Wounded Lions Ready For Wellington


The final scoreline in the first Test may obscure the fact that this was a truly excellent contest between the best players in the world. The first half was as good as it gets, each side playing at the edge of their ability. We saw one of the greatest tries ever seen on a rugby field for a start, and there were lung-bursting phases of thrust and counter thrust which were a delight for the neutral, but the team with the most cohesion was always likely to win that struggle.

We also saw one of the best 8 and 9 performances of all time from Aaron Smith and Kieran Read. I am not sure how you are supposed to deal with the quality of that display, in that they totally eclipsed Murray and Faletau who hardly got a look in. Their tactics dealt with the Lions blitz defence as they probed in the narrow areas but at supreme pace and trusting their handling skills.

I said pre-match that the Back row and the Back three were the key areas for the Lions and so it was. Daly ball-watched badly for the first try, probably thinking that a hooker idling out on the wing was not a threat until he picked the ball up from his bootlaces and dived in at the corner with a good turn of pace. Otherwise the Back three were a bonus although Watsoncant get enough of the ball and really should play fullback.  Unfortunately the Lions efficient line out was more than offset at the breakdown and the imbalance of the back row showed. This was a game-changer as Sam Cane and Jerome Kaino had huge games alongside Read.

The pace and ball handling of the All Black forwards were awesome, in contrast to the Lions who showed no aptitude in that area and preferred to see Murray’s box kicking. While it was impressive, it was  predictable and took the game away from the Lions as they should have either kept the ball in hand or played territory. They were wonderfully dangerous on the counter-attack, but couldn’t construct any continuity in their play and get Te’o more into the game. He showed nine carries but this was misleading.

In my opinion, the Lions forwards now have to get stuck in and then run Te’o and Davies into more traffic to get the All Blacks turning and feeling pressure.Their mobility can be improved with one or two selections but more importantly with a change of tactic.

The mood will have been enhanced by a cracking contest yesterday in Wellington against the Hurricanes. Nobody was realistically going to play their way into the Test Team but there will be smiles in the camp to have more than matched the Super Rugby Champs. Gatland chose not to empty his temporary bench, so we had the unusual sight of many players going the full 80 – a throwback to the old days. For many of them it will be their last Lions Jersey so fair enough.

On to Saturday – how do I see it? Some angry Lions forwards will rip into the Kiwis and the team will try to keep the ball more (or should) as well as play some territory. Farrell needs more front foot ball and Faletau needs to turn up. I sense that the All Blacks will play a wider game and test the fitness of our forwards. We didn’t see much of their attacking game – other than their tries – which is a scary thought. But will they get enough ball ?

I sense that there is plenty left in this tour, in Windy Wellington and in the game that matters.

H.

Lions Stalk Their Prey…


This Lions tour has been fascinating on a number of levels. We all thought that the Crusaders and the Maoris would post significant try-scoring threats and possibly inflict defeats. How wrong we all were, including the Kiwi experts. In fact neither side carried the ball across the Lions try-line, a wonderful pre test statistic.

Does it matter ? Gatland says it’s the Test Series (of course) and everything else can be written off to preparation.  In fact the Maori game was so comfortable for the Lions that you wonder whether there was something untoward about the whole contest as they could have won by 50 points.

The truth is that the Lions have yet to face any game breakers who can put them under tactical pressure but perhaps that’s just the New Zealand way, as well as their main players being held back. The other truth is that the big match Lions players have stepped into the two major challenges to date and seen them off.

I said before that the combination of a Saracens front five and some Irish hard edge in the front and back row could be a winning combination.  Now Sexton has found his form along with Farrell and Murray, the Lions are going to be super competitive.  Te’o has surprised me positively and is now passing out of contact, also good news for England.

But is it enough? The New Zealand gloating has tempered somewhat, and is replaced by nervousness. There is a steel in the Lions defence which they will not like and it could yet become the killer weapon.

On the field, Halfpenny has surprised me and he will be really tested if he starts on Saturday. Given the weather forecast he may be critical with the boot but Farrell is equally good.  I was really pleased to see Jack Nowell finally show his true colours, possibly too late for the Test but Daly will surely play a part.

From a rugby talent perspective, Anthony Watson surely plays fullback but I suspect conservatism wins out as well as the tactical imperative, being described as ‘defend to win’- although it will need to be much more than that.  Farrell will have to play 10 because his passing is more direct and suits Te’o and Davies, bringing them through to break the gainline.

The issues for the B&I Lions are the back three and back row.  If I was the All Blacks (!) that is where I look for weakness because there is an issue of mix and balance.

Importantly, and especially after Tuesday, Lions have the momentum.  The whole squad will be buzzing as they enter the most important fortnight of their rugby lives.  I feel that whatever the result of the series, each side knows they will have to exceed anything they have achieved before to have success.  To the victor the spoils, but this is as big as it gets in any sport in any country and at any level.

Finally…

1/ The furore about cheapening the Lions Shirt with ready made replacements…  All I know is that my unavailability for the ’89 tour remains an abiding sadness in my rugby life and it really is the pinnacle for any player, no argument.  Gatland has had so much adversity to overcome that I understand his actions.  We win the Series and this will be forgotten as an exceptional circumstance but I do feel for the likes of Launchbury.

2/ How good were England and Scotland last weekend – learning the lessons of RWC 2015 and now both sit in the top four in the world. Rightly so.

Meantime, watch the sparks fly in France after losing twice to an experimental Springbok team as Bernard Laporte seeks to find a World Cup winning squad. Memories of England 2005…..

H.

Lions Safari Park – Musings About The Tour And Inside Comments From New Zealand


So the Kiwi Press had a field day and called the opening match performance a ‘disgrace to the jersey’. They have already written off the Lions’ chances – well, that is the best news of the tour and will serve as a boost to the squad who already knew that they were up against it. If the tight schedule, lack of preparation, jet lag and lack of sleep wasn’t enough, the length of the season could be a negative too but it actually means that this group of players know they only have four or five games left and they will have easy enough in the tank for that. So don’t worry about the level of intensity – it will be there.

I am not going to over-analyse this result because the Lions were always going to struggle against a hyped up Babas team. Certain fringe players for test starts (Te’o, Moriarty, Sinckler) made a statement, as did those quite fresh after mid season injuries (Faletau, Kruis). The Wales No 8 shone out like a beacon of quality and will soften the blow of the loss of Billy Vunipola. But this squad cannot afford to lose world class players of his standard, because we do not have many, whatever anyone says. I cannot get past the fingers of one hand.

The one beneficiary of this extraordinary match was Bryn Gatland. The coach’s son was an inspiration at 10, and one or two European clubs will have sharpened their pencils on seeing that performance. He varied his game and got his side running great angles – you do not see that much these days from modern fly halves.

What I was looking for was some evidence of the Lions attack game, because I feel they will have to score three tries in the Test matches. Gatland’s ‘play what is in front of you’ throwaway comment recently seemed to be an over rapid reaction to the fears of a conservative game plan for which he is well known. Te’o broke the gain line well but failed to distribute and we will look for that as the tour progresses because he could break into the team.

However, does anyone know who the Lions attack coach is, because a group of rugby cognoscenti could not tell me; the answer is the reason I remain cautious on the prospect of the tourists unlocking the All Black defence.Last thought – anyone counting the number of first choice injuries the All Blacks have? People always say we want to beat the best team but the reality is that the more understudies that have to step in for the all important First Test increase our chances of laying down a challenge, which will mean much more than the endless Hakas which are springing up wherever the Lions look.

H.

LIONS TOURISTS SHARPEN SOME CLAWS IN CHAMPIONS CUP DRAMA


Who would be a Lions coach?!  After the Champions Cup Semi Final in Dublin, Andy Farrell’s face was wreathed in an unfamiliar smile as Saracens withstood the Munster fire and progressed to the Final in Edinburgh. It wasn’t because we had suddenly agreed on how the backs should play! No, it was due to a clean bill of health for all the Lions on the pitch, mainly wearing Saracens colours. The only thing Andy cares about is getting his players on the plane. He was right to be worried as it took a mammoth effort to take down Munster in front of 50,000 fanatical supporters and it was indeed a brutal match.
 
People have asked me why I haven’t discussed the Lions selection yet so here goes – but frankly 90% were guaranteed and it was the 10% which created the chatter; why so few Scots, not enough English, too many Welsh are the main cries. I also wanted some time to think about the player mix and the off field management – I now detect a distinct approach.
 
I was myself a backs selector for the 2001 Lions tour to Australia and remember calling time on the Scott Gibbs debate when I saw that Rob Henderson would clearly complement the excellent Brian O’Driscoll much better than Scott, who had seen his best days. Releasing BOD’s creative genius, not to mention the young Jason Robinson, was a key objective of the Lions on that tour. This tactic worked until the cynical Aussies took Jonny Wilkinson and then Richard Hill out of the 2nd Test through some cheap shots. Justin Harrison’s line out steal from Martin Johnson is also well remembered as the final clinching moment of the deciding Test.
 
So, the conservatism of Gatland is strongly apparent whatever anyone says – the marginal picks such as Biggar, Te’o, Halfpenny, Youngs, Davies and Seymour could all have been replaced by more creative options but it tells you what the Lions coaches think may make the difference as well as the likely style. We shall see.
 
Meantime there can have been no better warm up than the Champions and Challenge Cup Semi-Finals. The Saracens contingent of Lions tourists were in crushing form, and no surprise that Munster could not make headway against the Vunipolas, Kruis, Itoje and George. Add the indomitable Farrell and they drained the Munster machine, which was malfunctioning already and way off the pace in terms of worrying a team like the defending Champions.
 
In sunny Lyon, 42,000 chanting Clermont fans and 3,000 intrepid Leinster travellers kept noise levels way above international wavelengths. It was a truly great match of skill, power and pace. The Lions will wonder that they can afford to leave Ringrose at home as he was the player of the match, scoring a try which will live in the memory and containing every skill in the book. He compared rather well to Henshaw who will probably start against the All Blacks. Sexton was also on prime form, but unable to reel in the multi national Clermont team after giving them a quick 15 point lead.
 
Elsewhere Toby Faletau continued his exceptional form for Bath in their dramatic last minute defeat to Stade Francais, and his man of the match performance against Gloucester last weekend shows one benefit of mid season injuries as he is fresh and pacey. He must start for the Lions, Vunipola or not.
 
More thoughts to come as we approach the business end of the season and, of course, the Edinburgh Finals loom large.
H.

DESTINATION RUGBY RULES


Rugby
It used to be that once the Six Nations was over, sell out rugby grounds were at a huge premium and confined to major finals. No longer, as has been proven since England were squeezed out of a Double Grand Slam by a highly disciplined Irish team. Consider the following…
 
First, Dublin played host to a tumultuous European Champions Cup Quarter-Final which saw Leinster triumph over the leading English Club, Wasps, and with an atmosphere which was way more intense. This coming weekend it’s Munster’s turn to try and make it three in a row for Irish teams and over 50,000 tickets are sold. This will not be for the fainthearted and this time it is the defending European Champions, Saracens, whom Stephen Jones called possibly the best team in the world right now at any level. Hard to disagree when they blew away three quarters of the Scottish team in Glasgow Warriors, scoring 40 points that could have been 60. I heard Ian Robertson call them relentless in squeezing the life out of teams. It is much more than that, their game out wide is without match on any rugby field in the world right now. But can they step into the face of Irish passion against a  Munster who are playing well above themselves in this special season? No Conor Murray but that didn’t bother Ireland.
Over in Lyon, Clermont and Leinster are the two most attractive teams to watch in the competition. More than 35,000 fans will be rammed into the Matmut stadium for their Champions Cup Semi-Final and on paper this ought to be one of the best matches ever in the Cup; two international teams going head to head and quality everywhere you look.
 
Let’s look back at the weekend of April 8th, which broke all records in the Premiership; 130,000 fans attending two games in London alone. At Twickenham, Bath found enough to win in a season which feels increasingly precarious. Banahan produced one of the passes of the year to put Watson in for the winning try and Faletau showed why he will be a Lions starter with startling pace and sleight of hand. It is what Billy Vunipola is still working on but here is a man who is now developing wonderful attitude. He was warned by a Premiership referee to calm down as he dragged Saracens out of a hole against Northampton Saints last weekend to achieve an unlikely win. That is the class which Eddie Jones is looking for.
 
The Pro 12 joined in the party with 60,000 at The Principality to watch the four Welsh regions battle it out in ‘Judgement Day’. Unfortunately not much form was forthcoming in any of the matches, and I am confused to hear how many Welsh names are Lions contenders right now. 
 
Finally, we in Europe announced Bilbao and Newcastle for our next two Finals days. This stretches the boundaries and takes rugby to places where the support is there but the experience is new and fresh. Not without risk of course, even allowing for Barcelona hosting last year’s Top 14 Final to 94,000. St James’ Park was an outstanding venue for the Rugby World Cup 2015 – some say the best – and with the Falcons at long last showing signs of a sustained revival the timing could be perfect.
 
The message is clear – the demand is there, you just have to be creative and bold and the crowds will come. These are heady days for rugby watchers, and it just shows you how many people would watch Six Nations in the flesh if they could get access – although eye-watering prices are hardly conducive.
 
As thoughts turn to the British and Irish Lions announcement on Wednesday, I wonder how many more people would be crammed into the stadia in New Zealand if only they had the facilities and the space. However , it doesn’t really matter what the capacity is because if you are talking destination rugby, then look no further than the current World Champions, and home of many of the best players on the planet. Please note Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the Lions in general: Beauden Barritt is simply the best player in the world today as he once again proved over the weekend. Stop him, and the task is well under way.