A question of balance

 

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James Horwill’s balance (or possible lack of it) was the main topic of conversation as the dust settled on the first Test between the Lions and their hosts the Wallabies, but as all apart from two people on the face of this earth know Horwill kicked Alun Wyn Jones in the face after just 3 minutes of the game.  It wasn’t just Horwill’s balance that was of interest after a nail biting finish, the Lions almost unnatural desire to play rugby (too much rugby as Warren Gatland later said), when their forwards could and probably should have ground out a comprehensive win, gave the Wallabies hope that they could snatch victory at the end of a second half that they grew into as Lions substitutes made the team very disjointed.  Lions scrum half Mike Phillips came in for a lot of criticism after the game and while he probably ran too often and ineffectively the major difficulties seem to arise from an 8, 9 and 10 combination who had played very little rugby together (while Heaslip and Phillips had played in the Tests in South Africa, Jonny Sexton didn’t and that tour was 4 years ago).  Warren Gatland’s paranoia over the Lions perceived weakness at line outs may have been responsible for the lack of cohesion between the back row and half backs as he picked 2 lineout forwards in Heaslip and Croft over players who would have offered more in terms of breakdown security like Faletau and Sean O’Brien.  Ben Youngs inclusion ahead of Phillips this week has lead to his Leicester Tigers teammate Tom Croft being relegated to the bench as Gatland looks to add a bit of steel to a back row that at times was ineffective at breakdowns (although referee Chris Pollock and his interpretations that nobody should compete were also a cause of that) and made 2 mistakes leading up to both of Israel Folau’s tries (Croft bought an outrageous Genia dummy for the first and Heaslip made a lazy attempt at a tackle for the second).  The best way to tell how well a flanker is playing is to count how many times (and how enthusiastically) they spring back to their feet at breakdowns. In the first Test Croft made 8 tackles in 72 minutes, Lydiate should make that number of tackles in the first half, he has rattled up39 tackles on this tour, missing just 2 and managing 15 in a game twice, without actually playing a full 80 minutes.  Croft is clearly the superior ball carrier, but the thought that the Lions need an explosive 6 foot 4 inch back rower to carry ball when they have two wingers (and a Centre) over 6 feet four and the best attacking number 13 in living memory in the back division is almost laughable.

 

With a different referee in charge this week and a weather forecast that can be described as “damp” this promises to be a very different game with more of a contest at ruck time, but some equally baffling decisions if Craig Joubert’s history is anything to go by.  The extra competition on the ground means both forward packs will need to be on their mettle and after the early James Horwill foot based controversy of the first Test there may be more of an edge to the early exchanges than there were last week.  The Lions will do well to remember that they can become the first team in 16 years to win a series, that motivation combined with the desire to settle a few (week) old scores should make this a game where the backs are hardly needed and it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see Owen Farrell coming off the bench to manage the game in a more pragmatic style than Jonny Sexton in known for.  Since the Wallaby backs include a return for the electric Kurtley Beale the Lions forwards should do everything in their power to prevent the Wallabies seeing the ball.  I can’t see this game ending without more than a dose of controversy, Craig Joubert presided over the game with the most penalty kicks at goal ever during the 6 Nations and he wrongly penalised Adam Jones a number of times last year when Wales were in Australia, I hope the Lions will roar, but I can foresee a game 3 decider coming up in Sydney next week.

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