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British And Irish Lions Tour 2013 Summary

July 4, 2013

The Lions

For me there is one sporting event that trumps all the others. Bigger than the Olympics, bigger than any World Cup. The Lions. To me, the Lions sums up everything that’s great about rugby, everything great about sport. The four home nations of rugby coming together without thought of prize money or building future teams to take on the most dominant rugby teams on the planet. It only happens once every four years, and for the countries toured, once in only twelve years. It brings all the tradition of amateur rugby together with the combined ethos of different professional cultures. Playing a winning part in a Lions tour, no matter which side you’re on, can define careers, and cement legacies. And for the British, the fact that victory is such a rarity makes these opportunities all the more special.

As I write all this we are waiting the third and final Test against Australia. The series is poetically tied at 1 game apiece; which either sets the stage for a dramatic victory, or devastating loss. There are 12 years of anticipation to get back at the Aussies after a heartbreaking defeat in 2001. There are 4 years of desire since many of the current players just lost out in an epic series in South Africa. And crucially there are 16 years of hurt since The Lions last tasted series glory.

Realistically there have been 2 years of very specific planning. Picking the coach with the vision, the pedigree and the knowledge to get the job done. Assembling the coaching staff to enable the execution. Selecting a crop of players to deal with every outcome and make a successful tour, and picking one among them to be the iconic leader.

Right until the Test series began I was smugly optimistic about our chances. In my opinion just about everything had been pulled off correctly. I am probably in a minority, however. There has been criticism since day one.

The choice for Warren Gatland to be the head coach seemed a no brainer. He has coaching pedigree going back to previous Lions tours, Premiership and Heineken Cups, Southern Hemisphere trophies and Grand Slams. He has crucially got experience coaching in three of the home nations as well as an understanding of the Southern Hemisphere style.

Selection

The next step for the Lions was the announcement of the squad and captain. This was an absurdly difficult choice this year. There is strength in depth in every position far exceeding requirements. There were bound to be some notable omissions, and perhaps less room than before for bolters. The fan in me was disappointed not to see players like Christian Wade or even Billy Vunipola get a chance. I think a lot of people were shocked not to see Chris Robshaw on the plane given his outstanding season. However, I thought this was a masterstroke (without meaning to sound too cruel.) Robshaw had visibly burnt out long before the end of the season. And besides, there is a ludicrous strength in depth in the back row, and Robshaw’s style does not lend itself to a win down under. He is simply not dynamic enough or effective over the ball to realistically displace out and out sevens such as Justin Tipuric or Sam Warburton. I think the most unfortunate player not to tour is actually Joe Launchbury, who has burst on the scene in the fashion of a future Lions icon. Maybe this year was one to soon, but to see him develop on this tour would have been pleasing. And aside from him; James Hook. With the contentious call to only tour with two 10s, a utility player with Test experience in such a key role could have been extremely handy.

The main talking point post announcement was the Captaincy debate. For me, there was only really one contender. Sam Warburton is the type of character to provoke a big performance. He has shown this in his young, yet successful Wales career. He has overcome adversity since the World Cup with admirable professionalism and has been integral in winning two six nations in a row. This aside, he is arguably the best active openside flanker in world rugby. He is a player who was likely to play 80 minutes in all three tests. The other two names in the hat certainly had the credentials. Paul O’Connell was the captain on the previous Lions tour. He is an inspirational figure and a genuine leader. However, we must not forget that he had been injured for a lengthy period leading up to selection. Even his place on tour was up in the air at one stage. His captaincy argument was staked in the quarter final Heineken Cup for Munster against pre match favourites Harlequins. Despite a masterful line out performance and athleticism to match any stage of his career; was one big performance really enough to secure such a competitive position? Players like Alun Wyn Jones, Geoff Parling, Ian Evans were all performing and Richie Gray was overdue to hit his considerable stride. Taking into consideration his age, his guaranteed 80 minute berth was not secure. The same argument is in place for the other captain elect, Brian O’Driscoll. His age and position of competition against standouts like Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Davies is enough to throw a captaincy appointment into doubt.

There is more to being a Lions captain than inspiration factor alone. In all likelihood O’Driscoll and O’Connell would play huge roles in the Test matches. Their experience would be invaluable, and to put them in place to support Sam Warburton could only be a positive. They didn’t need the title of captain to have considerable influence on the tour and on the pitch.

Preliminary games

There are problems with the format of the professional Lions tour which made these games a minefield for any coach. There are fewer games than there once were on tour, and this means there is little time to establish combinations of players and front runners for the Test match. Enough players need to get enough of a run out, but certain players need time to gel together; all whilst avoiding injury. Another issue that was thrown up this tour was that the games leading towards the Test were simply not of a high enough standard. The team put forth by the Western Force showed utter disregard, and disrespect, to the Lions. They were keeping players back for a domestic competition in which they have no aspirations. It diminishes the idea of a touring side. I thought Gatland managed his selection fairly well throughout and by the time the first Test loomed, I think the squad was starting to pick itself in many areas. the backline certainly seemed unanimous.

Phillips had played extremely well with Roberts and O’Driscoll both cruising to a starting place, although with Jonathan Davies had been arguably the slight standout centre on form. George North and Leigh Halfpenny would make a world XV by this stage and Johnny Sexton had been hammered on for months. Tommy Bowe had made a huge impression on tour and probably eked in ahead of the try machine Alex Cuthbert.

The loss of Cian Healy early on was a major blow but it gave Mako Vunipola plenty of game time to show that he was the best front row in open play and would thrive as the super sub. A strong scrummager however would have to be favoured to start and Corbisiero being back from injury is as strong as they come. Hibbard and Youngs both had the same arguments for and against at hooker. Both powerful carriers, but neither nailing their throws. This was the only real concern from the performances thus far, but something that the Lions camp had assured would be sorted. Adam Jones is possibly the premiere scrummaging rugby player of this generation and cannot be left out of any side. Two iconic Celtic locks were in undeniable form in Wyn Jones and O’Connell. Warburton was always going to start, and Tom Croft, like several others, would make a dream team right now. At number 8 you couldn’t really go wrong with either Heaslip or Faletau. With Croft’s wide running game I would have favoured Faletau close quarter gain line work, but Heaslip gets the nod this time.

These players on paper bring a dominant set piece with O’Connell’s and Croft’s lineout ability, and the front rows power. It brings dynamism and breakdown expertise in the loose forwards, as well as the second row. The backline looking sumptuous with the touch and finesse of the Irish magicians with the brutal, direct physicality of the Welsh. Robert’s devastating running lines would be sure to open holes for Bowe running inside lines off Sexton, Phillips hitting the fringes on second or third phase, or Sexton running his trademark loop to spread wide to the pace and power of North. It had worked this way so far. Each game we had shown a tempo and ferocity that the Australian teams could not cope with. Couple this with the phenomenal metronomic goal kicking of Leigh Halfpenny, and I could not see a way for Australia to compete. One of the most pleasing aspects for me was that when we rung in the changes after an hour we simply took the game away from the opposition. This Lions tour has the greatest strength in depth I have seen, and that is an area where the Aussies, more so than the other southern giants, could struggle.

The loss against the Brumbies was a wake up call. It was the final match before the series really began, and always a potential banana skin with the Test squad members largely rested. Gatland also seemed to wait too long to bring the subs on to make the difference. This would not be a mistake he would make against the Wallabies.

The Wallabies

One of the reasons for my higher than usual level of confidence was the relative disarray of the Australian camp. Robbie Deans had caused discord to the extent of superstar Quade Cooper not being involved. He is a mercurial genius, but potential weak link as well. One could excuse his omission if there were a tried and tested alternative. James O’Connor is not this. He is a great ball player, a great runner, but he cannot control a game like Sexton surely would. He doesn’t have the big game experience at fly half to call the plays when it matters the most and this would be further exposed by playing inside a debutant centre in Leali’ifano. Adam Ashley-Cooper suddenly becomes very important, and it’s hard to see a replacement outside centre should he get injured. Throw in the doubts surrounding Kurtley Beale, and the Israel Folau debate, and the Aussie backline looks like a miss-match of hyper talented, but totally untested individuals. Their backs scream danger but to an experienced outfit like the Lions would put together, opportunity must also scream out. The great equaliser of course comes in the form of the sublime Will Genia. Surely the best player in the world right now, there are not enough superlatives to accredit this man.

The Wallabies pack looks fairly predictable, however. They will be fielding their most experienced front row ever and will not be the weakness some northern hemisphere fans might anticipate. Horwill will lead them and Hooper will likely start as a turnover merchant. They have a few options to combine with Horwill at Lock, and with the injury to Higginbotham on the blindside a call up for Brumbies standout Ben Mowen looks favourable. Another injury to George Smith takes away his claim for a place. I doubt whether Deans would have included him anyway, but it is reassuring to me that a legend in the current form he is in will not feature.

All in all, if the Aussies can get parity at the scrum, quick ball from the breakdown, then Genia can make things happen with their electric backs. But when I picture it in my head, our forwards have the nous, the physicality and the intensity to upset the Aussies at the key area of the breakdown. If we can get Genia going backwards with Phillips on top of him, they do not have the backline to bail him out. I also expect a few crash balls from Roberts and North through the twelve channel to welcome Mr. Leali’ifano to international rugby. Perhaps a few cross field kicks behind a stranded Israel Folau and Croft turning ball at the lineout. Unlike four years ago the driving game is surely in our favour and Halfpenny cannot miss a kick right now. It becomes rather hard to envisage that side losing.

The First Test

There are a couple of things I associate with Lions Test performances. First of all, in the opening 20 minutes we blitz. It happens in almost every Test we play. The players are palpably fired up for the biggest match of their careers and despite almost always being underdogs, we take it to the opposition. The next thing is that we always seem to play above ourselves. The Lions coming together usually creates a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. The international talent on display seems to become exaggerated for this one off occasion. Neither of these things happened in the first Test against Australia.

I’d say that on paper the Lions were as heavily favourited as they could ever have been. And it seemed to make us nervy. The unforced error count was despicably high and the accuracy for much of the game was nonexistent. There were plenty of good performances; showings that would have gone down as passable for a six nations game; but I expected (and justifiably so) more. We didn’t put many phases together when we had possession, the tactical kicking side from both half backs was poor and vitally, we seemed to be losing the collisions. Our line out ball was consistent, though unadventurous. I’m not sure we got clean ball off the tail once, which is a key part of Mike Phillips’s running game. Speaking of Phillips, he was caught in possession several times and seemed to be on a different wavelength than the rest of the team. His box kicking was appalling and against a side like the Aussies that can be costly. I thought Sexton had some nice touches. A few tidy chips into space could have ignited things; but it wasn’t consistent and he wasn’t the running or distributing threat we needed him to be. I think the biggest blow to the Lions came in the form off the loss of Jamie Roberts before the Test. He provides the go forward, the spear head of everything Lions had going for them and with two ball playing centres the balance wasn’t there. Despite playing out of position I expected more from Davies at 12, but his lack of experience told throughout the game. Even the excellent Cuthbert try wasn’t as slick as the Aussies made it seem. With a flanker in the centre and an over chasing 10 the move came off as planned but it still didn’t appear indefensible as would a strike move from, say, a Leinster back line.

You can’t talk about the first Test without discussing the refereeing. I’m not one to complain about refs particularly, but I have rarely seen a worse match of rugby Union officiating. Union dictates that there should be a fair competition for the ball at the breakdown. Under Chris Pollock this was impossible. I think there was one clean turnover from the ground all game, and in a match that featured the likes of Sam Warburton, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Tom Croft, Michael Hooper, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dan Cole off the bench, that is an indictment of the way the breakdown was controlled. It was the number of penalties that went begging as much as the ones he blew up and got wrong. This wasn’t “Southern Hemisphere” refereeing, it was bad refereeing. I imagine his style frustrated the Wallabies as much as it did us.

The kicking of Leigh Halfpenny and the wonder try from George North are the only two real positives to come from this match. And the performance of Tom Youngs who I thought should have been man of the match. He seemed to play an almost Dan Lydiate role of chopping people down behind the gain line, and his throwing was acceptable. It looked like the Lions were still keeping a lot of lineout options under wraps early on in the series; there was very little footwork and few variations from the front ball option. Time will tell. Worryingly, the introduction of the bench seemed to weaken our already edgy looking performance. It should be one of our biggest weapons, but simply wasn’t.

Australia suffered an extraordinary number of backline injuries early on, but this seemed to make them stronger. Kurtley Beale certainly made his footwork present after Barnes’ injury and barring a slip and some other poor goal kicking, Australia could have taken the first Test. I was almost in too much shock after the game to feel relieved. I couldn’t fathom how we had played so badly. Gats would have a real decision when it came to the second Test. Do you keep the structure much the same? Or do you bring in players in form? I thought his selection was spot on for this game, but the players didn’t show it. Do you trust that they can come back and inevitably play better, or pick a fresh start? I was just hoping that Jamie Roberts would be fit again, and that Corbisiero’s calf was nothing to worry about.

Second Test

I was wrong on both counts. Mako Vunipola gets a start. I thought a like for like change should be brought in, Ryan Grant perhaps? However, I appreciate the faith shown to Vunipola after his really outstanding showings so far on the tour. Unfortunately Paul O’Connell will also miss out so Geoff Parling fills in. I have been very impressed with Parling coming off the bench, looking hungry to make an impact, and his presence at the lineout can only bolster Leicester team mate Youngs. His leadership in the locker room after the Brumbies disappointment screamed out future England captain in my eyes. Lydiate is given a start which I like. He has been solid on tour, playing the most minutes of any back row, and his balance of enforcing tackler with Warburton over the ball is a proven combination. Also I think it was a tactical move to have him a foil to Israel Folau. Chop the big man down at source when he inevitably comes looking for close in work off his wing after last week’s running display.

Gatland shows some intriguing enterprise with picking in form Ben Youngs. Had I been the coach under this pressure it would have been easy to stick with Phillips, but he really did have a shocker, and Ben Youngs is rewarded. The rest of the backline stays mostly the same. The only thought would have been Manu at 12, but a week on I expected better cohesion and more composure within the centres. Bowe swaps in for Cuthbert. Apart from his try, he didn’t really add much, and Bowe would have started without a freak hand injury.

I was nervous about our selection. I think Gatland proved people wrong that he will be picking a solid Welsh contingent in 50:50 calls. Leaving out the likes of Hibbard, Ian Evans and Faletau, and dropping Cuthbert despite scoring to me proves what seemed obvious all along: that this is the Lions and has nothing to do with home nationality. But I feared for the scrum with the introduction of Mako and Parling who isn’t perhaps the engine that O’Connell is from behind. These fears were confirmed early on by the referee’s whistle. The returning Christian Leali’ifano as kicker also builds my concern with his consummate accuracy. I thought it was a mistake for Deans to stick with O’Connor at 10. Kurtley Beale seemed ready to step up, and I think he is more of a vocal presence and play maker than JOC. A straight swap to fullback takes advantage of O’Connor’s undoubted talent with ball in hand. Even a consideration of Jesse Mogg at fullback, Beale at 10 and O’Connor at his more comfortable inside centre role. Also I had anticipated the introduction of George Smith who has been in terrific form and can change a game on his own. But Robbie Deans sticks with his back row.

Gatland took another risk with picking two back rows on the bench with no lock. Croft can theoretically cover there but it wouldn’t be ideal. O’Brien for me is crucial to the bench as he can come on anywhere and make an impact. I think O’Brien is a 6 by trade, a 7 by circumstance but an 8 by nature. With Heaslip at 8 for club and country, and Ferris an excellent Irish blindside, O’Brien’s international career has mostly been at 7 which I think is his least suited.

Overall I’d say the second Test was worse than the first. Not just because we lost, because we should have arguably lost the first as well. I wanted and expected such an improvement after the scare from the previous week, but it just didn’t happen. The game management was again poor. We had no penetration. Our breakdown work was better with Joubert on the whistle, and Warburton had an inspired performance tackling and carrying and turnover after turnover, but the backs lacked any direction or cohesion or flare. Sexton seems to be uncharacteristically deep, and we don’t have the power in the centres to compensate. Roberts really does become the most important man on tour at this stage, because someone needs to inject something. Australia played better with the ball in hand and put more phases together, and disrupted the set piece. A little more adventure at the lineout was punished with steals even until the final minutes which cost us so much field position. Our defence was really very solid until Warburton went off. It seemed inevitable that someone in green and gold would cross the whitewash after this.

In the end it came down to penalty kicking and Halfpenny’s range seemed to desert him, though he is the last man I blame for this loss. I don’t really know who is to blame. Youngs played within himself and was slow to distribute, and his kicking game, though better than Phillips’ still left much to be desired. I start to wonder things like “should we pick a third different starting scrum half in as many games?”. “Should we drop Johnny Sexton? The first name on everyone’s team sheet for about a year?” Some things are clear: we must pick our strongest scrum. No choice. With Roberts coming back I think Phillips should and will get back in to place despite Conor Murray’s very positive impact off the bench. With Youngs playing well at hooker, but missing his crucial throws, do we bring in Hibbard for scrummaging and simply hope he hits his arrows? Youngs does have the impact of a useful bench player, much like Mako. And most important of all: who now fills the shoes of Warburton? So much debate before and after the captains announcement but with two Tests behind us it is clear he was the right choice. The back row seems hugely weakened without him there no matter what option and combination we throw in. It seems that once again the Lions will have gone the whole tour without fielding their strongest outfit once. I just hope the reintroduction of Roberts will outweigh the negatives come July 6th.

Third Test Preview…

The announcement of the third Test side has been probably the most contentious aspect of Warren Gatland’s tenure. I will give my opinion on the logic of some of his decisions before coming to conclusions.

First of all Gatland has come under fire for bias. The first thing I would like to do is dispel that notion. It’s ridiculous. Gatland has toured with the Lions before. He has spent most of his coaching life in Britain and fully understand what the Lions means to the rugby world. The implication of his Welsh bias being due to his job security is laughable. Clearly, his position in Wales was secure long before the Lions tour started. He has coached a young, inexperienced side to be serious dark horses at the 2011 World Cup, a grand slam, and retained six nations crown. Let’s not forget that Wales’ losses to Australia last season came at a time of transition in Welsh rugby and notably, Warren Gatland was absent for the whole series. The recent six nations was case in point of the development and rediscovery of the Welsh potential. They have become a very different side to the one that lost to Australia with the final kick of the games.

Willie Jon McBride said it best when he said that they are not “Welsh players”. Once you are on the tour there is no Welsh, or Irish, or Scottish; you are all Lions. And the ethos of the Lions is combining the strengths of each nation to deliver the best combinations. This has been done throughout the tour. A particular Welsh flavour is merely a by product of the relative Welsh domination in recent years. An improving England side have yet to find any consistent flare. An experienced Irish side struggled to produce cutting edge week in and week out. The Welsh, whilst by no means being the finished article, are ahead by all accounts. The strongest nation at this point in time has provided the best coach and the best players.

Taking all this into account, for the first two Test selections, Gatland has proved his doubters wrong that he would pick up to 13 Welshmen. In very tight calls he has shown willingness to go the other way. Heaslip over Faletau. Youngs over Hibbard. Parling over Evans. Bowe over Cuthbert. And so far his faith in these players has not been rewarded by the collective. These players, whilst not individually playing badly have been parts of a lacklustre outfit. For the third Test something needed to be changed in a hurry and this has meant the introduction of players unlucky to miss out on original selection. At least Gatland is using what’s at his disposal rather than stubbornly ignoring warning signs to change. (A la Robbie Deans).

Then there is the most contentious call of all: the dropping of O’Driscoll. I said I would address the logic first of all. Jonathan Davies has been the form centre on tour when playing in position. Jamie Roberts is the most important player on the pitch for this Lions team and would therefore have to unseat one of the misfiring centres. His partnership with Davies has garnered great success in the red of Wales, so now they have the chance in the red of the Lions.

When I first saw this choice I wasn’t as outraged as most of the pundits seem to be, but the more I have reflected, it can only be an error. Cometh the hour cometh the man. The Lions decider is about more than footwork, handling, pace and power. Lions is where legends are born and legacies cemented. Brain O’Driscoll is already a legend, but his Lions legacy will always have an asterisk of failure. He is one of the rugby immortals like McBride, like McGeechan, like Johnson. There could be no more personification of British desire to inspire a team and to unsettle the Aussies than Drico. You cannot play a rugby game on paper, and Drico is the sort of talisman that proves time and time again what this means. His non-inclusion is a no-win call for Gatland.

Final Thoughts

Before the second Test had finished I had been impressed with the Lions. We had dispatched the lesser teams with a professional efficiency, and played attractive, ruthless rugby. The simple up the jumper rugby dubbed “Warrenball” was really unfounded. We have used the size and strength of our runners to our considerable advantage but created aside from that. Hard, direct running does not equate to boring rugby and the over presumption of this tactic is a shame to label to this tour. Many cases have gone against size with Mako Vunipola making a test side, Parling going over Evans or Gray, Youngs making the second Test ahead of the like for like physicality of Conor Murray. Subtlety was the choice for Gatland in the centre over the brutality of Tuilagi. And it hasn’t worked. How then can we criticise him for going towards the simplistic strength of this squad? Where Gatland has gone away from size and battering rams, he has not been rewarded. Where he has then been forced to revert he has been met with criticism. I believe he has picked a side to win a single test match against specific opposition. At this stage that is all that matters. Individual performances will stand out in the memory, in particular George North. But this Lions tour will not be remembered for classic rugby and x factor excitement many have come to expect. This will be remembered for tension. For unforced errors, for nervy endings; but I do not think this is the fault of the coach. For whatever reason, the players so far have not nearly reached the heights rightly expected of them. Risks have been taken for the final, deciding Test, and it will be up to those players to swing the result. The third Test in South Africa 2009 saw us field arguably our weakest Test XV and yet they dispatched the world champions. If on paper this team looks to be weakened, in reality it counts for nothing. This game will be won on nerve and composure. As well as desire and intensity. I guess that Warren Gatland’s reputation lies on the shoulders of 23 men in red jerseys on Saturday. I don’t think this should be the case. The 2013 Lions are in need of a big performance, and I think rugby history deserves to remember them as winners.

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