Wazza’s World

Neil Francis said on Sunday that he would bet the house on Gatland naming a test backrow of his three Welsh golden boys Dan Lydiate, captain Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau.  It’s the backrow which dominated in the World Cup and the 2012 Six Nations, and seemingly the one Wazza would have left the northern hemisphere with designs on picking.

But in a unit of the team where competition for places which was fiendishly competitive to begin with, such a selection would fly in the face of current form.  Being an all-Welsh combination, it would also have the potential – from our viewpoint on the outside, anyway – to split the squad into factions.  Will it come to pass?

We’ve been trying to get inside Gatland’s head a little bit to resolve this one and it’s not easy.  We can use the fact that the first test is one Saturday from now to try and accrue tidbits of information, but even that is tricky.  Gatland will want to keep everyone – not least his own players – guessing as to what the test team will be until it’s announced.  Essentially, we have absolutely no idea what the backrow will be.  But here’s what little we can piece together.

1. Warburton is the captain, Gatland will want him in the team.

Yes, Wazza has said he wouldn’t necessarily pick his captain if others were playing better, but he’ll really, really want to not have to do that.  If nothing else, it would show up the mistake in naming him captain in the first place.  He’s made Warburton his leader and won’t want to go into battle without him.  He looked off the pace on Saturday but you can ink him down for saturday’s match because Gatland is going to give Warbs every chance to play himself into some form.  But this is last chance saloon stuff, with not one but two outstanding rivals for the test jumper, with Tipuric and O’Brien both showing electric form.

2. Heaslip ahead by a nose?

When Jamie Heaslip was called off the pitch after 50-something minutes, and replaced by Faletau, it put him in the box seat for saturday’s match.  Faletau started on Saturday and played 30 minutes yesterday, so he’s due a rest.  If Jamie can bring another good performance against the Waratahs, a test place is likely to follow, after Faletau failed to impress against the Reds.  Jamie’s captaincy woes of the Six Nations appear to be behind him and he has found some great form over the last two months.

3. Pay close attention to the No.6 jersey for the Waratahs match

Tom Croft has sat out the last two games after a mediocre showing against Western Force, so it’s his ‘turn’ to play 6 against the ‘Tahs.  But if Neil Francis is right, and Dan is the man for Gatland, he is way short of gametime and needs another match.  In short, if he is to start the first test, he has to play on Saturday.  If you see Dan Lydiate’s name on the teamsheet tomorrow, then take it that it’s a done deal and he’s in the test team.  If Croft is picked then Lydiate’s hopes recede and barring a spectacular performance from the gazelle-like Leiceter man – not impossible, but he hasn’t done much of note yet – Sean O’Brien becomes the likely test blindside.

This can go one of three ways:

1. The Sad Ending

Franno is right, and Gatland picks Lydiate, Warburton and Felatau.  Quite frankly, you would want to have pretty good reasons for leaving an in-form Sean O’Brien out of any team, but you’d need to have very strong convictions to pick two chaps ahead of him who aren’t playing especially well – and are perhaps not even fully match fit.  Expect the Irish media to go ballistic, but that might be the least of Gatland’s worries.  There’s every chance such a selection would result in discord in the camp and a splitting of the group into factions.  It would stink of the test team being picked before the plane even touched down in Hong Kong, and that nothing anybody did in the meantime could have made any difference.  Put simply, they would have to win the first test or there would be hell to pay.

2. The Mega Happy Ending

Form is king and Gatty picks the backrow which started yesterday; O’Brien, Tipuric and Heaslip.  After all, they’ve been the three most impressive performers and have the look of a balanced unit.  We’ve long been admirers of the sensational Justin Tipuric, and if selected, we’ve a sneaking suspicion he could go home from the tour a superstar.

3. The Scooby Doo Ending

Tom Croft plays against the ‘Tahs, wins six lineouts against the throw and makes not one, not two, but three of his trademark 50m line breaks in the outside centre channel, prompting Stuart Barnes to faint in the commentary box through sheer Oooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-ness and Crofty forces himself into the test team where he promptly retreats into his shell, makes four tackles, wins one lineout and carries three times for a gain of five metres.

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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.

Semi Final Match Up: Palla vs. Egg… and Wales vs. France

Here at Cordite Towers, Palla and Egg set out to discuss the weekend’s rugger like we always do, stretched out manfully in the nearest sauna, only a birch between us.  Normally, our shared passion for fast-paced, attack-minded, skilful, intelligent rugby means we see eye to eye, but on the subject of this week’s two semi-finals, we were in total opposition.  Palla is foreseeing a Wales v Kiwis final, while Egg is looking at France v Oz.  Neither could convince the other of their argument.  So, without further ado, Palla and Egg present their argument as to why they think Wales and France, respectively, will win.  Tomorrow, we’ll see who came out on top, and present our arguments for the second semi-final.

Palla Ovale says: Wales all the way

Wales were lightly dismissed in some quarters before the quarter-final as a bunch of inexperienced tyros who wouldn’t cut in the do-or-die cauldron of knockout rugby.  So much for that.  Now that Ireland have been despatched comfortably, this side has the confidence, and the ability, to go to the final.  France will hold no fear of them. 

A quick glance around their team shows them to be outstanding in almost every facet.  They’ve a hard-scrummaging front row that will stand up to the French.  Their back-row is arguably the best balanced unit in the tournament, and Warburton is vying with Pocock as the Cup’s most influential player.  Their centres have been only second to the New Zealand pair, and they have an abundance of pace and scoring threat out wide. 

More importantly, though, they are the best coached side in the Cup, and France arguably the worst.  Witness Wazza’s masterclass in nullifying Ireland’s threats.  I fully expect him to come up with something similar to derail the French, where at outhalf they look particularly vulnerable.  Doubtless, Roberts will be looking to smash through all 76kgs of Morgan Parra all day long, and given the Little General’s inexperience at half-back, expect the Welsh rush defence to do to him what they did to O’Gara when he has the ball – isolate him and cut off his options.

Finally, what of France?  The team appear to have taken control, but can they do what France so rarely manage – back up a big performance with another?  Palla doubts it.  Welsh tyros for the final.

Egg Chaser says: France have it

To get to this juncture, Wales have played three games at full intensity. They have won two well and lost one unluckily – very impressive. Different story now though – France know how to score tries, unlike the Bokke, Samoa and Gaffney’s Ireland.
Wales have yet to play a team who can put together multiple phase attacking, with the ability to run varying lines, break tackles and the gainline consistently and offload in the tackle.
In the case of France, they didn’t really bother until the quarter-final, concentrating instead on arguing among themselves. You do get the impression they prepared to face Ireland, but won’t be too worried about Wales either, having won the last three games between the sides, most recently 28-9 in the Six Nations, when the teams weren’t markedly different from this Saturday.
France are unlikely to play as well as they did in the first half against England, but should still be peaking around now – Wales are in bonus territory and, having gone to the well three times, may not have anything left for those crucial Championship minutes. Note also, France are habitual RWC semi-finalists – familiarity with rarefied stages can be a useful weapon, note how the same sides keep appearing in HEC finals – and unless Wales wear white, France are unlikely to freeze.
In spite of their laughable preparation, the French to win pulling away.

World Cup Preview: Wales

Group D Opposition: South Africa, Fiji, Samoa, Namibia

Pedigree: A mixed bag as you might expect.  Semi-finalists in 1987 (they won the third place playoff against Australia) and quarter finalists in 1999 and 2003, when they gave England a real scare before finally succumbing to the eventual champions. On the flipside, in 1991, 1995 and 2007 they failed to get out of their group. A habit of wayward, unfocused performances into the hands of Pacific Island nations has gotten them into trouble before…
Players to watch: A decent team is taking shape: George North looks like he could set the tournament alight, while Wales look like the only Six Nations team bringing a dedicated breakdown forward in Sam Warburton. In what could be an inspired move, Gatty has made the brilliant 22-year old his captain. Alongside him, there will be hope that Dragons’ afro’d Toby Felatau can be the dynamic ball carrying No.8 they have long required. Key to the whole operation is James Hook – he is wonderfully talented, but continues to be shunted around the backline without a set position. Can they finally get the bet out of him? 

Good tournament: Wales are in a pig of a group, and if they get out of it that will be considered good enough.

Bad tournament: Fail to get out of the group and Wazza will have issues.

Prospects: Not four weeks ago, things looked desperately grim: Wales were lucky to draw with Fiji in the autumn, were mediocre in the Six Nations and all their best players seemed to be either injured or developing a penchant for late night brawling (something which applied to the coaching staff as well).  We were all set to predict yet another Pacific Island-induced early exit for the Valleysmen. 

But things are looking up.  There still appears to be some sort of injury jinx hanging over the squad (Stoddart, Rees and Henson are out with long term injuries and Gethin Jenkins is likely to travel even though he may not play a part until the latter stages), but several long-term absentees are back in harness.  Lee Byrne is available, Adam Jones, so important to the Welsh scrum, made his comebck successfully, and Jamie Roberts and Lee 0.5p are back too.

Results have been good. Wales were competitive in Twickenham, won the reverse fixture in spite of being dominated in terms of territory and possesion, and toughed it out against a physical Argentina side. If Wales can get James Hook at his best and put him centre stage, they can surprise a few people this autumn.

The one worry is that the teams they have played so far are, shall we say, predictable, in their attacking patterns. Which is most definitely something you could not say about Samoa or Fiji. How the Welsh blitz defence will cope with hard and varied lines and runners on the shoulder is anyone’s guess. The likelihood is they won’t look half as comfortable against the Pacific teams, but can potentially score more as well.

Here’s where the setup of the team will come in – where is Jamie Roberts going to play, and can he free his hands? Can Lee Byrne discover his 2008 form? And will Hook be given charge of the team? It’s quite easy to see a scenario where the management team go with the certainty of Stephen Jones against Samoa after a ropey Hook showing against the Boks – this ia the nightmare scenario as its Hook’s quick mind, hands and feet which unlock the physical Pacific defences.

Verdict: Given Wales’ history, the draw could scarcely have been more unkind, with both Fiji and Samoa potential banana skins.  They effectively have three test level games, and all will be hugely physical, not a traditional Welsh strength. It’s not inconceivable that they could come a cropper – they struggled badly against Fiji this season, and Samoa recently toppled Australia in a remarkable game. Only as little as a fortnight ago we were leaning towards Samoa, but given Wales’ momentum, they should be able to get out of the pool, to reach a quarter final where Australia will surely beat them.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle … Part 1

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

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

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

Front Row:

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

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

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

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

Second Row:

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

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

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

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

Back Row:

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

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

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

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