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!

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