Get Quick Ball. Use Quick Ball. Repeat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Ignore the blather: Rolland was right

Saturday was a very unsatisfactory day for the Rugby World Cup. A useless French team got through to a final they scarcely deserve, and a far superior Welsh team went out.  Much has been written about the sending off of their superb captain, Sam Warburton for a spear tackle in the 17th minute.  And much of it has been worthy of Kevin the Teenager: ‘It’s soooo unfaaaaaaaaaaaaair!!!!’.

Stepehen Jones said there was no malice in the tackle, and Warburton’s dropping of Clerc was an act of pulling out of the tackle.  Barnesy (in a shameful piece of journalism, it must be said) accused Rolland of an ‘arrogant misuse of power’, described him as half-French and pointed to conspiracy theories to secure the All Blacks the Cup.  Shaun Edwards called for a change to the rules, where a player can be placed on report, as in League (indeed, Edwards said the tackle was fine for a Leaguer), and intimated that Warburton shouldn’t have been sent off becaue he’s a jolly good fellow.

The fact is that Warburton’s tackle satisfied the IRB definition of a spear/tip tackle, and referees have been instructed to penalise a spear tackle with a red card.  The arguments against the sending off just don’t hold water:

1. There was no malice in the tackle and Warburton didn’t drive Clerc into the ground – irrelevant.  The IRB rule cites driving or dropping the player as a spear tackle

2. Warburton is not a dirty player – irrelevant again.  This invites double standards; that dirty Argentinians and Samoans are to be reffed one way and upstanding Anglo-Saxon heroes another. Disciplinary records are for judging panels to deal with, not referees.

3. The sending off ruined a semi-final – true, but not the referee’s fault.  The law is there to protect player safety, which has to be more important than entertainment for those on the couch.  It seems some have lost sight of why the ruling and sanction are recommended in the first place.  The reason the tackle is outlawed is because it is so dangerous.  It was Warburton, not Rolland who ruined the match, harsh though that may sound

4. A yellow and citing would have been fair – citings only occur for incidents which merit a red card.  So if you believe a citing would be fair, then you have to accept a red card is deserved

5. Rolland should have consulted a touch judge – this is effectively asking for him to bottle the decision.  He had a crystal clear view of the incident and acted decisively and correctly. Ironically, some of the same people castigated the touch judge in the Second Lions Test in 2009 for saying that Burger’s ocular exploration of Luke Fitzgerald was worthy of “at least a yellow card” instead of red

6. Other spear tackles in the tournament have been met with a yellow card – true, but those are the erroneous decisions, not this one.  Take issue with the referees in those games if you want.

7. Rolland is half-French –  a cheap shot from the likes of Stuart Barnes, who should know better. Plus he’s 0% French, he’s Irish – his father is French

8. Vincent Clerc was unhurt – true, but not the point – do we really want to grade an offence based on the severity of the injury caused?

Some commentators have even gone so far as to say the red card should be removed altogether with punishments doled out after matches rather than during.  This is nonsense – the team sinned against has to benefit from the opposing side’s misdeeds.  You really do get the imression the outcry is because a ‘good guy’ got sent off, and if it was a dirty Frenchman who had commited the offence, the volume of shrieking would be a lot lower.

And for those insisting that the sending off cost Wales the game: if the Welsh side could kick properly they would have won comfortably, sending off or otherwise. Also note that post red card, Rolland gave zero scrum penalties to France despite Jean-Baptiste Poux repeatedly tearing Paul James a new one.

And we haven’t even talked about the worst refereeing decision in the game – the penalty that Leigh Halfpenny narrowly missed – this call may have cost Rolland the final, but the red card certainly didn’t, since it was utterly correct.