Eyes On: Hurricanes v British and Irish Lions

Tuesday saw the Lions play their last midweek game of the tour against last year’s Super Rugby Champions, the Hurricanes. Despite the ‘Canes boasting a dangerous back line, it was the Lions who came out all guns blazing and led at half time 7-23. However in an exciting second half the ‘Canes started to get more control and they took full advantage of Iain Henderson’s yellow card to draw level at 31-31. Despite all attempts to snatch a late winner, the Lions were unable to do so, with Dan Biggar’s long drop goal attempt falling short.

For many of these Lions, this will have been their last rugby of the season, as only the 2nd and 3rd Tests against the All Blacks now remain. However after the Lions’ loss in the 1st Test some of these players may be hoping to have done enough to earn a call-up to the Test 23.

As we look back on one of the more exciting games of the tour, here are my thoughts on the latest match:

 

Devalue the shirt or devalue the player?

When Warren Gatland announced that 4 Welshmen and 2 Scots would be joining the tour midway through, there was widespread criticism from both pundits and fans. I was very much against the call-ups, mainly because I agreed with the sentiment that most of the players were only there because they were geographically close, not because they were the best players available. However I was surprised to see them barely used against the Chiefs last week and was angry to see the way they were used – or not as the case was – in this game.

Gatland has admitted in an interview that the backlash from calling up the ‘Geographic 6’ caused him to re-think his strategy and it was decided that they would only be used as replacements when absolutely necessary (HIAs, injuries etc.). This to me is absolutely ridiculous as he has pulled these players away from their national teams and then basically decided that they will not be used except as a last resort. Over the last 2 midweek games, we have seen the 6 players used for a grand total of approximately 15 minutes, with Alan Dell covering Joe Marler’s yellow card against the Chiefs and Finn Russell making a cameo while Dan Biggar underwent possibly the fastest HIA I have ever seen! In this game, Joe Marler appeared to carrying an injury in the second half, but was still kept on when Dell was ready and waiting on the bench. What makes it even worse is that judging by an interview with CJ Stander, the starting players were not even aware that the subs were only there for emergencies, which by the way they played the game does not surprise me.

Right from the start, the Lions played a very high-tempo game, with Dan Biggar taking his place kicks as quickly as he felt comfortable doing and also choosing to surprise the ‘Canes with a quick tap penalty on halfway after shaping for a kick to touch. The New Zealand commentary suggested that this would be to allow the players the maximum amount of time to show their abilities to the coaches ahead of the Tests, however I also feel that it possibly caught the ‘Canes out initially. However after the break, the Hurricanes started to get more comfortable and upped the tempo even further. Let’s not forget, the tourists have just completed a long season, whereas the ‘Canes are still in the middle of theirs so would likely be fresher. The Lions have also been playing 2 games a week for the past month, and even squad rotation can only help combat fatigue so much in those cases. As the game went on, Dan Biggar must have begun to feel like he had a target painted on him, as the ‘Canes took every opportunity to send Ngani Laumape crashing down the 10 channel and Biggar continually put his body on the line. To ask him to play 76 minutes under those circumstances and then try to kick a 40m+ drop goal with the final play of the game is madness. Pretty much the entire team were out on their feet and yet the substitutions were limited to Leigh Halfpenny (1st half for the injured Robbie Henshaw) and George Kruis (54th minute for Courtney Lawes). As if they weren’t fatigued enough they then had to deal with being a man down between the 65th and 75th minute. The Hurricanes ran them ragged in those 10 minutes, scoring 14 points. There is no way to know for certain, but I would have expected the Lions to hold on had they not been so fatigued.

Once the ‘Geographic 6’ were out there, they should have been used the same as any squad member. I may not have liked Gatland’s decision, but I would have respected him for sticking to his guns.

Earning another game

Though I don’t expect drastic changes to be made to the Test 23, I feel that there were a few places on the bench up for grabs if someone could put in a good enough performance against the ‘Canes, namely at second row and the 23 shirt.

Both Henderson and Courtney Lawes had strong games on Tuesday, with Henderson especially influential in the loose with a couple of strong runs and some deft hands to put George North over for his try. While his yellow card at such a crucial time proved decisive and may count against him, I feel that he was not helped by the actions of Jonathan Joseph, who for some unknown reason decided to lift Jordie Barrett’s second leg as Henderson was cleaning him out, meaning that he lost all balance. I don’t think Henderson will be involved on Saturday, however I would not be overly surprised if he makes it into the 23 for the final Test. The removal of Lawes so early in the second half suggests to me that he will play some role in the Test, which I feel is a good call as he will not allow the All Blacks to have their own way at contact to the same degree as they did in the last Test.

In my last prediction of the 23, I named Jonathan Joseph on the bench, but I felt that his performance against the Hurricanes was anonymous at best, if not poor. Too often he tried (and failed) to ship the ball on without controlling it, which brought an early end to some promising attacks. I also never got the sense that he brought much to the defence. Maybe I’m being harsh on the Bath centre, but the only moment where I remember him impressing was his kick through that almost put North over for a try. I had Joseph’s versatility (he could get away with covering the wing if needed) getting him the 23 shirt, however I feel that other versatile players proved themselves more worthy in this game.

Probably one of the most impressive players on the pitch for the tourists, I think Jack Nowell has really bounced back from the criticism he received early in the tour. While he didn’t get on the score sheet, there were a number of times that he was able to put the Lions on the front foot with a mini-break and his strength and elusiveness won the Lions a number of penalties for high tackles. He also stopped Julian Savea in his tracks with an impressive chop tackle on about the only chance he had to run with the ball in the first half. He is by no means the biggest of wingers, but the coaches were clearly happy with his ability to deal with Savea when they moved him onto the wing after Robbie Henshaw’s injury. With a set of skills that would allow him to play wing, centre or fullback, Nowell would be a great option for the last place on the bench, however I see him missing out this weekend to George North.

This was arguably North’s best game of the tour. we haven’t seen enough of George North using his strength to beat people in internationals recently but he did so against the ‘Canes. After a decent enough start on the wing, he was moved inside midway through the opening 40 to replace the injured Robbie Henshaw. While it stopped him getting a chance to show his abilities on the wing, it may have been a blessing in disguise for him. The way that New Zealand benefited from the removal on Ben Te’o at the weekend showed to me that Sexton and Farrell should only be covering the fly half position in the Tests unless there is an emergency as they were too lightweight to avoid being dominated in the contact by Sonny Bill Williams. This game against the Hurricanes will have been a timely reminder to Warren Gatland that, though he is predominantly a winger, North can fill in at centre if required, and would be a much more physical centre like Te’o when compared to Farrell. His selection could have become even more important with the announcement that Waisake Naholo will start for he All Blacks on the wing and Laumape will come onto the bench, as they are both very physical players.

 

In terms of my selections for the Test 23, I have gone with the idea that not many changes will be made from last week’s squad, just a few minor tweaks. While I would personally keep the back row as it was, Gatland’s comments earlier int he week have led me to believe that Warburton will be recalled to the starting lineup, but I would not be surprised to see either him or O’Mahony named at 6. Alun Wyn Jones drops out after what I feel has been a poor tour for the Welshman, so Itoje starts while Lawes and North are promoted from the midweek squad. This is nothing against Leigh Halfpenny, however I just don’t feel that he is versatile or physical enough for the Lions to put ont he bench this weekend.

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Peter O’Mahony
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. George North

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? Who would you select for the Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eddie’s Forgotten Men?

With a large number of regulars unavailable for selection due to injury, suspension or being on the Lions Tour, I’m sure that many players who have been playing for the England Saxons or on the fringes of the Elite Player Squad felt that this summer’s tour to Argentina would be the perfect chance to show Eddie Jones they deserve a place in the EPS next season. I expect many of them, along with a number of fans, were surprised when Jones selected a number of young, uncapped players, many of whom were likely expecting to feature for the England U20s in Georgia this summer.

It is possible that Eddie has decided to use this tour against one of the ‘weaker’ top tier nations as a chance to blood youngsters with the pressure largely off them, as some of them could possibly be competing for a place in the 2019 World Cup Squad. Regardless of the reasoning, these players impressed against the Barbarians and in their games against the Pumas, winning all 3 games this summer, with many of the debutantes putting in great performances.

However, it does feel that there are some players who were overlooked for this squad that are young enough to still be around for the foreseeable future and also have performed well enough at club level to feel they should have been selected ahead of some of the youngsters. I will be the first to say that Eddie Jones’ record with England so far means that he has much more of an idea about who deserves selection than I do (he has stated that he has over 60 players who are competing for a spot in the EPS), so this is by no means a rant about players who should have gone or an attack on players who have been selected, but instead a look at some players who will surely be hoping that they are given a shot in the near future.

 

Dan Robson

Every time I see Dan Robson play for Wasps, a bit of me dies inside remembering how Gloucester let him leave to pursue more game time. Gloucester’s loss has certainly been to Robson’s – and Wasps’ – gain, as he has in my opinion become one of, if not the best, English scrum halves. His competition with Joe Simpson has brought out the best of both players at Wasps and with them having topped the Premiership table and come so close to winning the final, you would have expected at least one of them to be in contention for an England call-up. With Ben Youngs taking the summer off for family reasons, I felt that this would be the perfect time for Robson (who impressed for the Saxons in South Africa this time last year) to get a chance in the first team, however he instead missed out to 20-year-old Jack Maunder, who may be a good player (I haven’t seen enough of him to be able to form an opinion) but was not included in Exeter’s matchday 23 for either of their playoff games at the end of the season and barely featured against the Pumas.

After the Premiership final, James Simpson-Daniel tweeted that Robson should be in the England matchday squad “every game next season”. As a Gloucester fan, I may be biased towards our former player, but I find it hard to agree with that sentiment.

Matt Kvesic

After the season that Matt Kvesic has had, I am not surprised that he was not included in this squad. Finishing last season with the most turnovers of any Premiership player was not enough to get him into the squad so there was no way that he would feature this summer after dropping behind Lewis Ludlow and Jacob Rowan in the Gloucester pecking order. Moving to Exeter should be good for Kvesic, but he will be up against fierce competition for the 7 jersey even at club level from the impressive Don Armand, who fully deserves his international call-up.

With England missing 3 players from their back row this summer (Billy Vunipola, James Haskell and Tom Wood), Eddie Jones took the chance to blood some young talent in the form of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, who both excelled when on the pitch. Zach Mercer, who was fantastic leading the U20s in Georgia, will surely also come into consideration as another back row option (I would rate him above the Curry twins) and has the versatility to play multiple positions. I feel that the changing of the guard may have begun at 6 and 7 for England, however I do not think that Matt Kvesic will be high on Eddie’s list next season.

Danny Cipriani

Cipriani’s return to Wasps has not had the positive impact on his international career that I’m sure he was hoping for. Though he has spent some time training with England, his last cap was in August 2015 and he has not been included in Eddie Jones’ squads so far. The decision to call up Alex Lozowski – Owen Farrell’s backup at Saracens – in recent squads as a third fly half option suggests that Cipriani is not in Eddie’s immediate plans. Furthermore, having Henry Slade (recently classed as a centre but with plenty of experience as a fly half) in the squad gives Eddie Jones another option and the selection of Piers Francis (currently at the Blues but about to move to Northampton) means that things are not looking good for Cipriani, especially considering Max Malins will soon be graduating from the England U20s and will be looking to increase his playing time over the next few seasons.

Alex Goode

I really feel for Alex Goode as he has been a quality player for Saracens over the last few years. Unfortunately his style of play does not seem to match what Eddie Jones wants from a fullback, so he has been unable to make the squad despite Mike Brown’s drop in form over recent seasons (though he looked much more like his old self in the second Test against the Pumas). Further to this, Mike Haley seems to be the second choice at 15 these days for England, though even he was deemed surplus to requirements for the summer tour, so it looks like Goode will find his international chances limited while Eddie Jones is in charge.

Luther Burrell

Burrell quickly fell out of favour with Eddie Jones after a poor start to 2016’s summer tour to Australia. A strong runner, Burrell is fighting with Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi (when fit) for at best 2 places in the EPS, and when you consider the go-to England centre pairing recently has been Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph, there is no guarantee any of the 3 would make the starting lineup – though I would personally pick Te’o/an on-form Tuilagi over Joseph. Much like with Cipriani, I think Jones’ willingness to play a fly half in the centre will make it hard for the 29-year-old to add to his caps in the near future.

Christian Wade & Semesa Rokoduguni

I doubt many people are shocked to see these names on the list. Christian Wade equalled Dominic Chapman’s record for Premiership tries in a season but continues to be considered surplus to requirements by Eddie Jones. Semesa Rokoduguni has not featured for England since his Man of the Match performance against Fiji in November 2016 but is another great talent and finished joint third on the list of try scorers in the 2016/17 Premiership season with 10 tries, behind only Wade and Exeter’s James Short – who could also consider himself unlucky to not be selected.

There have been questions previously about their work rate in defence but it has appeared to me that they have both improved in this area, and they both clearly bring a lot to their club’s attacks – both are full of pace and where Wade is elusive, Rokoduguni is strong – so I am very shocked that they are continually overlooked for the EPS.

With Nowell, Watson and Daly all away on Lions duty, I was sure that these two would have been given a chance to prove themselves against Argentina, however Eddie Jones continues to pick Marland Yarde – for reasons that I can’t understand – and handed debuts to Denny Solomona and Nathan Earle, while also calling up Joe Cokanasiga from London Irish. Solomona is no surprise at all as he was one of the stars of the season on the wing and much like Wade and Rokoduguni his potential in attack outweighs his possible defensive frailties (as we saw in the 1st Test). He also needed to be capped soon in order to be eligible before World Rugby’s new residency laws take effect. I haven’t seen Cokanasiga play so can’t comment on his ability, but to play for England after making your Championship debut this season is a huge step up. Nathan Earle impressed me for the U20s a couple of years ago, but his game time has been very limited for Saracens and I was therefore surprised to see him called up. That said, I was highly impressed by his performance against the Barbarians and I hope that he gets regular time for Saracens next season in order to push for a regular England spot – though I will be happy if he misses the Gloucester games!

Another player who could easily come into the mix in the next few seasons will be Gabriel Ibitoye of Harlequins. A contender for the World Rugby Junior Player of the Year award alongside his U20s captain Zach Mercer, Ibitoye often looked a real danger in Georgia and will only improve as he gets more game time.

Eddie Jones is not the kind of man to bow down to fan pressure, so I feel that it may be a while before we see either Wade or Rokoduguni as regulars in the EPS. I think their best chance to play for England over the next few years would be to have a word with Simon Amor about featuring on the 7s circuit.

 

What do you feel about this list? Is there anyone that you think I missed? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: New Zealand v British and Irish Lions – First Test

The last couple of weeks have all been building up for this: the 3-match Test series between the Lions and New Zealand. After a mixed bag of results in the warm-up matches, Warren Gatland picked what he felt was his best 23 to face a New Zealand side missing star hooker Dane Coles but buoyed by the return of captain Kieran Read.

Despite a couple of early injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty, the All Blacks dominated the tourists on the way to a 30-15 victory, a score that was made to look better for the Lions courtesy of a try from replacement Rhys Webb with the final play of the game.

There is just 1 game against the Hurricanes, last season’s Super Rugby Champions, left before Gatland has to pick the squad for what is now the most important game of the tour: the second Test that the Lions must win in order to avoid losing the series.

With this in mind, here are my thoughts on the first Test:

 

Wasteful Lions

Writing these posts about each game of the tour has often left me feeling like a broken record. I feel like pretty much every time I’ve discussed the latest game there has been some mention of the Lions not being accurate enough in taking their chances when attacking. Unfortunately the Lions have not learned their lesson in the warm-up games and again left too many chances on the field. By my count, the Lions created 4/5 good try-scoring chances, but only scored a try from 2 of these. Jonathan Davies made a great break in the early minutes, but though Conor Murray was there in support he did not have the pace to make it to the line and the ball was too slow at the breakdown, allowing Israel Dagg the time to position himself to stop Elliot Daly scoring. Early in the second half, following another break from Davies, the ball came out to Ben Te’o just inside the All Blacks 22 with 2 men wide outside him. Rather than play the ball out, he instead decided to take advantage of the drifting defence to run inside Brodie Retallick, only to slip as he stepped back inside. The decision to go himself may have been wrong but watching it back there does appear to be a gap opening between Retallick and Anton Lienert-Brown, while there is no guarantee that Jerome Kaino and Sonny Bill Williams would not have denied the Lions had he spread it. Mere minutes later, Anthony Watson made a fantastic break only to panic and fling an offload at unsuspecting Conor Murray. They also allowed themselves to be turned over at an attacking line out on the All Blacks 5m line in between these last 2 breaks. 4 great chances to score a try… 0 points scored.

By contrast, I only remember New Zealand creating 3 clear-cut chances in the entire game, all 3 of which resulted in tries. Beauden Barrett was also 100% from the tee. The All Blacks are so clinical, they will generally put up 20-30 points per game against even the best defences. The Lions need to make sure that the points are going on the scoreboard rather than being left on the field.

Israel Dagg

When Israel Dagg was left out of New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup squad following a couple of injury-hit seasons, I thought we may be seeing the end of his All Blacks career. However, since then he has pushed hard and, though he has been unable to gain the 15 shirt back from Ben Smith, he has made a new home for himself on the right wing.

Against the Lions, he struggled a bit competing against Elliot Daly for the high ball, but the rest of his game was almost flawless. He gave the All Blacks options in attack and even swapped wings with Reiko Ioane for a period in the first half. On top of this, he was also used as an extra safety blanket when the All Blacks needed to clear their lines. If Ben Smith is unavailable for the second Test due to the head injury he suffered, I would not be surprised to see Dagg moved to 15 due to his experience as opposed to bringing in Jordie Barrett or Damian McKenzie, especially considering how good Waisake Naholo looked when the Highlanders beat the Lions.

Justifying selection

When Warren Gatland named his 23 for the first Test, there were a few surprise selections in there. On the whole, these players performed well and justified being selected. The entire back 3 looked dangerous in attack and Elliot Daly especially also caused a number of problems for Ben Smith and Israel Dagg under the high ball. Daly and Watson were both caught narrow for New Zealand’s first and second tries respectively, though in both cases they weren’t helped by the men inside being caught out, first by the quick tap penalty and second by the decimated scrum. Probably the biggest surprise of the back line selections, Liam Williams had a very good game in attack, especially countering from kicks downfield. His willingness to run from his own 5 metre line – and his step of Kieran Read – helped to set up a stunning try from Sean O’Brien, which has possibly beaten out Jack Nowell for try of the tour. Williams was also often solid in defence, but did struggle multiple times under the high ball when there was pressure on him, which proved costly for Ioane’s match-winning second try. Halfpenny may be a more reliable player, but I think there was enough from each of the 3 starters for them to justify selection for the second Test.

In the forwards, I felt that there seemed a better balance to the pack with Peter O’Mahony on the pitch and I expect him to retain the captaincy for the next game, however I expect Alun Wyn Jones to lose his starting spot to Maro Itoje. I have been a fan of Jones for a number of years but have often felt that he has looked off form against New Zealand. In the first half he looked continually off the pace of the game and I was not surprised to see Itoje – who impressed while on the pitch – come on early in the second half. If Courtney Lawes or Iain Henderson can put in a big performance against the ‘Canes, it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them was promoted to the bench for the weekend.

Another selection that has been suggested a number of times before and during the tour was the 12/12 partnership of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell. Saturday showed why this would not work against the All Blacks. Te’o and Davies caused or made a number of line breaks but after Farrell was moved to centre the attack looked so much more predictable – even more so than it had beforehand – while in defence Sonny Bill Williams started having much more success making it beyond the gain line. As Eddie Jones has generally started with a Ford/Farrell 10/12 combination for England, I hope he was taking note.

I don’t expect many changes for the second Test, so as it stands I would expect Warren Gatland to select the following 23 for Saturday:

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Peter O’Mahony
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Alun Wyn Jones
  20. Sam Warburton
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Jonathan Joseph

 

What were your thoughts on the first Test? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: Chiefs v British and Irish Lions

In the final game before the first Test against the All Blacks, the Lions built on Saturday’s win against the Maori All Blacks with a convincing 6-34 win against an under-strength Chiefs side in Hamilton to earn their first midweek win of the tour. This close to the first Test, it is unlikely that many (if any) of these players will feature on Saturday, however it is possible that some players performances in this game may have brought them into contention for later Test matches.

For the last time before the Test series begins, here are my thoughts on the latest game of the tour. This is something that I have written Wednesday on my lunch break and after work (I wasn’t able to watch the game until Tuesday night), so any speculation regarding the 23 selected for the first Test will be a bit outdated by the time this goes up.

 

Peaking at the right time

I think it’s fair to say that this was the Lions’ best performance on tour so far. Against the Maoris, the Lions took advantage of the poor handling conditions to dominate the game through a dominant pack and a super-effective defence. On Tuesday, the weather conditions allowed more expansive handling, and the Lions added an expansive attack to the strong defence.

Barring a couple of penalties – including Joe Marler’s stupid late tackle – and a few late breaks when the Chiefs started throwing the ball around late in the game, there was very little to trouble the Lions in defence, who forced Stephen Donald to play deep behind the gain line much like Damian McKenzie had to at the weekend.

The forwards proved their might with a penalty try from a driving maul and were also able to win a scrum penalty with Jared Payne deputising at flanker while Marler was in the sin bin. I also really liked the gamesmanship of the forwards making so much noise at the opposition line out that it was hard for the Chiefs to communicate their calls.

The attacking play was probably the best it has been all tour, with Jack Nowell’s second try by far the best try to be scored in all of the games. Jared Payne’s try off the back of Liam Williams’ incisive run – he looked so much better at fullback – was a great show of how dangerous the tourists can be. However they still butchered chances, Williams dropping a Biggar pass 5 metres out in the first half and Tommy Seymour’s pass to Jared Payne’s knees following a great break near the end, so there is still improvement needed for the Tests.

Winging it

I have mentioned previously how there have been no standout performances from the Lions wingers so far this tour. Tuesday’s game was certainly an exception. Jack Nowell has taken a bit of flak from fans and pundits on this tour, but his performance against the Chiefs was probably the best of any Lions winger on this tour! It felt as if the attacking style in this game was different and he was given the freedom to play his natural game. He was more than happy to come off his wing and frequently beat the first man or mad ground in the tackle. His 2 tries in this game have made him the joint top try scorer – level with penalty tries – for the Lions on this tour. I think this performance has probably been too late for a place in the first Test, but he may have just put his hand up for later weeks.

On the left wing, Elliot Daly was up for it from the first second. He started with a thumping tackle directly from the kickoff and was a menace down the left flank all through the 60 minutes he was on the field. He had a couple of good breaks and was heavily involved in the build-up to Nowell’s second try. The fact that he was one of the few players Gatland substituted suggests to me that he will feature in the Test 23, however the fact that Gatland was willing to bring him back on when Jared Payne was injured makes me think that he will be in the bench on Saturday rather than the starting XV.

Liam Williams had a great game at fullback. He did not have too much to do defensively, but what he did was done well. In attack he ran some great attacking lines and his play to set up Jared Payne’s try was sublime. Had he been given more minutes at 15 during this tour, I could have imagined him competing for the Test 15 position, however I feel that playing the full 80 minutes in this game means that for the first Test he will either be left out or make the bench.

Making up the numbers

There was a lot of controversy at the weekend when Warren Gatland called up 6 players from Wales and Scotland to make up the numbers for the remaining midweek games. While I was against the decision to bring them in, I was very surprised and disappointed to see that Allan Dell was the only one to make it onto the pitch – and even that was only as a prop was needed during Marler’s sin bin. It’s great to see substitutes not just being trotted on at prearranged times but I feel for the lads who have probably questioned whether they deserve to be there and have now basically been shown they will only make it on the pitch as a last resort. What surprised me the most was that the coaches decided to bring Elliot Daly back on for the last few minutes to replace the injured Jared Payne as opposed to bringing on Finn Russell for his Lions debut. Hopefully they’ll get a chance to make it on the pitch against the Hurricanes next week.

 

The Test Squad

From what I have seen over recent weeks, this is the squad that I expect Warren Gatland to pick for Saturday’s first Test. Talk from New Zealand suggests that players like Owen Farrell and Sam Warburton will be fit for selection, so I have based this on the assumption everyone is available.

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. George North
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Leigh Halfpenny
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Alun Wyn Jones
  20. Peter O’Mahony
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Elliot Daly

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Reinforcements?

The British and Irish Lions: the best Home Nations players in their positions touring one of the Southern Hemisphere rugby powers every 4 years. Selection for this squad is validation of your quality and the highest possible honour. Or at least it should be.

When Warren Gatland named his 41-man Touring Party there were some surprises at the omission of a couple of top performers – including Joe Launchbury, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray – in favour of players whose form in recent internationals had been questionable to say the least. These grumbles however are nothing compared to the widespread condemnation of the 6 call-ups that have been announced this weekend:

  • Kristian Dacey – hooker – Wales
  • Tomas Francis – prop – Wales
  • Cory Hill – second row – Wales
  • Gareth Davies – scrum half – Wales
  • Allan Dell – prop – Scotland
  • Finn Russell – fly half – Scotland

While I am very much against these call-ups, I want to make clear that I have nothing against the players themselves for their selections. To play in a Lions tour to New Zealand is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to feature in any Lions tour is more than many players will ever manage. However I have a lot of problems with the whole situation, which I will try to look at below.

 

Call me naïve, but I feel that once the 41-man squad was named, all that should be allowed this should be replacements for players forced to pull out, rather than extra players. Gatland has even stated that it was always in his plans to bring in reinforcements at this stage, as he wanted to have separate 23-man squads for the midweek games and Test matches. If this was the case, then surely it would have been better to have taken a 46-man squad to New Zealand. This would have also given Gatland more options as Biggar and Sexton have been anything but spectacular on the whole, whereas Finn Russell could have provided extra competition for the fly half berth, especially given Owen Farrell’s current injury worries. It would also allow the new recruits to be fully up to speed with the team’s tactics and calls, which the squad will have been working on for weeks. I find it even more odd that Gatland has considered the back row and fullback positions as suitably stocked given the loss of Ross Moriarty and Stuart Hogg, the only original picks who have left the tour through injury! I understand that a larger touring party makes it more difficult for players to get enough game time to prove themselves, but surely the extra options can only help the coaches, especially as players recovered from jet lag in the opening days of the tour.

What also worries me from Gatland’s interviews regarding bringing in reinforcements is the way that he mentions his job is to win the Test series and how he wants a completely separate 23 for the Tests compared to the midweek fixtures. This could so easily cause a split in the party, as the 23 who have been named to face the Chiefs on Tuesday now know that they are effectively not in Gatland’s plans for the games that ‘matter’. While I’m sure these players will still go out and play for the crest, I would not be surprised if at least a few of them are subconsciously wondering what the point is of putting in a big performance in these games if there is no chance of making the Tests. It must be even harder for the new players, who know that they are there just to make up the numbers and will be released after the Hurricanes game, so would need a considerable number of injuries to even be considered for the Tests, a real shame for Finn Russell who has been in great form for Scotland in recent weeks.

Arguably the biggest complaint about the announcement is that it has devalued ‘The Untouchable Jersey’ by picking players by their geography rather than merit. Despite being the top 2 finishers in the 6 Nations, players from England and Ireland were not considered for these call-ups due to their summer tours being some distance from New Zealand. Of the 6 players called up, the only ones that I feel deserve to be in the squad on merit are Finn Russell (who I feel should have been picked over Dan Biggar initially) and Gareth Davies. Of the other players picked, is Allan Dell more worthy of a spot than Cian Healy? Is Dacey (third choice for Wales during the 6 Nations) a better option than England captain Dylan Hartley? Is Cory Hill really a better second row than Launchbury? Maybe they are future Lions, but I don’t feel that any of them should have been making it onto this tour. Even if we accept Gatland’s excuse of having to pick nearby players who would be not affected by jet lag, I would argue that Jonny Gray has to be picked over Cory Hill and would also look at Fraser Brown/Ross Ford and WP Nel in favour of Dacey and Francis. I hesitate to use the word ‘bias’, but it does seem that the Welsh contingent is surprisingly high considering their performances and finishing position in the 6 Nations.

 

I understand the importance of a series victory in modern rugby, especially given the debates as to the significance of the Lions in the modern rugby calendar, but I agree with Ugo Monye’s comments last night that it does not feel right and seems against the spirit of the Lions. I wonder if part of this is actually down to having a foreign Head Coach as opposed to a British or Irish coach in charge.

I will continue to support the team, of course, but I feel that things need to be looked into after the tour in order to ensure the next one in 2021 is a return to the magic we expect from a Lions Tour.

 

What are your thoughts on the selections? Do you think these call-ups were needed? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: Maori All Blacks v British and Irish Lions

With just a week to go until the first Test match, the Lions took on a strong Maori All Blacks side that contained a number of players capped by New Zealand. After the All Blacks’ 78-0 demolition of Samoa in their warm-up match on Friday, the Lions surely knew that it was important to send a message with a good result of their own.

The opening 40 minutes was a close affair, with 4 penalties from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny cancelling out Liam Messam’s converted try and a penalty from the Chiefs’ Damian McKenzie. As conditions worsened after half time however, the Lions took control of the game through territorial kicking and the strength of their pack, with a penalty try and one from Maro Itoje contributing towards a 10-32 victory.

This will likely be the last game many of these players are involved in before the first Test, especially now that Warren Gatland has called up reinforcements, so with just 1 match left to go before the big games begin, here are my thoughts on the latest game.

 

Falling foul of the law

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but the Lions’ discipline was shocking yet again, especially in the first half! I don’t expect teams to go the whole game without being penalised, but against the All Blacks they will not be able to give away any cheap penalties if they want to win. Against the Blues, I noted that they kept getting penalised for stupid infringements at the line out and they did this again conceding a free kick 5m from the Maori line. Tadhg Furlong also gave away a penalty at the breakdown despite referee Jaco Peyper giving him a number of warnings and teammate Mako Vunipola also giving him a hefty slap on the bum.

What was also a worry is that a scrum half as experienced as Conor Murray does not appear to have learned the laws of the game that are being played on the tour. Under the new laws – which have been in place in the Southern Hemisphere since the start of their season and will be coming to the Northern Hemisphere once the new season begins – the line out will still be played if a penalty is kicked directly to touch, even if time is up on the clock. The players on this tour should all be fully aware of the changes to the laws, so there is no excuse for a mistake like this. Hopefully we won’t see the Lions fall foul of any law amendments at a crucial point in the Tests.

A strong game plan

Though the weather certainly played into the Lions’ hands, the Lions tactics were perfect for dealing with the Maoris. The pressure from the defence caused McKenzie to stand so deep, it was all but impossible for them to get their dangerous backs and back row into the game. Nehe Milner-Skudder showed a few flashes of the skill that lit up the World Cup, but his grubber kick that led to Messam’s try was speculative at best and should have been dealt with by George North. It’s fair to say that the most exciting moment from the Maoris was their stunning haka, the best I can remember watching!

The tight five looked a weakness for the Maoris and the Lions pack took full advantage of it in the scrums and line outs. Once the weather deteriorated and the ball got slippy, the Lions took full advantage by using the high ball to test the Maoris’ handling under pressure and were often rewarded with scrums that they duly dominated. The penalty try was just reward for their efforts today and I’m sure many of the forwards cemented their Test squad status with that performance. I don’t expect the All Blacks pack to be bullied so easily, but this is definitely an area where the Lions could have an advantage and if conditions are poor – they have been for a lot of the matches so far – the chances of a Lions victory will increase.

Their attacking still needs some work though. There appeared to be more breaks from the tourists, many courtesy of Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies – surely they must be the centre pairing for the Tests – but too often the support was lacking. There were also a couple of occasions where the Lions were turned over close to the Maori line. At risk of sounding like a broken record, to have a chance of beating the All Blacks the Lions must take any chance they create.

Naming the 23

In my last article I named what I felt would be the 23-man squad for the first Test assuming everyone is fit. As I picked this before the Lions named their squad for this game, I have decided to reassess my selection after each of the remaining games, as players continue to get more game-time. This match has made me change a couple of selections, but it has also solidified a number of picks. As with last time, this is on the assumption that everyone is fully fit (Owen Farrell’s injury means he is currently a doubt for the first Test and I have not heard anything about Courtney Lawes’ head injury) so if there is a player who is currently an injury doubt I will put their replacement next to them in brackets.

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton (Peter O’Mahony)
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell (Johnny Sexton)
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. George North
  15. Leigh Halfpenny
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes (Alun Wyn Jones)
  20. Peter O’Mahony/CJ Stander
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton (Dan Biggar)
  23. Anthony Watson

Whilst I have kept the same 6 front rowers, I have switched the starter at hooker as I feel today’s starters were so successful they will be selected as a group. Conor Murray came through the game looking very good and did not appear to be struggling with his shoulder in the same way he did against the Crusaders. With Stuart Hogg out, Leigh Halfpenny was reliable and positioned himself well to field kicks from the Maoris, whilst his metronomic kicking off the tee becomes very important if Farrell is unavailable for the fist Test. The wings have been very difficult to pick as there have been no standout performers. Despite his error for Messam’s try, George North keeps his spot as I can’t imagine Gatland wanting to go up against Julian ‘The Bus’ Savea with the slighter wingers he has to pick from. Anthony Watson was given the full 80 minutes again today which makes me think he will be preferred to Liam Williams, though I have not seen much special in attack, but I do not feel that his defence is good enough to start against the All Blacks. Daly has not started since the Blues game but has come off the bench for the last two games. Due to his versatility, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him and Watson swapped around, however I feel that he is a more reliable defender and his all-round skill set gives the Lions extra options in attack or when looking to clear their Lines. I have picked Courtney Lawes on the bench over Alun Wyn Jones due to his versatility and the way he can put the fear of God into a fly half when they get the ball. Jones was my pick for the Tour captaincy this time last year but has not seemed to be at his best form and has also been rather undisciplined in his Lions outings so far. CJ Stander has been solid if not spectacular so far in the tour, so I feel that today’s impressive performance by the Lion’s pack could have put O’Mahony ahead of him. Further to this, O’Mahony captained the team well today so if Warburton is deemed not ready for the first Test, I could imagine the Irishman coming in to lead the side.

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Eyes On: British and Irish Lions Tour 2017 – Games 3 & 4

After not the best of starts to the 2017 tour of New Zealand – a narrow win against the Provincial Barbarians and a loss to the Blues – the Lions knew that improvement was needed in order to convince pundits and fans that they have a chance in the Test series against the All Blacks. A 3-12 win against the unbeaten Crusaders helped settle the nerves but a 23-22 loss to the Highlanders will not have been what Warren Gatland was hoping for ahead of Saturday’s game against the Maori All Blacks.

I was unable to watch either of these games live due to work commitments (working a full weekend after having 3 in a row off was a shock to the system) however through the wonders of YouTube I’ve now managed to catch up on both games. As it’s been so long since the Crusaders game, I decided that the best way to do this article was to look at the 2 matches together, as some points will be applicable to both games.

 

The complete performance

I think it’s fair to say that in the first 2 games of the Tour, the Lions won’t have been happy with the way they attacked or defended. In Christchurch on Saturday, the Lions finally seemed to be getting the defence sorted. During the commentary, former All Blacks scrum half Justin Marshall mentioned that the Crusaders had been averaging 5.4 tries per game this season. My calculations based on the Super Rugby standings also suggest that the Crusaders have averaged 37.3 points per game this season. While it must be remembered that the Lions were not up against a full-strength Crusaders team, to have limited them to a single penalty is still highly impressive, especially considering injuries to Jonathan Davies and Stuart Hogg before half time led to the Lions playing much of the game with Owen Farrell and Anthony Watson playing positions (centre and fullback respectively) where they likely hadn’t trained much for the Lions.

Unfortunately, though we saw an improved defence, the attack was still lacking, with the Lions relying on 4 penalties from Owen Farrell – probably 5 if his one just after half time had been referred to the TMO – to earn them victory. Over the first 3 games of the tour, the Lions only scored 2 tries and rarely looked like scoring many more, which may not be such a surprise when you remember that Attack Coach Rob Howley’s Wales squad finished joint 4th with France in tries scored during the 6 Nations with only 8 tries, 2 ahead of Italy!

In Dunedin, the Lions found their way over the try line on 3 occasions but again missed a number of chances in attack, most notably Rhys Webb’s knock-on as he dived over the breakdown on the line and Jared Payne’s drop after a lovely break by Kyle Sinckler. They also didn’t perform as well defensively against the Highlanders, who frequently used grubber kicks and cross kicks to take advantage of the blitz defence and narrow defensive line that I picked up on against the Blues. Most of these kicks resulted in the Lions wingers being caught out of position, leaving Jared Payne or Rhys Webb to sweep up on a number of occasions. The only time I remember the Lions properly dealing with one of these kicks was for Tommy Seymour’s try, which likely would have been a try for the Highlanders had he missed the ball.

Against the World Champions, a successful defence will be important, but you have to imagine that the All Blacks will still be able to score a couple of tries per game, so it is vital that the Lions start scoring more frequently and take the chances they are given in attack.

Sign of things to come

The Lions will not have enjoyed the success that Waisake Naholo had on Tuesday. The Highlanders winger has been having a good season and looked on top form in this game. He gave Tommy Seymour a torrid time all match, repeatedly finding ways to get around or through him. He was also frequently successful at winning the high ball, an area where I’m sure the Lions would have expected to do better so far. His leg drive in the tackle often saw him make extra metres after the initial contact and he was not afraid to come in off his wing to further involve himself in the game. He capped off a great performance with a try and could have easily had another mere minutes into the game were it not for some brave defence from Jared Payne. The Lions will have to find a way to cope with Naholo, or 80 minutes will feel like an eternity in the Tests.

Selecting the Test team

With only 2 more games until the first Test, this is the spot by which Warren Gatland needs a firm idea of who his players are for the Test matches and who will feature in the midweek matches. By my reckoning there are still quite a few positions up for grabs, and that is before injuries are even considered.

Though Jonathan Joseph took his try well and did put in a couple of big hits against the Highlanders, I noticed a couple of occasions where he was little more than a speed bump in defence and was beaten twice in the build-up to Naholo’s try. While he probably came into the tour as the form 13, Jonathan Davies has only played about 30 minutes of rugby on the tour because of his head injury against the Crusaders, which is limiting his chance to prove he deserves the 13 shirt.

At inside centre, Robbie Henshaw has not done enough to impress me in his outings, whereas Ben Te’o has grabbed his chances and has appeared to bring a different dimension to the attack. He may not be a starter for England, but in my opinion he is nailed on for a spot in the Test XV.

Provided Conor Murray is fully fit, the starting scrum half position should come down to the skill set that Warren Gatland fails. Murray is arguably the better 9 defensively and is more reliable controlling the game with he’s kicking, but he still appears to be struggling to shake off the shoulder injury he suffered during the 6 Nations. The All Blacks have the ability to take advantage of any mistake or weakness so if his play will be affected by the injury he should not start. Rhys Webb showed a clear improvement in the quality of his box kicks and his all-round performance was good against the Highlanders. He may not control the game as well as Murray but his ability to take advantage of the smallest gaps gives the Lions an extra way to attack their opponents. If both are fully fit, I see Webb as the perfect player to bring on in the second half once the opposition begin to tire, as this will increase the chances of gaps in the defence.

No disrespect to Dan Biggar, but the battle for the number 10 shirt is between Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, and in my opinion it’s not even a competition. Sexton had a much better game on Saturday when he came on before half time to replace the injured Jonathan Davies, but I felt that he had much less responsibility in this game courtesy of Murray and Farrell controlling the play and the territorial kicking either side of him. Farrell has not been as reliable off the tee as we have come to expect, but there has been talk that the Adidas ball being used on the tour is a little different to the Gilbert ball we are used to in the Northern Hemisphere. I don’t think the Lions can play a significant period of Test rugby with the Sexton/Farrell combination that so many fans have called for, so in my opinion the more consistent Owen Farrell should be starting with Sexton on the bench.

As it stands, my selection for the first Test, assuming everyone remaining is fit (Stuart Hogg being out after his facial injury), would be:

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Ken Owens
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. George North
  15. Leigh Halfpenny
  16. Jamie George
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. CJ Stander
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Liam Williams

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge