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.

Good Face

In the ever-fascinating world of fans’ perception of players and their abilities, one factor that’s surprisingly important is what the player looks like – both to male and female fans alike.  Male rugby fans may not be considered the most meterosexual bunch, but make no mistake, looks matter.

Demented Mole, under his ‘Hugonaut’ guise on the Leinsterfans’ forum, once wrote that he thought Rory Best to be just as good a player as Jerry Flannery, but that Flannery’s hair and superman posture generally elevated people’s perceptions of him, while Rory Best was bald when he was 23 and looks like a Nordie farmer.  It was a fair point.  I’ve seen Flannery’s hair in person and it really is extraordinary.  Who wouldn’t allow it to colour their opinion slightly?  What a player looks like can have a surprising influence on just how he’s perceived by the public.

Some players undeniably have what Moneyballers refer to as ‘good face’.  Having ‘good face’ needn’t mean being good looking in the conventional sense, though that hardly hurts either.  Sergio Parisse would be a brilliant player no matter what he looked like, but it’s no harm that he looks like a film star while trying to fill all 15 positions for the Azzuri.  And the reliably invigorating sight of David Wallace smashing defenders hither and yon was only improved by his looking so ruggedly handsome in the process.  Few would be ashamed to admit a slight man-crush on either.

The player with the best face in Irish rugby right now is Peter O’Mahony, with Donnacha Ryan in close pursuit.  In fact, they both look rather alike.  Neither are what you’d call conventionally handsome, but they both have amazing features: deep-set eyes and weird bone structure.  They look permanently angry, ready to start a fight at a moment’s notice.  Perfect, then, for the all-out war that is the forward battle on a rugby pitch.

The interesting thing is that O’Mahony’s face has had a misleading effect on how he’s perceived as a player.  Mention O’Mahony’s name and people will tell you he’s a fearsome warrior who won’t take a backward step, as tough as they come.  Have a look at his snarling features and you wouldn’t doubt it.  But watch him in action, and in fact, you’ll probably conclude he’s not really that type of player.  Yes, he has a tendency to look for trouble on the pitch, but the faux-hardman act is really his weakest suit and something he shouldn’t bother with.

In fact, he takes a backward step fairly often.  He slips the odd tackle and, for a blindside, isn’t great at trucking slow ball around the corner of the ruck and over the gainline.  He’s no Joe Worsley.  What he is, however, is a talented footballer; a very skilful handler, brilliant lineout forward, and a slightly willowy flanker who can get up a good gallop when further out from the ruck, where he can use his long-armed hand-off to good effect and is capable of beating defenders in a little bit of space.  His ground and tracking skills are also very useful.  His skillset is really closer to, say, that of Jamie Heaslip’s than many have let on or than you might think – by the look of him anyway.

Another whose appearance can be deceptive – in a different way – is Tom Croft.  He looks every inch the English yeoman, magnificent of physique and with a chiselled face that can only be honed in the finest English public schools.  It’s tempting to believe the hype that he’s the world’s best blindside.  Now, Crofty is not a player without his strengths, and his good moments can be spectacular, but he doesn’t influence a game over 80 minutes.  And no blindside should ever be bundled into touch by Paddy Wallace.  He’s just not quite as good as he looks.

Demented Mole recently wondered aloud why Devin Toner was such a figure of ridicule outside – and sometimes inside – Leinster. The answer might just be the cut of the chap.  Not quite filling out his 210cm frame and with a face that looks almost boyish, he doesn’t quite fit the desired mould of second row hardman.  Regardless of how good he is or isn’t, prehaps he just doen’t have ‘good face’.  Don’t underestimate it.