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?

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.

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.

What the Hell Is Going On In: The Welsh Regions?

It’s November, and we know what that means: internationals.  So while in Ireland the IRFU scrabble around to get 40,000 people to watch the Argentina game, across the water in Wales this is really the beginning of the season.  Not content with filling the three-week test calendar, they also have an additional game outside the test window, against Australia.  The same Australia they’ve already played five times in the last 15 months.  Suck that up, regions!

Deccie might look enviously at the prioritisation of the national team in Wales, where it’s the be all and end all for players, supporters and media alike, while the regions form little more than an extended training camp.  But it’s not a model we’d recommend the IRFU to try to replicate.

The latest indictment of the regional franchises was Cardiff’s feeble capitulation to Leinster last week.  Leo Cullen had no problem describing them as ‘soft in the tackle’, as they lost six tries in a scarcely believable first half.  At one point, David Kearney was put into an ocean of space straight through the middle of the pitch; the sort of gap you’d expect to appear after multiple phases of gainline-crossing rugby.  But this was only the second phase!  A try quickly followed after a couple of recycles.

This was no Cardiff B-team, but a line-up featuring their best players; Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and Sam Warburton included.  Indeed, it was Sam Warburton’s performance which raised the most concern.  Formerly a Lions captain in waiting, he was dominated by his opposite number, the relatively unheralded, but fast-improving academy player, Jordi Murphy.  Indeed, Leinster’s performance was characterised by greased-lightning-fast ball all night long, with Warburton barely leaving an impression at ruck-time.

If you were the Welsh coach, would you pick him?  Based on form you’d look straight past him to Ospreys’ brilliant Jason Tipuric, but Gatland will be aware it ain’t that simple and will expect to see Warburton and Roberts morph into the world-class international versions of themselves under his watch.  But can such a transformation consistently be achieved?  Good form isn’t a tap you can simply turn on and off.  Despite what some media types will try and tell you, there is no ‘Welsh way’, no magic in the air that makes the players suddenly invincible in the red jersey.  The team has obviously been superbly coached by Warren Gatland and Rob Howley, but with Gatland taking a year-long sabbatical to focus on the Lions, a stern test awaits this year for the Welsh team.

Even more concerning must be the long-term damage to Welsh rugby.  The regions play in half-empty, soul-less stadia and have been encumbered with a salary cap, in an effort to make the numbers somehow add up.  A great number of their players have decamped to the Top 14.  While players plying their trade in France is perhaps not the national crisis it’s perceived as on these shores, it does leave the regional sides rather short of quality.

The Welsh national team has had a glorious twelve months, but how long can it keep going?  Wales has a similar playing population to Ireland, and won’t always have the quality of player that it does at the moment.  Indeed, as little as two years ago, they were pretty abject.  When the national team splutters, they’ll have little to fall back on.  While we have lambasted the IRFU and Kidney for a lack of vision, at least Irish rugby is founded on solid ground.  Even when the national team is rubbish, the problems are fixable, and the provinces have consistently provided an outlet during taxing periods.  In Wales, the edifice may be more impressive, but it all seems to be precariously balanced on Warren Gatland’s shoulders.

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.

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Three

The Game: England 13 Ireland 19, 6th March 2004

What it Defined: The emergence of a consistently successful Ireland side

The State of Play

After the Night of the Long Knives following the All Blacks defeat in 2001, Eddie was always going to get some time to get things right – and he needed it. In the 2002 Six Nations, Ireland mixed the sublime with the ridiculous – veering from feeding Wales a painful 50-burger to being on the end of two shellackings in Twickers and Paris.  The inconsistency that had been Gatty’s downfall wasn’t going to go away quickly.

Next season, it looked like they had begun to sort themselves out. After being unable to beat Scotland for a decade, suddenly Ireland were finding it very easy – a 3rd win in 4 years got them off to a great start, and it was followed up by a routine win in Rome. The character of the next two wins had the Irish public sensing something different – a tough grinding win over France in Lansdowne Road was followed up with a last gasp one point win in Cardiff (shurely shome mishtake Mish Moneypenny). The mental toughness we had been looking for seemed within reach … as did a Grand Slam as England came to town.

Until, of course, it was slapped down in spectacular fashion by Johnno and co. at Lansdowne Road. The game will be remembered for the English captain’s perceived snub of Mary McAleese, but that preceded a right beating from the English, who were thoroughly sick of being denied Grand Slams by Celtic upstarts. A 5-try 42-6 demolishing was the result, but Ireland were quietly pleased with progress, and this was one hell of an England side.

The World Cup in Oz that autumn was about one thing in the minds of the Irish rugby public – atonement for Lens. Ireland had been drawn with Argentina again, as well as the hosts, and someone was going to bite the bullet. In the event, Ireland staggered past an obdurate Pumas side in a stinking game – Quinny’s try-scoring injury put him out for a long time, and both Argentinian props were accused of gouging in the aftermath.

The newly carefree Irish almost caught the Wallabies napping in the final pool game, but a last minute Humph drop goal sailing left meant it was the French instead of the Scots, and after 30 minutes Ireland were whacked and bagged at 24-0 down, eventually losing 43-21 – a defeat which prompted the retirement of all-time legend Woody.  It was about par for Ireland World Cups, but the players had a ball in a terrific base.  Shane Horgan rated it as a career highlight, but lamented that it came a year too soon for what was a young team.

The following years’ Six Nations started with defeat to France, but that was followed up by another handsome victory over Wales. Despite the loss of Wood, the trip to Twickenham was crucial for Ireland – another defeat and they were essentially back where they were after 2000 – some pretty wins, but no cigars.

England themselves were reigning world champions and at the peak of their powers – they had scored 11 tries against the concession of one in their first two games – we tend to associate the 2004 England side with their shambolic 2006-10 cousins, not the powerful machine which won a series in New Zealand and the World Cup in the nine months preceding this game – make no mistake, this was a formidable team, one of the best (if not the best) of the professional era.

The Game

This was the first Great Eddie Performance – a ruthless and well-executed devastation of the opposition’s weak point: the lineout. Thommo had the worst day of his career, and Mal O’Kelly the best, in tandem with the incredible Paul O’Connell. The English set pieces never got going, and Ireland kept them under incredible pressure throughout the first half. Despite an opportunist try from Matt Dawson, Ireland went in 12-10 in front thanks to four Ronan O’Gara penalties.

England came out flying after the break, with a Ben Cohen try in the corner ruled out by the TMO for a double movement. It was a tight call, but probably correct.  Ireland responded with one of the memorable moments of the last decade, and another Eddie Classic – an all-singing backline move started by a sublime step-and-go from Gordon D’arcy – suddenly playing to his great potential – and finished by Girvan Dempsey. Every step was training ground rehearsed.  Egg can recall the dirty Vinnie Jones-esque tackle on Dempsey by Cohen as much as the try itself, but it was beautiful to behold (although look how deep the whole line stands!).

Ireland closed it out after that with the sort of tough hard-nosed performance they needed to produce – it was a display full of grit, desire and marked confidence in their gameplan. Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell were excellent in their first games in Twickers and would be mainstays of the team for years to come. The England team they beat were missing Johnson and Wilko, but had a plethora of World Cup winners, and were led by Lawrence Dallaglio.

The teams that day were:

England: Balshaw; Lewsey, Robinson, Greenwood, Cohen; Grayson, Dawson; Woodman, Thompson, Vickery; Borthwick, Kay; Worsley, Hill, Dallaglio.

Ireland: Dempsey; Horgan, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Howe; O’Gara, Stringer; Corrigan, Byrne, Hayes; O’Kelly, O’Connell; Easterby, Gleeson, Foley.

The Aftermath

The game was the catalyst for Ireland to win three Triple Crowns in four seasons – their most consistent period of success in history. The first was secured three weeks later at home to Scotland and prompted wild celebrations. The team of 2004 was largely the team that played for this entire World Cup cycle and through to France 2007, missing only the silky-haired Jirry Flannery – at that point just back in Munster after a sojourn in Connacht – and the soon-to-re-emerge David Wallace.

The following season, it was Wales’ turn, and they won a rather fortuitous Grand Slam, but this was the catalyst for Eddie’s best years – a Triple Crown followed in 2006 (as did a horror beating in Paris – something which was becoming a familiar marker), and that Autumn, Ireland beat both South Africa and Australia, and reached the heady heights of 3rd in the world rankings.  The South Africa and Australia teams were somewhat developmental in nature, but that was lost on a public giddy with excitement over Ireland’s form.  Ronan O’Gara surely never played flatter than in that series, and two new stars from Ulster emerged: powerful winger Andrew Trimble and wrecking-ball blindside, Neil Best.

The peak of the side was due to be in 2007, and it corresponded with the knocking down of decrepit old Lansdowne Road in favour of the sparkling new Palindrome – Ireland were to play their home game from 2007-2010 in Croke Park, the 80,000 seater occasionally atmospheric home of the GAA. The emotion and unfamiliarity of it all were undoubtedly contributors to a slightly off-key performance in the first game of the series, against France. Ireland were but a lucky bounce away from a home win that would likely have led to a Grand Slam.  As a fan, there are some defeats you never quite get over, and for Palla Ovale this is one – he simply sat, motionless in Croke Park with his head in his scarf for an extended period of time, before going straight home to bed.

The team were more proactive however – they were primed against England in their next home game. The emotional peak and nationalistic fervour conspired to inspire Ireland to their most complete performance to date – a 43-13 pummeling of a shell-shocked England. The momentum took them to a 50 point win in Rome, which would surely have been good enough for the Championship had France played Scotland simultaneously. In the event, it was another Triple Crown, and this one was greeted rather less positively than the previous two – it was, quite rightly, perceived as a chance of a lifetime having been missed, and Ireland felt short-changed.  They hadn’t climbed their mountain yet, but the mentality was one of winners.  A Triple Crown was no longer good enough.

After the physical and mental peaks of the Six Nations, surely Ireland would be firing on all cylinders again for the World Cup in October?

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.