South Africa v Lions first Test preview

Statistically speaking the more phases an attacking team goes through in their opponent’s 22 the less likely they are to cross the try line, that was a big problem for the Lions against South Africa ‘A’ and that perfectly illustrates what the Springboks do so well.  They have an almost innate ability to dominate the gain-line without conceding penalties, even without much game time in the last 18 months that’s not an ability you can easily lose and attacking with any sort of tempo and fluency against a team who can do that is always an uphill struggle.  Selecting a starting 15 made up of partnerships and combinations who have next to no experience together seems like the sort of the thing that will just compound that issue, only Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly in the Centre’s have started a game on this tour together (and the half backs Ali Price and Dan Biggar featured together  for 20 minutes against Japan in Edinburgh), so the back play may be more cohesive than the forward unit but if the forwards can’t provide a platform the backs will have scarce opportunity to demonstrate any cohesion.

The Lions team selection can partly be explained by how compromised the entire tour has been by COVID, firstly they had to name a smaller squad than they would have liked to have and with the Bulls COVID outbreak they had to play a very young Cell C Sharks side twice (resulting in a combined 128-38 point victory), Josh Adams was unable to return home to be with his partner as she gave birth to their first child and the Springbok camp has suffered it’s own major COVID outbreak with more than 20 people returning positive test results including Head Coach Jacques Nienaber, Fly Half Handre Pollard and Captain Siya Kolisi and that’s where this game becomes as much of a conspiracy theorist’s delight as it is a sporting contest. 

There’s very little information on how COVID effects elite athlete’s and just 5 days ago it appeared highly unlikely Kolisi would have recovered enough to take part in this game but South Africa moved the announcement of their squad forward in order to unveil his messiah like recovery.  It was almost as if in response to Lions Captain Alun-Wyn Jones recovering from a shoulder injury their own totemic leader is sensationally back, so the squad’s that were named may very well not be the actual one’s who take the field (And as I type it’s been reported that Lions prop Wyn Jones won’t play).

With such uncertainty around the personnel who will actually be available for the Springboks it appears that the Lions lack of familiarity is an almost deliberate ploy from Gatland, the experimental feel of the starting 15 rather suggests that he’s using this first Test as an extra tour game they so sorely missed in this constricted tour.  They know Kolisi and Pollard will be lacking game time (particularly as Pollard only recently recovered from a serious knee injury) so big ball carriers like Jack Conan and Luke Cowan-Dickie will be making sure that the Fly Half isn’t going to shirk any tackles.  However Cowan-Dickie does have a tendency to feel the pressure when it comes to lineout time and I believe that’s what has lead to the selection of a 6 feet 7 inch blindside flanker in the form of Courtney Lawes (who is arguably the 3rd best English blindside flanker behind Jack Willis and Sam Underhill).  Lawes’ selection appears to provide a serious imbalance in the back row, with a dynamic open side in the form of Tom Curry requiring an equally dynamic 6 who can intelligently manage a ruck to maximise his skill as he did against the Stormers and with no Wyn Jones the breakdown is certain to be an area of real weakness for the Lions.  If, as expected, the Springboks dominate the gain-line Kwagga Smith and Kolisi will easily outnumber poor Curry as the rest of the Lions forwards lumber behind him and it’ll be left to the likes of Henshaw and Daly to help out the Sale Shark.  The selection of the two wingers who are the most awkward to tackle in Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson (and even Liam Williams on the bench) ahead of the two wingers who are most likely to ghost into space in Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit rather leans toward the coaches worrying about the attacking ruck speed, if they were expecting a fluid, open attacking game they’d have gone with guile over brute force.  If van der Merwe and Watson can cross the gain-line and give Price and Biggar a slightly disorganised defence to work against then the Lions backline has pace power in Henshaw, Hogg and Daly to exploit any gaps on offer but the Springbok backline are one of the most solid defence’s in world rugby so the Lions may end up kicking the ball away more than they would like to.  The Springbok back 3 and whichever member of the back row they choose to drop back will eat up any loose kicks and as the ‘A’ team demonstrated they’ll score from anywhere on the pitch.  The concern with the Lions kicking game is that Gregor Townsend usually has Russell or Hastings at 10 and they have an almost creative kicking game where they sometimes sacrifice distance in order to manipulate the opposition back 3 and allow the kick chasers a better chance of containing any counter attack chance but that’s not really something Biggar, Henshaw or Hogg (and especially Daly) don’t often try, they would all rather kick so they can compete for the ball or just clear their lines which would make Cheslin Kolbe in particular very happy.

Missing Wyn Jones could be a real problem for the Lions as he’s the most well rounded of the loose-head props in the squad and while Rory Sutherland will undoubtedly provide plenty of muscle and aggression he’s not the ball player the Welshman is and whilst Mako Vunipola’s inclusion on the bench provides some destructive ball carrying and a lot of intelligence he hasn’t been in the best form at scrum time, so unless the game is played at a frightening pace and there are some very tired Springbok forwards on the field a ball carrying loose-head might not be the order of the day.

If the Lions can dictate the pace of the game and test the host’s conditioning in the last 15 to 20 minutes they could come away with a healthy victory but if it’s a typically South African disjointed and gritty game then the home team should be the favourites to grind out an ugly win.

British and Irish Lions 2021 (too soon) part 2

The half back pairing is probably going to include 2 players who are teammates at Test level because with 6 games and so little time to practice together (especially if Gatland continues to put so much emphasis on strength and conditioning) it will be incredibly tricky for a new scrum half and fly half to find some chemistry.

9. Ben Youngs – he was due to go to New Zealand before a family emergency saw him choose to stay home and he would be quite a controversial pick but he has played a decent amount of rugby with Billy and he’s the best kicking option at 9 outside Conor Murray who will be 32 next summer.

10. George Ford – if familiarity is key then you can’t really ask for more familiarity than club mates guiding the team around the park and when Youngs and Ford are given a solid platform by their forwards they control a game like very other half back combos. In the third Test in New Zealand Jonny Sexton took the reins but he’ll be 36 by the time the first Test in Johannesburg kicks off and his physical ailments seem to be starting to impact his ability to control games the way Ford can. Dan Biggar will be 31 but with a new Wales coach and a long injury list of Welsh 10’s the future half back pairing is far from clear so it’s not unthinkable Rhys Webb and Biggar line up to start the first Test but it seems a long way off right now.

11. Josh Adams – if he continues the form he’s showed in the 2019-20 season he could be the difference between winning and losing the Test series. Elliot Daly wore the jersey last time out but he’s been playing at fullback for England and Adams is 3 years younger. Interesting outside chances for a return to their ancestral homes are Kyle Steyn who was born in Johannesburg and made his Scotland debut against France a matter of weeks ago or former South Africa U20’s winger Duhan Van Der Merwe who becomes Scottish qualified this June. James Lowe will be Irish qualified by next summer so if he impresses during the 6 Nations he could well be a Lion in the summer.

12. Owen Farrell – sticking with the theme of very little preparation time and familiarity being vital along the spine of the team the England 12 who already has 4 Lions caps would have to be the favourite to orchestrate the midfield at this stage. Hadleigh Parkes would be 33 and unless Wales learn to become less dependent on the veteran Kiwi he’ll be lucky to make it through next season unscathed. Bundee Aki would be interesting leading the defensive line and at 31 he’ll be right on the cut off age wise. From a purely personal perspective I think it’d be interesting to see what Sam Johnson could do against the South African inside backs but I’m not sure he provides the kicking option or the level of communication Gatland would want at 12.

13. Manu Tuilagi – he may be a bit of a worry in terms of defensive positioning but against a team who will presumably place a great emphasis on forward power an outside back who brings as much physicality as most back row forwards do would provide the Springboks with a unique challenge in defence. Jonathan Davies started last time out but he’ll be 33 and the last time we saw him his knee looked very unhealthy. Jonathan Joseph would provide a very different challenge and he has the uncanny knack of playing very well in just about every imaginable situation, Eddie Jones selected him on the wing against Ireland and he looked more than comfortable. Rory Hutchinson looks like a physical presence with the ability to make an outside break but somehow Scotland prefer Chris Harris at 13. Gary Ringrose is arguably the most exciting outside centre in Britain and Ireland but he’s battled a lot of injuries recently and Robbie Henshaw started at outside centre for Ireland in their last two 6 Nations games. Rory O’Loughlin would be a complete bolter but the ease with which he rounds off tries has seen him play at both 13 and on the wing for Leinster.

14. George North – Gatland seems addicted to the 27 year old who he handed a Test debut to back in 2010 and if he’s fit he’ll have to start. There aren’t really a whole lot of specialist right wingers who leap off the page as viable Test options, Joe Cokanasiga would be an option if he can return to fitness in time to string together a run of games next season, likewise Jack Nowell if Gatland would be happy to pick a left winger out of position. If he is happy to play someone out of position it wouldn’t be out of the question to see Stuart Hogg or Lee Halfpenny starting. Anthony Watson started on the right wing last time out but I have a feeling he’ll be wearing a different shirt next time out.

15. Anthony Watson – it has to be a straight shoot out between Watson and Liam Williams at 15 they both have the ability to turn attack into defence in the blink of an eye and they can both be very secure in defence but I think Watson has a better kicking game so I think he’ll get the first shot at starting. There aren’t really many outside bets but Henry Slade does have the sort of tactical kicking game that could appeal to Gatland’s belt and braces approach or, if he can return to fitness Gareth Anscombe is a very astute tactical 15 but at the moment he seems a long way from being back on a rugby pitch.

British and Irish Lions 2021 (too soon)

With the current financial turmoil all clubs and presumably Unions are facing given this global situation it is absolutely unconscionable to worry about who will be playing for the Lions in the first Test in Johannesburg next July, but I have a lot of time on my hands and a wild dream where I think maybe one day someone would pay me to do something I really enjoy, so here goes.

One of my favourite Warren Gatland traits is the stubbornness he exhibits in his selections so it shouldn’t be too difficult to project who he’ll want to pick (there will probably only be 6 warm up games and depending how the current season is resolved there might be a matter of days between the squad meet up and departure dates), it’s reasonable to believe Gatland will lean on the spine of the 2017 tour for the biggest games ahead. For the purposes of this exercise you have to assume everyone is fit and healthy and not many players over the age of 35 will still be playing in a year’s time.

1. Mako Vunipola – Despite being the oldest of heads Mako will only be 30 next summer. His work rate is always impressive and if, as has been rumoured, Joe Marler retires Gatland will be missing another of his favourite Loose-heads. Cian Healy will be 33, Jack McGrath will be 31 and while Rory Sutherland has had an impressive break out season this year and will be 28 it would be quite a surprise it Gatland picked a prop with about 12 caps to take on the Springboks. If Gatland were to go with a real shock selection he could always start a 26 year old Ellis Genge, but England use him more as a “finisher” and detonating the Test series from the off would be an unusually risky move.

2. Jamie George – he started the last Test in New Zealand and there’s not really much to persuade you there will be a better option for Gatland than a 30 year old with 50+ Test caps. Fraser Brown will 32 by then, Stuart McInally would be a reasonable candidate for the back up role since Ken Owens will be 34 and Elliott Dee might be considered a bit undersized to start against the beefy Springbok pack.

3. Tadgh Furlong – scarcely believable as it may seem he’ll only be 28 next July and he’ll have over 50 caps by then including 3 starts on the last tour. Kyle Sinkler would have to be favourite for the spot on the bench, although Zander Fagerson has looked good this season and he’s a year younger than them.

4. Maro Itoje – he’s one of the contenders for the captaincy, his 71% winning percentage in Test matches is hard to argue with and after a bit of a dip last season he’s been back to his best since the World Cup.

5. Alun-Wyn Jones – it could or should be James Ryan (but it could possibly be Joe Launchbury, Cory Hill, George Kruis or Scott Cummings) there’s no way this isn’t going to be controversial but after working with him for 12 years it will be incredibly tough for Gatland not to put the Test team on Alun-Wyn’s shoulders even if he’ll be 35 by the time the rolls around.

6. Josh Navidi – one thing is for sure it won’t be Sam Warburton this time out (he might be carrying the water bottles) but the closest thing to Warburton is Navidi, he’s not as big but he’s certainly not far off being as strong as the former Wales and Lions skipper. And he lives for physical contact, he’s definitely a better ball carrier than Warburton and he’ll tackle a lot, he also won’t think twice about throwing himself into a ruck when the gargantuan South African forwards are lining up to smash him. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility Aaron Wainwright gets a shot, he’s the new Dan Lydiate and Gatland had a pretty long standing relationship with him. Sam Underhill could also be close as he’s an absolute tackle machine who worked with Lydiate at the Ospreys. Personally I wouldn’t even count out Lydiate if he continues the form he’s flashed this season in an improved Ospreys team. Yes he’ll be 33 but Gatland loves a safety blanket and Lydiate is a very big, very safe blanket.

7. Tom Curry – Curry and Navidi would be a dream pairing for a Gatland defence, if one of them doesn’t make a tackle they’ll be straight over the ball and vice versa. Eddie Jones might be the only person who thinks he’s a number 8 and it’ll be interesting to see if he still thinks that when Billy Vunipola is fit. Hamish Watson will only be 29 so he may well be in with a shot, there’s a seemingly endless list of interesting Welsh flankers who could be outside chances with Tommy Reffell and Jac Morgan yet to even feature for the national side. If and it’s a big if since he hasn’t played a Test since 2018 Dan Leavy would be right in Gatland’s wheelhouse but he’d need a hell of a 12 months.

8. Billy Vunipola – obviously he and his cousin Taulupe have had their injury issues for what seems like a very long time but I think Gatland would love the chance to start a 20 stone number 8 against the threshing machine that is the South African pack but if he prefers the option of making the Springboks ran around in open spaces he could go with the C.J Stander option or maybe even the way out of left field Sam Simmonds plan. There’s an outside chance Ross Moriarty could be in with a chance but starting Moriarty alongside Genge would be like trying to put out a chip pan fire with a gallon of petrol.

It’s way too early to select a starting XV for the 1st Lions Test, so here goes….

rugbyUnless you have the misfortune of being a Top 14 player the 2016/17 rugby season doesn’t start for about 3 weeks but since people have been picking their Lions teams to tour New Zealand since the last tour finished in Australia I thought I’d finally succumb and join in.

Providing Eddie Jones isn’t the coach (and he has said he’s got zero interest in it|), pragmatism will rule and assuming there aren’t a string of catastrophic injuries (but with all the rugby matches they play these days there probably will be) and trying to forget that 11 years ago Sir Clive Woodward used 51 players on the corresponding tour these are the 15 players who I can see starting at Eden Park at the end of June –

  1. Jack McGrath (who doesn’t love a 19 stone loose head?)
  2. Dylan Hartley (it’s practically written in the stars, Kiwi stars for Lions v All Blacks!)
  3. Kieran Brookes (he’s suffered terribly with injuries but he’s pushing 20 stone of man mountain)
  4. Maro Itoje (probably the skipper, definitely the first name on the team sheet)
  5. Jonny Gray (he tops the tackle stats and rucks hit for club and country, the 22 yr old is a machine)
  6. Sean O’Brien (the tackle area will be trench warfare, might as well pick 2 7’s)
  7. John Hardie (he’s been instrumental in Scotland’s improvement under Vern Cotter)
  8. Taulupe Faletau (he’s used to playing behind 2 awfully soft packs, any parity and he’ll be in his element)
  9. Rhys Webb (he’s a try machine and without Biggar’s ego to get in his way he’ll be a constant threat)
  10. Owen Farrell (he may not be Barry John but he won a Grand Slam, the Premiership and the Champions Cup last season)
  11. Jonny May (remember that try he scored against the Kiwis at Twickenham in 2014? Well that!)
  12. Robbie Henshaw (He’s 6 feet 3 and over 16 stone. Also Warren Gatland is the only person who thinks he’s a 12 and Manu is unfortunately too broken as he terrifies the All Blacks)
  13. Scott Williams (he may well end up pushed into 12 by Jonathan Davies return to Parc Y Scarlets, but when he’s fit he’s too fast not to be in the outside channels)
  14. Jack Nowell (twinkling toes and 15 stone of BOOM make him a defenders nightmare, although I’m a big fan if Chris Ashton’s ability to romp down the middle of the park under the sticks)
  15. Mike Brown (he’s a very angry man, just what you need when you’re going to New Zealand to meet 15 very angry men. Plus Halfpenny is going to take a while to get back to full fitness and Stuart Hogg is a car crash waiting to happen in his own 22)