A pride of Lions

Warren Gatland and his coaching team are facing the prospect of the most complicated British and Irish Lions tour in history (and the Lions have toured South Africa during the days of Apartheid and played a 35 game tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1888 that involved playing games of Aussie Rules. A tour which departed Gravesend on the 9th of March and returned on the 11th of November! So they have a pretty high bar when it comes to complicated tours). Even without the current pandemic situation organising 4 separate Unions and hoping for cooperation from regional and club teams under the 4 separate umbrellas was always going to be awkward, not to mention expensive. However, the most complicated part has to be selecting the squad and hoping that the players are as enthusiastic about the tour going ahead as the accountants are, Ben Youngs has already decided that the imminent birth of his third child is a priority and Youngs coach at Leicester has politely declined an invitation to go on another tour as part of Gatland’s coaching team so the Kiwi’s job becomes increasingly intricate day by day.

Luckily I haven’t got to worry about the intricacies, I’m just going to pick the 36 players who I think will be in the touring party, so here goes nothing-

Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Joe Marler (who may decline the offer, then it may be Rory Sutherland or Ellis Genge)

Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Scott Baldwin (although the 3rd sport is wide open. Rob Herring would be an interesting selection)

Tadgh Furlong, Kyle Sinkler, Andrew Porter

Maro Itoje, Alun-Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Iain Henderson

Tadgh Beirne, Hamish Watson, Josh Navidi

Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill

CJ Stander, Taulupe Faletau

Conor Murray, Ben Spencer, Tomos Williams

Jonny Sexton, Dan Biggar, George Ford

Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell

Garry Ringrose, Chris Harris

Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Josh Adams, Duhan Van der Merwe

Anthony Watson, Stuart Hogg

Traditionally this would be the bit where the “bolters” get a mention but I would be very surprised if there are any shocking selections. There are 3 areas where there isn’t much depth so there could be some unpopular picks at hooker, scrum half and lock but other than that Gatland has players he is more than familiar to pick from.

Lions chatter

Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future!” and he had a very good point (probably not quite as good a point his father, Christian, who discovered the Bohr effect) but I’m always up for a challenge and no stranger to looking silly so it’s time to talk Lions squad selection.

Warren Gatland is one of the most succesful Lions coaches for a reason, he’s incredibly single minded and puts his faith in players who share his intense focus on winning so I think you can split the potential squad into 2 seperate parts, the core which will consist of players he knows and has previously coached and the wider talent base (it’s not completely impossible there will be one or two complete wildcards in the 36 but since it has been reported they are taking a “streamlined” there won’t be much room for “bolters”). There has also been a lot of talk about Gatland selecting “on form” but that rather implies that he doesn’t believe he, along with his coaching team, can get the best out of players who have been struggling in what has, lets face it, been a particularly trying last 10 months for everyone. According to the current schedule there will be 5 games in South Africa leading into the first Test in Johannesburg plus a pre-tour warm up game against Japan so I can’t imagine selection will be limited to players who hasve been absolutely outstanding in the last few weeks or months.

The core players are pretty easy to predict (he said foolishly), so here goes –

  • Mako Vunipola, I think he’s the loose head prop Gatland would want if he were still playing hooker.
  • Ken Owens, he’s been a driving force in solidifying the Welsh set piece during the 6 Nations and he has 84 Test caps.
  • Tadgh Furlong, if he’s not the best tight head in rugby he’s in the top 2.
  • Maro Itoje, has to be the most annoying player to play against in world rugby, or he might be second to
  • Alun-Wyn Jones, he’s got 157 Test caps and 9 of them are for the Lions. At this stage he’s a living, breathing rugby instruction manual.
  • James Ryan, he’s started 32 Tests and won 26 of them, whatever he does it undeniably works.
  • Tadgh Beirne, possibly a controversial choice for “absolutely nailed on” but he can play 5, 6 or 8 in an emergency and he’s a phenomonal athlete, he’s played 22 Tests and won 15.
  • Sam Underhill, there’s a reason heplayed 22 Tests and won 18, he is one of those people who looks like a normal human but has superhero strength (like a lot of the Springbok squad).
  • CJ Stander, there’s a reason he isn’t retiring until the International window has closed, he made 6 appearances on a 10 game tour of New ZealandA so it’s safe to say Gatland is a fan.
  • Taulupe Faletau, he’s got 90 Test caps, 4 for the Lions and nobody has ever looked so sangfroid whilst playing International rugby.
  • Conor Murray, he’s not been in vintage form but if Gatland thinks he can get 2 decent Test starts from him he’s on the plane.
  • Johnny Sexton, he’s flashed some of his talent this season but has mostly been battling his decrepid body but similarly if he can stay upright for 100 minutes he’ll be there.
  • Owen Farrell, literally everyone who isn’t related to him will be furious (hello Mike Brown) but Gatland loves an angry bloke and he’s actually a decent communicator in midfield.
  • Robbie Henshaw, probably Ireland’s player of the 6 Nations and one of the best Centre’s in the tournament, he’s started 47 Tests and won 33 plus he can play 12 or 13 and he’s massive.
  • Liam Williams, Gatland loves an angry bloke remember and his versatility will help “streamline” the squad too.
  • Stuart Hogg, he’s quick, he’s bigger than he was when Gatland picked him to tour New Zealand, he can kick the ball a mile and he can play 15, 10 and possibly 13 if nobody else can.
  • Anthoy Watson, probably the best athlete in the England squad and another one who can play two postions, his attacking threat was key in stretching the All Black defence 4 years ago.

Predicting the wider squad will be much trickier but after this weekend’s European rugby there may be some stand out candidates, so that’ll probably be a job for Monday then. Can you leave the 6 Nation’s top try scorer at home though? Especially if he’s a manimal born in South Africa. Just imagine Duhan having to tackle Akker in the corner late in the 3rd Test, that would surely be something.

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.

Detroit Lions @ Seattle Seahawks

Detroit lost 13-10 at CenturyLink Field the last time they played in Seattle but last season’s Monday Night Football game was more memorable for its controversial ending when K.J Wright batted a fumble through the end-zone than any of the Offensive play.  The Lions notched up just 10 first downs as they only managed 256 yards on Offence (Jay Ajayi ran for 214 yards for the Dolphins in week 7 of this season against Buffalo).  Ameer Abdullah was Detroit’s leading rusher with a measly 33 yards as he averaged just 2.5 yards per carry and they weren’t much more successful through the air as Matt Stafford averaged just 5.8 yards per pass despite targeting the since retired Calvin Johnson 11 times.  On the plus side for Stafford he did finish the game with a completion rate of 69% and he managed to avoid being sacked by the Seahawks aggressive Defence.  Conversely on that might the Lions managed to sack Russell Wilson 6 times and forced him to fumble 3 times.  When Wilson stayed upright he dissected the Lions pass defence though and he finished the game with a completion rate of 77% and a passer rating of 125.0.

This season Detroit are averaging 21.6 points per game on the Offensive side of the ball which is 0.5 fewer than the Seattle’s 22.1 (which is the 9th best average in the NFC), so both Offence’s appear well matched.  However, on the other side of the ball there is a vast chasm of difference, the Lions Defence has struggled to contain opposing Offences and against Aaron Rodgers Green Bay Packers Offence many of them appeared to have lost the ability to tackle anyone in possession of the ball.  The Lions have conceded an average of 22.4 points per game, the 13th best number in the league and whilst Seattle Defence hasn’t been as airtight as they have been in the past (and they have missed Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett through injury) they have only conceded a miserly 18.3 points per game, the 3rd stingiest total in the league.  Essentially for the Lions to win a game they have to score 3 touchdowns and the Seahawks haven’t allowed many teams to score more than 2 against them this season.

Earl Thomas’ injury has proved a significant hindrance for the Seahawks defence and it’s caused them to concede an average of 24.5 points per game in the last 4 games of the season, strangely though given that Earl Thomas is the Free Safety the real problem of late has been stopping Rushing Touchdowns.  They’ve allowed 7 in 4 games compared to 5 pass touchdowns in the same period of time.  Feasibly the loss of a Free Safety like Thomas would make a Defence increasingly susceptible to a pass heavy attack, but in their last 4 games the Seahawks have only allowed on average 216 yards through the air (and one of those games was against Aaron Rodger’s Packers).  They have though given up Touchdown passes of 66 yards to Davante Adams and 80 yards to J.J Nelson over that period, the Lions longest pass completion this season is a 77 yarder to Marvin Jones but that happened way back in week 3 which was also the last time Jones recorded 100 yard receiving yards in a game.

The Seahawks Offence has hardly been a thing of beauty, or consistency, or stability as indicated by the fact they’ve had 18 different people carry the ball for them so far this season including Christine Michael (who has also played for the Cowboys and Packers this year <he clearly loves the NFC>), C.J. Prosise, C.J. Spiller and Thomas Rawls who is currently listed as the number 1 Running Back on their depth chart.  Their depth chart also includes Terrance Magee (who they released on the 28th September 4 days after they promoted him from the Practice Squad) and the rookie from Arkansas J.D McKissic who both signed on the 12th of December.  The Seahawks passing Offence has been severely disrupted by elite pass rushers this season with the Bills, Buccaneers and Cardinals combining for a total of 17 sacks on Russell Wilson in just 3 games, the Lions Defence however have recorded just 26 sacks this season and are ranked joint 30th in the NFL.

The Lions appear to game plan (either accidentally, or by design) for Matt Stafford to be the deciding factor in games, Zak Zenner has had impressive first halves in both of their last 2 games but as the clock runs down Lions Offensive Co-ordinator Jim Bob Cooter seems to almost panic and abandon the run game.  They’ve been behind heading into the 4th quarter of 16 games this season and the Matt’s, Stafford and Prater have won 9 of those games to get them this far.  However with Seattle’s Defence and Richard Sherman’s predatory instinct for interceptions in particular the chances of a late scoring run in the Pacific Northwest are incredibly slim.

If the Lions can keep it close on the scoreboard (and use Zenner to keep the Seahawks Defence honest) then they will have a chance to cause an upset.  Their main advantage is in the place kicking stakes where Matt Prater has a 90% rate of success, missing just 7 all season compared to Steven Haushka who has missed 10 all season and has an 86% success rate.  Allied to that is the fact Prater is 7/7 on field goals over 50 yards long this season and his longest has been a whopping 58 yards to take a game to overtime, Haushka has made just 1 field goal from 50 yards or further all season and his longest is a 53 yarder, the only one that he’s attempted from this distance.

Bookmakers have the Seahawks as favourites to win by more than a touchdown and while the chilly and potentially damp weather could make ball handling difficult (another reason to keep an eye on the special teams) the Lions would need to find something pretty spectacular to reverse their 3 game losing streak.  Matt Stafford’s finger injury has made it difficult for him to throw and even the return of Darius “big play” Slay didn’t fix their defensive frailties against the Packers.  If the game does come down to who can grind their opponent down more effectively the Seahawks and particularly their Defence will love it.  Were Marshawn Lynch were still on Seahawks roster the result would be a foregone conclusion, but he isn’t so it’ll be worth watching if only because any Offence featuring Jimmy Graham has the potential to explode.

NFC Wildcard game 2 Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys

It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that the Cowboys haven’t actually made the postseason since 2009 and the Lions haven’t played a playoff game since the turn of the century but as that famous Detroit native Henry Ford said “History is bunk!”. Two teams with such poor records in recent times won’t be paying much attention to what has gone before and instead enjoying their current success.
Statistically it’s a matchup of a very good offence, the Cowboys have averaged 29.2 points per game which makes them 5th in the league and a defence which has allowed an average of 17.6 points per game which is the 2nd fewest this season. It would be appropriate to point out how the Dallas defence has greatly improved this season and they have conceded on average just 22 points per game, which when combined with the Detroit offence’s inability to score more than 24 points away from home this season should hint at which way this game should go.
The Cowboys have the best running back in the league this season with DeMarco Murray and his 1845 yards on the ground, the leading touchdown pass catcher in Dez Bryant and the Quarterback with the best passer rating in the league this season so the Lions defence is facing an uphill struggle even if they do have the 2nd highest tackler in the league and the player with the most interceptions on their side. Allied to their standout individual performances this season the Cowboys averaged 41.25 points per game in the last 4 games of the regular season while the Lions offence averaged just 22.5 points per game.
If the Lions are looking for a ray of hope it’s that they will be missing fewer players with injury than the Cowboys, they have just 7 out and a further 3 concerns over players who have missed practice this week while the Cowboys have to deal with having a rather significant number of 11 players in Injured Reserve and a further 4 who have had their practice schedule effected by injury this week. By far the biggest problem for the Lions this entire season has been how to get the best out of Calvin Johnson when he’s clearly not been 100% fit since week 5 when he injured his ankle, to compound Megatron’s loss Reggie Bush the Lions second most explosive player on offence has also been trying to manage an injured ankle since week 4 and missed 5 games this season.
Those who know these things will tell you that defence win Championships and the Lions could welcome back defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the trip to Dallas but it would take a gargantuan effort for the Lions defence to hold the Cowboys to a score that their failing offence could achieve. Obviously the Lions offence can help their defence by staying on the field for as long as possible but since they’ve been averaging just 94.5 rushing yards away from home and the Cowboys offence has averaged 32.15 minutes of possession per game at home and they have a defence who allowed just 1 yards of rushing in their last home game it looks more than tricky for the Lions to progress. Lions Quarterback Matthew Stafford hasn’t had the best protection this season and the pressure that opposing defences have been able to apply to him has resulted in 12 intercepted passes and a whopping 45 sacks so the winning margin bet of Cowboys by 6 points that is favourite with some bookies seems awfully generous to the Lions.