Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Tests

Now I appreciate that the original promise was I'd blog about every game. Well I didn't comment on the Brumbies or Rebels games a little bit out of protest against the sheer number of guys flown out to wear the shirt for one game. I accept there were injuries and it made more sense to play Shane Williams, for example, than risk a 'full' squad member, but it just cloyed with me that so many were called for.

Anyway, enough negativity. A first series win since 1997 more than made up for it. What a series as well. Not as brutal as South Africa 4 years ago, but still incredible intensity from both sides, epitomised by one of my favourite all time players, George Smith, picking himself of the turf after his huge head on collision with Richard Hibbard, to continue playing (after the 10min concussion test).

The first test showed how much the Aussies hate to lose. They have lost their way a little under Robbie Deans, but to come within a kick of winning the game shows how much quality they still posses. Or does it show the two rugby hemispheres really do referee the game completely differently? BOD certainly thought so. George North proved his finishing ability, I imagine the Franklins Gardens  faithful are licking their lips at the prospect of seeing him rampage around in a Saints shirt next season!

The second test was no different. I think everyone, even slightly, wanted an Australian win to go to a decider in Sydney. The Aussies duly delivered thanks to a relatively easy score by their stalwart centre Adam Ashley-Cooper 5 minutes from time. If the first test had shown the world Israel Folau's awesome finishing ability, not new to this writer though - he'd been tearing up the NRL for years and then (briefly) Aussie Rules, the second test proved AA-C is still one of the best 13s around. Aussies skipper James Horwill's tears at the end of the game showed how much the series meant to the home nation (or how nervous he was about the IRB possibly banning him). Proof, if you needed it, that the Lions still means a great deal to all involved.

The third test could have been remembered for the wrong reasons. IF the Lions had lost, all Gatland would've heard was that dropping BOD was the reason. Initially I might have agreed. However, he trusted Jonathan Davies to continue his great form from the previous Tests and earlier in the Tour and Jamie Roberts to be back to his destructive best. They were and with the metronomic kicking boot of Leigh Halfpenny and creativity of Jonny Sexton, Gatland's choices were fully vindicated. 4 good tries were run in by the tourists, including one for classic Lions 'bolter' Alex Corbisiero, and they waltzed away to the 'holy grail' of legendary Lions status.

A few things I've taken from this series:
▪there is life after BOD and Paul O'Connell for the Lions
▪the Lions brand is as strong as ever
▪I was wrong about Sam Warburton - he is getting back to his best and showed what a great leader he is becoming
▪no-one should concede kickable penalties against Wales - Halfpenny rarely misses

Robbie Deans has now lost his job as Aussie coach and been replaced by Ewen McKenzie of the Queensland Reds. I'm sure this will lead to Quade Cooper coming back at 10 - let's be honest, O'Connor was missing for large parts of the Tests. He might not even get in on the wing if Folau and Tomane continue as they are. An Aussie backline of Genia, Cooper, Barnes, AA-C, Folau, Timane & Beale might even worry the All Blacks (briefly!)

Thanks for sticking with these blogs f you have, I have greatly enjoyed writing them.

Monday, 17 June 2013


What would I give to be a pro rugby player? If only for a chance to tour with the Lions. So here it is, another instalment, that no-one is probably reading, on what has been an interesting Tour so far. A few surprises this week, after the Tahs game, especially with the call up of Shane Williams, but this game gave another indication of how they are building.

Some excellent performances here, Simon Zebo especially looked liked being the classic Lions 'bolter' and with some luck with injuries to others, will start the first Test. Jonathan Davies also put his hand up for selection. His hands, running lines and defence were superb. Admittedly I think he thrives because he plays alongside Jamie Roberts, who sadly now looks like he won't recreate his ourstanding 2009 tour centre partnership with BOD, due to an injury picked up in this game. Tom Croft as well ran in a great try, I think Croft coming from the bench when the game is breaking up and the Aussies tiring, is a cracking option for Gatland.

Leigh Halfpenny's record haul of 30 points also shows he must start. I rate Rob Kearney and as a Scottish fan am thrilled at how Stuart Hogg is playing, but the Welshman's ability under the high ball, his defence and his 100% goalkicking make him nailed on. Paul O'Connell as well highlighted his place in the Test side is nearly secured. His handling, lineout work and defence were excellent in this game. Also, Sam Warburton is starting to fire again at the breakdown, his forte, but I am still not sure, purely on form, he is the starting 7 - that for me is still Justin Tipuric.

So some great signs for the Lions. They were made to work hard, but I don't think 47-17 flattered them. The Tahs were a huge physical test and Drew Mitchell, who, but for two serious leg breaks in two years, could still be an Aussie starter, posed some great tests for the tourists. I'm still a little concerned defensively. The first Waratahs try was full of the ingenuity the Aussies will conjure. A smart cross-field kick, strong running, great offload, good finish. George North and Tommy Bowe can't get fit soon enough. Their height in defence will help guard against this ploy, if nothing else. Also the gainline was broken too easily on occasion, I think Andy Farrell will be working them extra hard this week!

I'm interested to see how Rory Best gets on vs the Brumbies tomorrow, as I believe, with a good game, he could put himself in contention for that first Test. He should never have been left out of the original squad, but I'm sure he will prove that in the Aussie capital.

My Test 15 will come after the Brumbies game, but I don't think any of the new faces who have joined the Tour will make it even to the bench. Gatland asked for backline versatility to cover the injury worries he had with his 10s, Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton. Instead of calling on the most versatile and exciting 10/12 in the northern hemisphere, James Hook, he called for Billy Twelvetrees. A big, ball carrying 12, who occasionally plays 10. Not massively versatile or different to his current options. Christian Wade is an exciting winger, but again, I don't think he is good enough, yet, defensively, to push for a Test place, even with the injuries. Then there's Shane Williams. Arguably the best northern hemisphere winger for the past decade, BUT retired from international rugby and currently plying his trade in Japanese club rugby. There is no doubt he is just filling in for one game. At least I hope that's the case!

The excitement starts to build now. I have the honour of being Best Man on the day of the first Test, but I'll still find time to watch it! Come on the Lions!!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Western Force, Queensland Reds & Combined Country

So having seen off a fairly disappointing Barbarians side, the Tour moved to the Western coast of Australia for the first 'proper' game. However, it is a shame that the opposition did not feel the game was as important. A weakened Force side, with one eye on their game with the Waratahs, made this a little bit of a non-event. However, as the saying goes, you have to beat what is in front of you. The Lions did that here with aplomb.

In the plus category, there were some excellent performances. George North, Tommy Bowe and Jonny Sexton were outstanding. I think North will start in the first Test. So would Bowe, had injury not hit in the Reds game.

There were other strong performances in the Force game. Sean O'Brien put huge pressure on Warburton, he is immense in his ball carrying and with Tipuric going so well against the Ba-bas, I still feel, as mentioned in the first blog, Warburton doesn't deserve to start, on form. Yes, Warburton did well in the Reds game, but should've scored a try in that game. He didn't and frankly looked off the pace. Is that what you want from your skipper? Surely O'Driscoll, who looks as strong as ever, was a better choice for captain.

Injury worries from this game obviously Cian Healey, however his sighting for biting, likely would've ruled him out of the first Test, if not the rest of the Tour. It is sad because I feel he was probably a starter as well. It opens the door for Mako Vunipola, who has taken me a little bit by surprise. His carrying is brilliant and with Gethin Jenkins now on his way home, he might well have put his name on the Test sheet. Only in pencil though.

In the minus category here: defensive structures. One of the only surprises Warren Gatland sprung was not picking Shaun Edwards as his defensive coordinator. The Lions have looked great going forward, but having looked occasionally vulnerable in defence. Will Genia and co must be licking their lips at exploiting those more readily than the club sides have. And the scrums. A few have been far from impressive; maybe too much has been made of the fact the Aussies can't scrum, I'm sure they don't listen to it, they may get a shock if they are!

Next up the Reds, the first meaningful competition for the Lions. Here most eyes were on one man - Quade Cooper. I love a maverick and he is exactly that. His ability to open a game with his kicking from hand and deft little passes make him a quality 10, but obviously Robbie Deans doesn't feel the same. He still can't tackle, but did excellently to deny Owen Farrell a try, however I feel it should've been finished off. I feel 22-12 flattered a little, but there were some excellent performances again. Tommy Bowe, as mentioned earlier looked back to his best, but a broken hand looks like it will rule him out of at least the first Test.

I feel this game did highlight something else. The lack of choices at 10. All 3 options ended up on the field here, risking injury. I feel Sexton will start in the Tests, but a settling influence on Tour, like Toby Flood, would've been my choice in the Tests. As mentioned earlier, there were some fitness concerns in this game. Warburton, I promise you I rate him, and Matt Stevens were struggling here. Compare that to the way Richie Gray, for example, has played two games in a row, it is a concern.

Again though there were a few defensive issues. However, that takes nothing away from two superb tries from the Reds. It was a good wake up call for the Lions, as opportunistic scores like these will just what Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor especially, will look to take.

Richie Gray, Stuart Hogg and Jonny Sexton again were excellent. I feel two of the three will be Test starters. Hogg misses out because Leigh Halfpenny's ability under the high ball and kicking from the tee make him a more secure starter.

The final game in this section, gets very little coverage. As mentioned earlier, I feel this game highlights the weakness in not picking an old head at 10. With Farrell and Sexton slightly injured, Stuart Hogg started and did ok. You can't take to much from this game. 38-0 at half time, versus a team made up of club players and trainee bricklayers, didn't really provide any issues for the Lions, possibly other than a little complacency. However, Alex Cuthbert and George North proved what excellent finishers they are and Alex Corbisiero looked good having arrived from Argentina. Again Sean O'Brien proved why he must start. Destructive in his running. I think he, Tipuric and Heaslip would make up my Lions back row. However, I don't think it will be.

As I've said, I don't see really what the Lions can take from this last game. However, it is great to see some of the combinations coming together. O'Driscoll and Roberts look great in the centres, Mike Phillips and Jonny Sexton look to have a great understanding as well. In South Africa, the midweek games offered a little bit more in the way of competitive rugby, but I'm sure there will be every effort made in training to keep the squad focused on claiming a series win. The Waratahs next and then the first test. I think it is building quite nicely!

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Ba-bas

I love the Lions. It truly encapsulates everything I love about being a rugby player: playing hard and touring. However I have some mis-givings about this years tour. I am not a professional rugby player, but I am a proud rugby player and fan. These are just a few views of mine and they will continue during the Tour.

Firstly, the squad. Yes, Warren Gatland was the right choice as head coach. Yes, he was always going to show a slight bias towards the Welsh, but I think he has gone for too many Welsh players. The main point of contention for me is the captaincy. Surely you should pick a guy who is guaranteed to start the Tests and actually enjoys being a leader. I am not sure Sam Warburton is either of those. There is no doubt he is an outstanding openside, but currently, I feel, not as good as Justin Tipuric or Chris Robshaw. Therefore picking him as captain has hamstrung Gatland a little. Tipuric was outstanding against the Ba-bas, hence making the situation more difficult. I believe the captaincy should have gone to either Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell. Proven leaders, guaranteed Test starters, inspirational men, just what is needed in a country (Australia) that loves nothing more than beating the Brits. Also, Dan Lydiate, although an outstanding player, should not be on tour. If I was Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood or Kelly Brown, I'd be scratching my head as to what more I could've done to go on tour. Welsh bias.

Secondly, the effect playing for the Lions seems to have. Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips have been poor by their high standards, but in the Lions shirt, something changes. The pride in playing for this team seems to lift their game to an incredible level and almost makes them unstoppable by the opposition. It is brilliant to see and hopefully they will continue it to Oz.

Thirdly, attitudes. Owen Farrell's was so poor in getting Schalk Brits, his club teammate, sin binned. Yes, we all love to wind the opposition up, but then laughing and applauding the yellow card!? GROW UP. I, even as a proud Scotland rugby fan, rate Farrell pretty highly, but he is temperamental and in the Tests will be punished by James O'Connor from the tee, should he give kickable penalties away. Contrast that to how Jonny Sexton has grown up since his childish screaming at Ronan O'Gara a few years ago, to an accomplished international quality fly half. Maybe there is hope for Farrell.

So who would I pick for the first test at the moment, purely on the evidence of this game? Difficult as what was nothing more, really, than a commercial exercise by HSBC, but a good (ish) run out. Richie Gray and Stuart Hogg might be pushing for a Test bench place, not sure they will start. Jamie Roberts, Justin Tipuric, O'Connell, Phillips and Adam Jones, provided they stay fit, must start.

As ever all feedback welcome.