland bringing three specialist 15s.  Ahead of him Lee 0.5p was Six Nations player of the championship and Hogg is greased lightning and made for the hard Antipodean grounds.  Behind in the queue are a bunch of Englishmen; Goode, Brown and Ben Foden, another player who at his best would be a shoo-in, but is out of the picture.

For those not selected, it’s worth remembering that close to double figures of players were flown out as replacements in 2009, so all is not lost.  Modern rugby being as it is, a handful of players will suffer a heartbreaking injury between now and the opening test.  In 2009, Tom Croft was not even named in the original squad, with Alan Quinlan preferred, but we all know what happened to Quinny (remember it’s no fun being cited, folks), and in the end Crofty started all three tests and scored two tries in the first.  So the likes of Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo might get out there yet.

The Lions Tour – It’s Here

The Sky Sports montage of African lions cavorting around Uluru suddenly magically transports them to Sydney Opera House – they gradually fade away to leave an image of a slim-looking guy who bears a passing resemblence to a certain corpulent former England centre now on the Beeb dropping a goal. He in turn fades into a tearful Phil Vickery and a heartbroken Shawsie. Music turns into a deep minor key – flim moves on to a smiling Beast, tries by Tom Croft, BOD mouthing “bring it on”, injured players exiting stage left, Jacque Fourie showing a woozy Rog who is boss, and then finally a winning penalty from Morne.

Simon Lazenby can barely conceal his glee, it’s the Lions! Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions! Tearful tributes to a professional anachronism abound, the merits of old school touring are tarted up with sepia paint, Ian McGeechan has been wheeled out, and – finally – it’s squad announcement time. Tingles!!

We’re going to second guess Gatty and co. We have steadfastedly avoided naming a squad until now and instead skirted the issue by talking about Israel Folau and bolters and such. But we can avoid no longer. Egg will see which fatties are going to need their official jackets taken out, while later Palla is going to investigate which flash backs will be anxiously checking Australian import regulations on ylang-ylang tree oil.

Loosehead Props: Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins, Mako Vunipola. Jenkins may tell Toulon to stuff their playoff matches and head off on the tour if called upon.  He’s been out of favour, but is such a good player he’s worth bringing, and then who knows?  It looks like a shootout between him and the explosive Healy to start the tests, with Vunipola a potential impact sub.  If Jenkins isn’t released by Toulon, the capable Ryan Grant will go.

Hookers: Ross Ford, Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs. Hibbard and Youngs are nailed on. The third slot is pretty open, with Rory Best slowly unbolting over the last four months.  On a tour without many standout Scottish options, Gatty might take this opportunity to get one in and avoid more tears from Geech – Ford to go ahead of Rory Best and Dylan H*****y.

Tighthead Props: Dan Cole, Adam Jones, Euan Murray. Not much debate here – the only question was would Mike Ross have a good enough season to displace the three ogres. In the event, he hasn’t, and has looked extremely fatigued to boot. In fact, let’s hope Schmidty leaves him here instead of bringing him to North America.  Euan Murray has done little of late, but might travel on reputation.

Second Row: Ian Evans, Richie Gray, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Geoff Parling. The above is all contingent on Gray being fit enough – if he isn’t, Joe Launchbury is the obvious one-for-one replacement. Donnacha Ryan has been usurped by his provincial colleague Paulie; it’s unlikely both will be picked. Evans and O’Connell are favourites for the test jumpers at this juncture, but Alun Wyn Jones added serious value to Wales’ Six Nations campaign once he returned from injury. Big Jim Hamilton had a great Six Nations, but, despite much shorter arms, Parling holds him off due to greater mobility and athleticism.

Blindside Flankers: Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Tom Wood. Media darling Crofty is squeezed out again – in an attritional position, he’ll probably end up out there at any rate. Fez probably would have toured were he fit, and Dan Lydiate takes that role, having returned from injury with the Dragons, and looked in acceptable nick. He’s a prototype 6 and worth the risk.  Wood and O’Brien can cover 8 if necessary, and O’Brien allegedly 7 as well.

Openside Flankers: Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (c). Warburton will be Gatty’s go-to leader guy – he’s done the job before, and Gatland is fine with him not necessarily being first choice. And it’s no surprise he isn’t, for Justin Tipuric has been the stand-out openside this year. Honest Chris Robshaw misses out – he just hasn’t been good enough since his February displays, and the two selected are pure class, and highly specialised talents.

Number Eights: Toby Faletau, Jamie Heaslip. Faletau is nailed on, and favourite for the test jumper. We think Gatty will bring one other specialist 8, which makes it Heaslip vs Johnnie Beattie. Heaslip is simply in better form, and when he is allowed to play his natural role, has had a good season – his barnstorming performance on Saturday (15 carries for 124 metres and top of the tackle count) probably booked him his airline ticket.

That’s 21 forwards, and we think 16 backs will accompany them. It’s an unanswered question who will be in charge of fines on tour – tight five forwards usually revel in this role, is Ian Evans a contender?

Palla will be back later on to resolve the other big selection dilemmas facing Gatty:

  • Will La Rochelle release Lesley Vainikolo from their Pro D2 playoff commitments?
  • Can Donncha O’Callaghan oust George North for a wing slot?
  • If Graeme Morrison isn’t available, who is favourite for to back up Jamie Roberts?

Power of Three Plus One

Gatty has a history of throwing verbal bombs around (the Welsh hate the Irish more than anyone, for example), and he was at it again last week. The rambunctuous Kiwi, and Lions head coach, claimed that the dastardly English players were making his life more difficult by – gasp – playing better than their Welsh, Scottish and Irish counterparts. His reason? The Aussies have a particular like for poking fun at the whinging Poms, and it would make his life more difficult if he had to pick loads of the English.

This deserves greater scrutiny for a number of reasons – do they, does it matter, and why was he saying it anyway?

Gatland is a Kiwi hooker who played for New Zealand (though not as an All Black) – he’s a proud New Zealander, and with that comes the absolute conviction that you know more about rugby than anyone. Stick your head above the parapet and claim otherwise, and they’ll ruthlessly target you until they are proven right. Ask Quade Cooper – after the Wallabies won the 2011 Tri-Nations, the Kiwis realized they were actually a genuine threat for the RWC, and ruthlessly targeted their key player, NZ-born charmer Cooper, until he mentally broke. Head coach Smiler Henry condoned the shocking public abuse being doled out to Cooper, and it still leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth.

That’s how New Zealand reacts to challenges, but not Australia. Australians are a sunny, optimistic bunch, yet they know they have no right to beat the likes of New Zealand and South Africa, or even England. They feel that, when they do so, they do it through hard work and intelligent play, but they have no divine right to do so. Sure, the Aussies don’t like the Whinging Poms, but remember when England pitched up in Australia for RWC03 as not only challengers, but favourites? The equivalent to the Cooper public destruction was a hand-painted sign saying “Boring Rugby Team Trains Here” outside their base. Is that it? The Aussies make a big play of their English rivalry, but deep down enjoy the joust and challenge as much as winning.

If a Lions team pitched up with 20 English on the plane, or 5, the Aussie reaction wouldn’t be much different. They would respect the best players the Northern Hemisphere has to offer, and concoct a specific plan to beat them – again, they would see themselves as having no innate right to win, but as having a (big) challenge to overcome. They’d have as much fun poking at the Welsh and the English.

Plus there is the matter of the character of the current English team – no Big Bad Johnno, no metronomic Wilko, no trash-talking Matt Dawson. The Stuart Lancaster-coached England player is typically humble, quiet, driven and moderately talented. Even Chris Ashton made a point of commiserating with Simon Zebo as he limped off the pitch last week. They are hard to hate, and easy to respect. One senses the Aussies would see them as a worthy and fun adversary – it’s hard to imagine that Brad Barritt would get much traction as Public Enemy Number One.

So why would Gatty feel the need to specifically take a shot at the English, even under the questionable guise of team-building? The Lions concept is all about the Power of Four and all in it together – it’s pretty dumb to risk alienating half your squad before you’ve even announced it just to pre-empt some imaginary Wallaby response. Gatty has been at pains to differentiate himself from Graham Henry, the only other Southern Hemisphere Lions coach, whose tour in 2001 descended into Power of Austin Healey as the nations split up.  He’s claiming he’s really a Northern Hemisphere coach since he has spent so long here, and in fact, he is in a unique position to straddle the rugger globe, which is why he’s the perfect Lions coach!

But all he has really done has written the headline for the like of Stephen Jones if something goes wrong, and made life more difficult for himself. Would you really pick a squad on the basis that it would annoy the opposition less? Gatty would do well to remember the atmosphere in the last Lions tour – Geech spent years talking up the Lions concept and engendered the team and group dynamic which we are going to need to win a series, and Gatty made that one little bit harder with his comments this week.

The Un-Bolters

Come Lions selection, everyone loves the ‘late bolter’, the yet-to-be-established young gun that makes a last minute dash for selection through club form.  What larks!

But even more fascinating can be the case of the un-bolter, who makes a long, protracted, graceless descent from nailed-on-selection to being left at the airport or, at best, being forced to muck in with the dirt-trackers.

Currently, a whole host of Warren Gatland’s Welsh darlings are making a huge bid for non-selection. The regional-franchise scene is in the toilet, so it’s typically only when the Welsh national side gathers that they get any sort of form together.  But this singularly failed to happen against Argentina, and we’ve already voiced our concerns about the sustainability of Wesh rugby’s current success.

Chief among the unbolters are Sam ‘Captain in Waiting and All Round Good Bloke’ Warburton and Toby ‘Dynamic Ball Carrier’ Felatau.  Both looked set to be test starters not three months ago, but they have brought their useless club form to the international ticket and are currently playing their way to a summer relaxing on the beach.  Rhys ‘Rugby’s Toto Schillachi’ Priestland is another whose credentials are on the slide – on the evidence of this season its hard to believe he was considered on a par with Johnny Sexton a few months ago.  It’s worth pausing for a quick reminder of some classic un-bolters from the recent tours.

2009 – Ryan Jones and  Danny Cipriani

In the 2008 Six Nations Ryan Jones captained Wales to a hugely impressive Grand Slam.  While he had looked a bit lumbering in the past, here he brought his A-game to the table for the whole series.  Like Warburton, he was also quite clearly a jolly fine chap, and was inked in by many (notably head cheerleader Stephen Jones) as the likely Lions captain.  His form promptly went into a tailspin, culminating in ‘leading’ the Ospreys to a 43-9 thrashing in Thomond Park.  He was left out of the original party, eventually making it out as a replacement for Stephen Ferris, only to be sent home immediately with an injury.

In the same Six Nations, England debuted their hotshot new 10, Wass wunderkind Danny Cipriani.  He cut Ireland to shreds in the final match and a star was born.  The Lions had their 10!  Several indiscretions, a broken ankle and a botched international comeback later, and Cippers was nowhere near contending a place on the tour.

2005 – The Irish Back Division

Between 2001 and 2004, Ireland’s ‘Golden Backline’ came into being, and oozed class from every pore.  Piloted by ice-veined Munster outhalf Ronan O’Gara, with a dashing all-Leinster three-quarter line of Hickey-D’arcy-O’Driscoll-Horgan, it was topped off by Leicester’s uber-graceful full-back Geordan Murphy.  In the 2004 Six Nations, they ran amok, with D’arcy winning Player of the Tournament and BOD already inked in as Lions captain.  The centre pairing terrified defences in green and blue and were seen as the Lions best attacking weapon.  But in 2005, it all went flat and just about all of the backs lost form.  Ireland surrendered tamely at home to France and went down meekly to Wales in Cardiff, and the crisp back play of previous series was conspicuously absent.

Somehow, they all made it on to the plane to New Zealand, abetted by Woodward’s decision to pick everybody an over-inflated squad, but none, bar possibly Shane Horgan, made any impact (though BOD had a legitimate excuse) on the doomed tour, padding out their time with the dirt trackers, with ROG and Dorce having a particularly miserable time.

So who else is in line to un-bolt?

Mike Phillips is an obvious contender – he’s sitting in the naughty step in Bayonne and isn’t first choice at national level any more – without much rugby to judge him on, he won’t be inked-in Test starter for long. The saintly BOD is looking pretty human these days, and hasn’t returned from injury anything like the player we know he can be – any more Maule-ing and he could be out of the picture even as a Phil Vickery thanks-for-the-memories style tourist.

Notes for Warren

On Tuesday, the news the world was waiting for broke at last.  Warren Gatland is to be Lions coach.  That sneaky fiver we put on Declan Kidney last week is lost to the wild.  Damn!

It was a no brainer of a decision, for obvious reasons, and Warren’s management style (grumpy, honest, occasionally confrontational) should translate well to the unique circumstances of a Lions tour.  It’s a ridiculously tough gig: cobble together the best from four nations used to beating the tar out of each other, hope they’ve something left in the tank after an exhausting season, somehow keep a squad of 36 players happy, in the two training sessions you have try and establish lineout calls, backs moves and the rest of it, hope you don’t get too many injuries (you will) and turn over one of the top three nations in their own back yard.  Easy.  Here’s some pitfalls he should be looking to avoid.

The Austin Healy Factor

Being a great Lion is as much about being a good tourist as a good player.  You have to be a jolly good fellow willing to row in with the midweekers if that’s what Wazza’s asking of you, and bloody well not complain about it, even though you’re 25,000 miles from home and Alun Wyn Jones is being picked ahead of you.

Power of Four: step forward Chris Robshaw.  Not the best of the backrowers available, but just the sort of bloody fine chap to put up a manly show with the dirt trackers and keep a stiff upper lip.  He’ll be this tour’s Alan Quinlan, minus the gouging.

Power of None: headbangers like Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton would irritate the more cultured Lions, and the safety valve of flouncing off to the Saracens Lions for a fat cheque isn’t available.  They can take a back seat for this one.

Pick on form, but not too much

Form is important, and Geech made sure he only had players who were finishing the season strongly on the last tour – hence Keith Earls.  But he leaned a little too much on form – so much so that he failed to notice he had two beanpoles in the second row and a midget at hooker.  The Lions need a good beefy pack and it was only when Geech dialled +44-SHAWSY that the Lions could go toe to toe with the bruising Saffer forwards.

Power of Four: Richie Gray can be the new Shawsy.  Go on, give us a hug, Grayser.  And Rory Best, your Nordie farmer ruck-smashing ballast is needed in the front row.

Power of None: sorry Crofty, but this is a man’s job.

Don’t let the Media Pick the Team

It’s the Lions, and we all want them to win, but in truth that’s only of secondary importance.  The primary objective is that your nation has the highest representation on the team, and that vast swathes of time be spent bickering and carping over selection bias (hey, we Irish are especially good at that one).  Woodward’s goose was cooked long in advance of the second test in 2005, but we lost any respect we had for him when he simply rolled over and allowed the Welsh media to pick Henson, Williams and all those other Valleysmen who slipped off one tackle after another as Dan Carter ran rings around them.  Everyone will be haranguing Wazza into picking their fellows, but he must rise above all that nonsense and get the best team on the park.  Oh, and you know the way Stephen Jones wants Ryan Jones to be captain – ignore him, he’s mad.

Power of Four: all the Welsh chaps have a natural advantage in that Wazza has coached them all and knows how to utilise them.  Fourteen Welshmen and BOD has a good ring to it.

Power of None: The Welsh hate the Irish more than anyone, says Wazza.  And he’s still bitter about that IRFU sacking back in the day.  Scratch BOD out on second thoughts. Fourteen Welsh plus Tuilagi.  That’s better.

Keep the Hokeyness to a Minimum

Yes, we all know the Lions used to travel by boat.  Yes, they drank a lot of beer.  Yes, the players know it’s the pinnacle of the game.  And yes, it’s a throwback to the days when jerseys were made of cotton and men were men. Miles, we need another insert with slow-mo black and white footage over James Blunt of the 99 call and when Jeremy Guscott was thin enough to drop a goal!

But more time spent practicing catching and passing and less stitching the tears of Sir Anthony O’Reilly into the jersey will give the Lions a better chance of beating the Aussies.  Keep it professional, Wazza, and, anyway, telling George North he needs to live up to the feats of Ugo Monye might not be the best preparation for facing James O’Connor.

Power of Four: ice-man Ronan O’Gara wouldn’t be seen dead blubbing into a jersey (unless it was a Cork Con one).  And he probably thinks the Lions-hype is manufactured Sky nonsense.  Good for one last tour, then.

Power of None: Blubber-merchants John Hayes, Jerry Flannery and Phil Vickery have retired, so we should be safe.

Lions – The Backs

On Tuesday, we looked at the forwards putting themselves forward for Lions selection.  Today we see which backs should start learning the words to Power of Four, the fondly remembered Lions anthem.

Scrum Half

Already Packed his Spider-Bite Cream: Mike Phillips.  At this juncture, no player is more inked in to the Lions test jersey than the big Welsh number nine.  Not the most technically gifted, but a decent passer, his main strength is his running game and ability to link with his forwards.  Plus, he’s already impressed on a Lions tour.

Work to do: Ben Youngs would be the obvious and desired deputy to Phillips – someone who offers something completely different, and a potential impact replacement late in matches, upping the pace and running tap penalties.  He appears to have recovered his game after a difficult period.  Danny Care mixes the good with the bad, but has had a fine season with Harlequins.  You suspect Gatland would like Conor Murray in the panel as an insurance plan against Phillips, but he needs to show his best form. He needs to show greater speed off the base, but has a good pass once it gets moving.

Any bolters?  Ospreys’ scrum half Rhys Webb is a smashing player, and looks the most capable of making a late burst.

Fly Half

Already Reading His Lonely Planet Guide: Johnny Sexton.  With his goal-kicking yips behind him for Ireland, Johnny Sexton was one of the few successes of the Irish summer tour.  Still not quite as regal in green as in blue, but we suspect Gatland is the sort of coach who’ll cajole the best out of him.  Should be the test starter.

Work to do: We’re still not convinced by Rhys Priestland by a long way.  Gatland seems to be a fan, though, even if he’s taken him off place-kicking duty for Wales.  If Leigh Halfpenny cannot get into the side at full-back ahead of Rob Kearney, it will compromise his test credentials. Toby Flood and Owen Farrell offer slightly more stable talents than the hot-and-cold Welshman, and both will be on hand to provide solid back-up to Sexton should Gatland choose dependable place-kicking over more mercurial abilities.

Any bolters?  A couple.  A certain D. Cipriani will be back on English shores this season with Sale.  Gatland was his one-time mentor back in the day at Wasps.  It remains unlikely that the one-time next big thing will have the discipline and defensive willingness to push for a place on the tour, but how marvellous it would be if he could.  The incumbent next-big-thing, George Ford is another who could make a late dash, but needs to depose Toby Flood at Leicester first.

Centres

Surfboard at the ready: The only centre who looks anything close to nailed-on is Wales’ Big Bopper Jamie Roberts.  We had him in our ‘work to do’ section last year, but he has done plenty of that in the last twelve months.  Hard runner, good hands, when he’s on song he’s close to unplayable; he’ll be a key man for the Lions and nigh on irreplaceable.

Work to do: Can Brian O’Driscoll see out his career with a victorious Lions tour?  He would love nothing more.  The old ledge-bag looked sprightly for Leinster but played a touch fast and loose in New Zealand.  If his body holds together, he’ll surely do enough to make the plane.  Oooooooooooohhh Manu Tuilagi and JJV Davies offer more – how shall we put this? – straight-line tendencies, but both would offer a serious threat to the Aussie gainline.

Any Bolters? Quality inside centres to offer competition to Roberts are thin on the ground, and it’s possible his understudy for Wales, Ashley Beck, will do likewise for the Lions.  Performance in the Pro12 final underlined his quality.

Wings

Wine-tasting guide packed: George North.  There’s no shortage of quality on the wings, with all four countries putting up quality players for examination, but the big, bruising Welshman is top of the bunch.  No bosh-merchant, his skill, distribution and movement belie his monstrous physique.

Work to do: A large field.  From Ireland there’s Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe.  Earls’ ability to play centre could work to his advantage, and he has a Lions tour under his belt.  Bowe excelled in 2009, and is Ireland’s best attacker.  Wales’ other wing Alex Cuthbert (another monster) has timed his rise from obscurity to test class wing impeccably.  Chris Ashton’s star has waned a little, but he’ll be looking to reassert himself at Saracens.  And flying Dutchman (via Scotland) Tim Visser is in with a shout.  He has only one Six Nations to show he can handle international rugby, but he only has the hopes of a nation riding on it, so no pressure, laddie.

Bolters: This is the most bolter-friendly position on the paddock; youngsters can quickly emerge and put themselves in the frame in a short space of time – it’s also a position where confidence and form have the biggest role to play, so Gatland might look past reputation and take a punt on those who are banging in tries.  Christian Wade, Craig Gilroy and Charlie Sharples are just three of many to keep an eye on.

Full Back

Planning a visit to Ayers Rock: Another area of real depth for the Lions, with all four nations putting up a genuine contender.  But Rob Kearney, after his annus mirabilis, is at the top of the tree.  Outstanding performances on last Lions tour won’t be forgotten either.

Work to do: It’ll be at most two from three terrific international players.  Leigh Halfpenny has a mule of a boot and while he isn’t the tallest, is a beautiful runner and dependable catcher.  England’s Ben Foden is a shade off his 2010-11 form, but he is a handsome footballer in every sense of the word.  Already making a bolt is Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, having been eventually let loose for Scotland this Six Nations.  Greased lightning over the turf, his pace would be a real asset.

Any bolters: Felix Jones was mentioned in our comments section this time last year, but injury has been cruel to him.  Gloucester’s lightning-fast Johnny May is an exciting talent, but can he break into the England team to make an impression?

Just Eleven Months To Go

A year out from the tour, the augurs are good.  Wales ran Australia very close in the recent series, and were painfully unlucky to come out on the losing side in the latter two matches.  Surely augmenting that side with a handful of daring Irish, granite-hewn Englishmen, and a giant peroxide-blonde Scot will tilt the balance?  Warren Gatland has already been on one successful, albeit losing, tour and his task will be to deliver a harmonious, happy, competitive squad, similar to 2009.  Therer’s usually little enough you can do on the tactical innovation side in such a short timeframe, so don’t expect too much variation on the Welsh run-hard-run-straight gameplan, with Mike Phillips directing a brutish pack of forwards and Sexton looking to bring the likes of George North and Tim Visser into play as much as possible.  With quality scrummagers, no short of backrow options and plenty of good attacking threats in the backline, this is the Lions’ best chance of a series win since… ooooooh… 1997.  Memo to all: don’t get injured.

Lions 2013 – the Forwards

Put on your Power of 4 bracelets, park your xenophobia, marvel at the fact Andy Powell and Ugo Monye toured last time out, and brace yourself  for cringeworthy archive footage of Iain McGeechan bawling in 2009 – it’s the Lions!

Well, it will be in a year or so anyway. Last year, we looked at the runners and riders two years out, split (as this year) into forwards and backs – we got some things right (Ben Morgan and Dan Tuohy as ones to watch) and some laughably wrong (we said Rory Best was finished and mentioned Ooooooooooohh Matt Banahan).

One year on, we’re going to put our necks on the block (a little) – we’re going to call who is on the plane, who needs to do more, and guess some potential bolters … a fool’s errand if there ever was one. With Warren Gatland as head coach (as surely he will be), we think selection policy will be similar enough to last time, with form the key watchword.  McGeechan and Gatty made it clear they wanted players who were finishing the season well, and were happy to leave out players they hugly respected (Ryan Jones) in favour of those who were on top of their form (Alan Quinlan).  So we figure it’s not worth trying to name a 35-man panel at this juncture.  Today it’s the forwards and Thursday the backs.

Loosehead prop:

On the plane: Fresh from a top notch season with Leinster and Ireland where he emerged as a pack leader, scrumagger of note and destructive carrier, DJ Church can be pencilled in as a starter right now.

Work to do: Gethin Jenkins was favourite to start and a certainty to tour just 6 months ago, but was injured and then out-performed by Paul James in the second half of last season. If James continues his upward trajectory and Jenkins doesn’t improve, James will tour in his stead. Alex Corbisiero had a solid season for England last year – if he holds on to his shirt, he’s going.

Bolters: Prop isn’t a position where you emerge from nowhere so don’t expect a less-established name to go to Oz, but Ryan Grant rescued his career with a move to Glasgow last year, and had a good summer tour, just like Scotland. If he ousts Chunk from the national team, he has a chance.

Hooker:

On the plane: Despite what we said last year, Rory Best is going – he’s been immense for Ireland and Ulster this year. In 2009, Ross Ford toured as a token Scot – this time, he will tour by right – his offloading game for Embra in this years HEC was incredible, and his set-piece work is solid.

Work to do: Dylan Hartley has never quite convinced at the highest level – every time you think he has cracked it, he puts out a performance so bad you go back to square one. Wales have been chopping and changing at hooker for the last year – Matthew Rees has generally been first choice, but has not been playing well – if any of Huw Bennett, Richard Hibbard or Ken Owens pull out a good quality and consistent season and get the shirt for the Six Nations, they will go.

Bolters: He will shortly turn Irish, and multi-HEC winning Richardt Strauss has been a key part of Leinster’s success – although small, he is a dynamic player and looks well-tailored to be put up against the powder-puff Wallaby forwards.

Tighthead Prop:

On the plane: The best scrumagging tighthead in Lions contention is Adam Jones  – add his previous Lions experience and Gatty’s trust, and he’s in. Dan Cole is a yellow card machine, but he is improving every year – he had a good tour to SA as well – he’ll make it.

Work to do: There are no Sunday tests, but Euan Murray still need to do better than last year – as it stands he is behind the technically excellent Mike Ross.

Bolters: Again, tighthead props don’t come from nowhere, so don’t expect too many surprises barring injury. Deccie Fitzpatrick stepped up to a very high level this June and didn’t look too out of place – if John Afoa or Ross get crocked, he will come into the reckoning.

Second Row:

On the Plane: Richie Gray could fall into a big hole and spend 11 months getting out and still make the tour – he’s simply fantastic and we love him unconditionally. Captain last time out, Paul O’Connell makes his province and country twice as good when he is in the team – he is a captaincy contender (Gatty likes a meaty captain).

Work to do: After what looked like a breakthrough 2010/11, Courtney Lawes had his 2011/12 ruined by injury – if he comes back near his form of the season before last, he should still make it. The move to Perpignan may have come at the wrong time for Luke CharterisBradley Davies and Alun Wyn Jones had good summer tours, and Ian Evans is still playing a t a high level – at least two of that quartet will be missing out. If Donnacha Ryan or Dan Tuohy can continue last years progression, both are in with a shout – more likely Ryan, given how easily he has adopted to the international stage. Geoff Parling is a decent lineout operator, but there would appear to be better options unless he makes more impact around the park.

Bolters: As far as we know, there are no Eben Etzebeth’s waiting to bust out of a reserve team anywhere, but Iain Henderson looks the real deal at Ulster – it’s more than likely too early, but Gatty hasn’t shied from picking raw and talented youngsters before (albeit mostly piano players rather than piano shifters).

Backrow:

On the Plane: This sector is ridiculously competitive, and some big names are going to miss out. As it stands, we see Sam Warburton going – you’ll need a fetcher to go up against Pocock, and Sam is also a captaincy contender. Stephen Ferris offers twitch power and strength unlike anything else in the hempisphere, and Chris Robshaw is ideal dirt-track leadership material – we think these three are in the lead right now.

Work to do: At the back of the pack, one of Jamie Heaslip, Ben Morgan and Toby Faletau is possibly going to miss out – Heaslip has the experience of SA in his favour, and has had a better year than most give him credit for, but is not firing on all cylinders. Morgan was England’s best player in the Six Nations but had a difficult SA tour, and Faletau carries more ball than anyone in the Welsh (Grand Slam) pack.

On the flanks, Sean O’Brien also carries well and he can play right across the backrow – that’s a plus on a busy tour. Looking at exclusive blindsides, Dan Lydiate will tackle until the cows come home; whereas Dave Denton can carry destrictively as well. Firmly ensconsed in the Stephen Jones Club is Tom Croft – he’s great in open field and scored spectacular tries in last years Six Nations, but he also got bumped badly by Dave Denton and dumped into touch by Paddy Wallace (Paddy Wallace!) in Ravers – he’ll need to improve. Or what about nearly-England captain Tom Wood?

If fetching is your thing, why, we can offer you a Justin Tipuric – Pro12 winner with the Ospreys and able deputy for Big Sam – or Ross Rennie, breakdown king in a HEC semi-final. And we haven’t mentioned John Barclay yet. The least you can say is there is depth!

Bolters: He may not have looked ready in New Zealand, but Peter O’Mahony has raw talent – the arrival of CJ Stander will free him to work on improving his game at 6 or 8, and you might see good results if the pressure if kept off. The best openside of the lot is probably Steffon Armitage, the Top14 POTY – a visible HEC campaign and he could make the plane.

Six Nations: Lions Coach Wanted. Apply Within.

We’ve had the World Cup, we’ve had the group stages of the Heineken Cup, heck we’ve even had some Rabodirect Pro12 League Mega Sized Action, but now all those terribly nouveau tournaments move aside, and the Grand Olde Dame of world rugby, The Six Nations, looms into view.  The annual event should bring the usual array of dashed hopes, stagnant rugby, corporate days out, banal press conferences, inter-provincial blame-gaming and George Hook, but y’know, we can’t help but get excited about it.  We’re the sort that dares to get his hopes up.

This year, we are eschewing the usual “England will be hard to beat and Ireland can’t score tries”-type country-by-country preview for something a bit more thematic. We will be previewing this year’s tournament by asking a series of questions:
  • What are the management teams doing? And why are they all wearing their ‘Power of Four’ wristbands
  • How will the recently-finished HEC group stages impacted the Six Nations?
  • Post RWC11-rebuilding – who is doing what and how?
  • A, ahem, deeper dive on Ireland – was all the pedestrian back play down to Gaffney??
  • Actual predictions where we put our neck on the line. Like when we confidently predicted Biarritz would make the HEC knock-out stages and the Liginds would struggle.

In the first, we run the rule over the coaches overseeing the whole shambles.  Here goes nothing.

One curious side issue of this year’s Six Nations is that the Lions administrators have effectively said that the manager of the 2013 Australia tour will be one of Warren ‘Wazza’ Gatland, Declan ‘Deccie’ Kidney and Andy ‘Andy Robinson’ Robinson, with a backstop of St. Ian McGeechan if each of those three are deemed suitably hopeless.  They haven’t ruled out anyone else (in the whole world) but they would prefer the coach to be affiliated to one of the home unions, with the anointed one required to take a year out to dedicate himself to the role (those Premiership games won’t watch themselves, and somebody has to mail out those Power of Four wristbands).

It makes for an intriguing competition within a competition, even if it’s not quite a straight shootout based on final placings.  We can’t but see Wazza as being firmly in poll position.  He’s already been on a successful tour, as an important presence in 2009, he’s a progressive selector, and the way he tactically outwitted Deccie in the World Cup is fresh in the memory.  He’d also provide good copy with his pre-match bluster, and as a Kiwi, is au fait with dishing it out to the Aussies.  This Six Nations we can expect him to be in bullish mood.  He’s already very proud of himself for picking 18 year old speedster Harry Robinson, and his currency has rarely been higher.  We’re not sold on the whole Wales Are The World’s Greatest thing, but a halfway decent Six Nations and the gig should be his.

The image of Andy Robinson punching walls in the Lions’ technical box seems a bit far fetched, and we can’t quite see it.  Robinson has done a decent job with Scotland, but they still haven’t made that breakthrough that they keep threatening, and have a tendency to freeze on the big occasion.  Even if Scotland do brilliantly, we just can’t see him as Lions head coach.

We have to admit to hoping against all hope that Deccie gets the call, if only for moments like this…

Sky Hype Interviewer:  ‘Well Declan, congratulations on a historic Lions win.  What did you make of the incredible Oooooooooohhh 17-tackle, 6 lineout-takes, 60m carrying performance by Oooooooohhh Courtney Lawes?’


Deccie: ‘Courtney went well, but maybe if we’d gone with Donncha we would have won by more points.  Sure, aren’t we blessed to have two such great fellas.’

The Aussies wouldn’t know what to do with him.

Away from the Lions circus, Stuart Lancaster is in something approaching a win-win situation.  England are at such a low ebb that the only way really is up.  Nobody’s expecting too much, and if they play a fairly watchable brand of rugby the public will be happy, regardless of results.  Even if England get the wooden spoon, he can say he has given the next generation their head.

France are under new stewardship, with Philipe Saint-Andre stepping into the breach.  He’s picked a strong squad, and it seems he wants to break with the Mad Lievremont years.  Such is the depth of talent in the French squad, it looks like even a halfway decent coach should be able to coerce them into playing some decent stuff.  Saint-Andre’s CV isn’t that impressive (his Toulon side finished ninth in the Top 14 last year) but some consistent selection and a clear gameplan would be half the battle.

Finally, Italy are also under a new coach, with former Perpignan man Jacques Brunel taking up where Nick Mallett left off.  Mallett was popular and respected, so Brunel won’t want to rock the boat too much.  Keeping Italy hard to beat while gradually broadening their game will be the order of the day – and that should have been made easier by the Pro12 sides beginning to throw the ball around a bit, and some talented youngsters like Benvenuti and Semenzato.

 

Did somebody order a Power of Four wristband?

On tuesday, Egg Chaser took a look at the forwards he expects to be jostling for position on the flight down under. It’s still a long way off, so we’re not all going to agree. One commenter even made a case for Mushy Buckley as a Lion, so at the risk of upsetting any Johne Murphy fans out there, here we go with the backs…

Scrum half

Pole Position: Ben Youngs is exactly the sort of scrum half you’d want to take on the Aussies.  Struggled a little in the latter portion of the season but has plenty of time to iron out the kinks in his game.

Look out for: Conor Murray. The Munster scrum half had a breakthrough lat year, and looks every inch the complete player. Should be Ireland’s first choice nine next season.

Needs to improve: The 2009 Lions Mike Philips and Tomas O’Leary will need to get their mojo back to be in the mix.

Too late for: Eoin Reddan will be pushing over the hill by 2013.

Fly half

Pole Position: Jonny Sexton looks by far the most complete and reliable of the options.  Needs to bring consistency to his game at test level, and the shirt is his.  Toby Flood would provide ample back-up.

Look out for: George Ford is already causing excited mutterings among England fans, who wouldn’t overhype a player lightly.  He is just 18, but served notice of his considerable talent in the recent U20 World Cup.

Needs to improve: James Hook has talent in abundance and wants to play more at fly-half but must learn to boss the game to be a Lions 10.

Too late for: The 2009 fly halves ROG and Stephen Jones will be past their best by the time 2013 rolls around.

Centres

Pole Position: Brian O’Driscoll will have to have the shirt torn from his back.  His body may give up before 2013, but for now he is still in poll position.  No inside centre currently stands out.

Look out for: Manu Tuilagi is the man who could take over from BOD.  He has some work to do on his defence, but looks explosive with the ball.  Fergus McFadden will be the established Ireland 12 by this stage and should be pushing for a spot.
It’s early days for two very young players who should make big strides between now and then: Scottish centre Mark Bennett has just signed for Clermont and is hoped to be the quality centre Scottish rugby has lacked for so long, while Luke Marshall will become a key player at Ulster next year.

Needs to improve: If Jamie Roberts can regain the form he showed in 2009, he is a nailed on tourist. But he has never looked the same player since.

Too late for: Possibly BOD and almost certainly Dorce.

Back Three

Pole position: Generally the most unpredictable, as form plays a huge part. On the left wing, Keith Earls and Max Evans look the most likely, while on the right it is hard to see Ashton and Bowe being displaced.  Ben Foden looks the real deal at 15, though Rob Kearney can challenge if he recovers from injury and adds greater variety to his counterattacking game.

Look out for: Lee 0.5p has been bedevilled by injuries, but if he can get back on track he can be world class.  Llanelli’s starlet George North also looks set to make a big impression, while Tim Visser becomes Scottish qualified next year, and if he can take his try-scoring exploits to test level will certainly be a Lion.

Needs to improve: Luke Fitzgerald endured a difficult season and needs to get back to his pre-injury form. If Oooooooooohhh Matt Banahan can add pace, a sidestep, softer hands, a brain and defensive positioning to his bulk, he could contend for a spot on the plane.

Too late for: Lee Byrne will be pushing 32, while it looks a tour too far for Shane Williams.

After the Six Nations next season, we’ll revisit and see how our Lions Ladder is looking.  No doubt we’ll try to rewrite history to make it look like we were right all along.