Lions Tour 2021: Predicting the Squad

Lions Tour 2021: Predicting the Squad

It’s hard to believe, today sees us reach the one year mark before the British & Irish Lions’ first match of their 2021 South Africa tour. This time next year (barring any delays given the current state of the world) the Lions will be taking on the Stormers in Cape Town as the first of 8 matches on their tour, culminating in a 3-Test series against the World Champions South Africa.

In honour of this day, I have decided to try predicting the players who will make up the Lions touring party. The last 2 touring parties have been just either side of the 40-man mark, but I have gone a little larger due to Warren Gatland’s decision in 2017 to add 6 extra players midway through the tour to help keep the Test team fresh. The “Geography 6” did not get a great reception when they were announced, which led to Gatland largely backtracking and keeping them as unused substitutes. With player welfare having become even more important over the last 4 years and the 5 games before the Tests being spread over just 15 days, I can see Gatland picking a larger squad this time around, so I have gone on the idea of a 46-man touring party, which would allow Gatland to put out 2 completely different matchday 23s without any overlap of players.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has not made selection easy for Warren Gatland, as it has left the Six Nations unfinished and also ruled out the Summer and Autumn Test windows, so 2021’s Six Nations will be huge, but players may also find that their form in club matches is given more consideration this time due to the lack of international rugby. So, who do I think will be travelling to South Africa?

Hooker

With 46 players going, I would expect 40 of them to be specialist hookers. Ken Owens is probably in prime position to start the Tests and I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him captain some of the early matches. Owens is such a reliable player and was an ever-present for Wales under Gatland. With such limited time together, that familiarity will be key for the Lions. Next up is Jamie George, who has had control of the England number 2 shirt for a couple of years now. While he doesn’t seem as flashy as in his earlier years, he is super reliable at the set piece and will tackle all day long. For the other 2 spots, things get very interesting. Rory Best’s retirement has left Ireland lacking experience at the position and the lack of matches between now and the squad announcement is likely to count against them. Scotland have seen the number 2 jersey split between Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown, so it is highly possible that they could take both remaining spots, but I think that the strong carrying of Luke Cowan-Dickie will earn him a spot in the party,leaving space for just one of the Scots. While McInally brings a more open attacking game, I’m not sure that’s what Gatland will be looking for on this tour, so I can see him picking Fraser Brown, who can also cover as a back row in an emergency.

Prop

When I started looking at props, I must admit that I was surprised just how many players immediately clicked into place, leaving me only a few slots to fill.

At tighthead, Kyle Sinckler has become one of the best in the world, with good hands t go with his incredible strength and refusal to take a backwards step. It’s fair to say that his early removal in the World Cup final was a huge loss for England. I expect Sinckler’s biggest rival for the 3 shirt in the Tests will be Tadhg Furlong, who is another that can make a positive impact in both the set piece and the loose. 3 years ago, Tomas Francis was one of the infamous “Geography 6” but this time around I expect him to be a part of the initial squad as he has become a force in the scrums and is arguably another 3 whose removal benefited the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup. And for the final spot, I can see Zander Fagerson getting the nod, as he has become a regular for Scotland and impressed in a scrum that was improving during the Six Nations.

Moving over to the other side of the front row, I think that the current lack of a nailed down starter for Wales will leave them without representation at this position. Joe Marler had such a positive impact off the bench during the Rugby World Cup final, that I expect him to get a call-up alongside England teammate Mako Vunipola, who is arguably one of the best all-round looseheads when on top form. Cian Healy is another of the top looseheads and will provide plenty of experience. By the time the tournament comes around he will be 33, so I can see the tour being his international swansong. As for the final spot, strong performances over the net year could see Ellis Genge squeeze in as a physical carrier against the Super Rugby and Invitational teams, but right now I think the more likely player is Rory Sutherland, who was having a strong Six Nations before the pandemic brought it to an early end.

Lock

When initially starting my selections, I set aside 6 spots for the second row, but by the end I increased that to 7, as I noticed that a number of the locks I was picking were also experienced at playing in the back row, and with the strength of the Springbok pack I can imagine Warren Gatland going for a large pack. First off is the likely pick for the captaincy: Alun Wyn Jones, who brings so much experience and leadership to the team, as well as very rarely having a bad game. Next up were the youngsters that have quickly become key members of their teams, Maro Itoje and James Ryan. It wouldn’t surprise me to see these 3 making up the lock contingent for the first Test, but if anyone was to put themselves in contention, I can see it being Iain Henderson, especially as he could also provide a super physical option at 6. At this point I should probably make clear that I have excluded Geroge Kruis due to his upcoming move to Japan that will bring an end to his England career. Completing the group of specialist locks, I have Jake Ball getting in due to his larger size helping to bring some balance in the scrums. And then we come to Courtney Lawes, who in recent years has spent almost as much time at 6 as lock (though I personally think he is somewhat wasted at 6 internationally) and bolter Tadhg Beirne, who as well as being a large unit capable of covering lock/back row, has great ability in the loose and will be a big threat at the breakdown.

Back row

It’s probably no surprise that taking an extra lock came at the expense of a back row spot due to the players able to cover both, leaving me with 7 spots to fill here.

Personally, I feel that Taulupe Faletau could find that the pandemic leaves him with too little time to prove himself back to top form, so I can see him missing out here in favour of Billy Vunipola and CJ Stander, who can also cover openside flanker and will be keen to shine in the Test squad to show the Springboks just what they missed out on. They are the only specialist 8s I have going, with Ross Moriarty finding himself too far down the list with so many options at back row, however Josh Navidi has experience playing the position at international level and has the strength to hold his own against larger players. Navidi can be used at 8 due to the inclusion of fellow opensides Justin Tipuric and Hamish Watson, who both bring a lot to the attacking game in open play as well, while Sam Underhill can come in to fill the role of reliable tackler that Gatland used to see filled by Dan Lydiate, while he can also pick his moments to attack the breakdown. With so many other similar options, Jamie Ritchie and Tom Curry both see them missing out this time around in favour of Aaron Shingler, who provides a lineout option and more ballast at 6 to nullify the size of the South African packs.

Scrum half

Moving into the backs and scrum half was probably the hardest position for me to fill, just because I think that a lot of the current starters have serious questions about them. Wales are in the early days of trying to figure out their depth chart at 9 under Wayne Pivac, but Gareth Davies was so successful under Gatland that I’m confident he will go, while Rhys Webb was another Gatland favourite until his move to France made him ineligible.

For the other 2 spots at the position, I considered the Scottish pair of Ali Price and George Horne but don’t think Price has done enough to stand out from the crowd, while I see Horne being considered too small and not enough of a game manager to make the party this time around. Tomos Williams has been largely impressive for Wales, but I also see him missing out as I can’t see Gatland picking 75% of the scrum halves from the same nation. So that brings us on to England and Ireland, who wee both going through the Six Nations with players who were in the 9 shirts through the strength of their name and history rather than their recent performances. If we’re looking at the form performer before the pandemic, that was clearly John Cooney, and I think that he will get the recognition from Warren Gatland if he can continue the performances once rugby returns, especially as he also provides an option off the tee. This leaves a race between Conor Murray and Ben Youngs, and I think that based on current form, Ben Youngs has the slight edge, while he also has the running game to complement his tactical kicking that Murray lacks.

Fly half

So at fly half, I felt comfortable that Gatland would look to go for 3 specialists, with the potential for a couple of selections elsewhere in the back line also being able to cover the position in an emergency.

So immediately this throws up the question of where to class someone who will clearly make the squad: Owen Farrell. Farrell is perfectly capable of playing both fly half or centre, so could very easily be classed as a centre, allowing for another specialist fly half to be called up to the squad. However, for reasons that I will discuss shortly, I see him being looked at more as a fly half. Dan Biggar also makes the list as he continues to put in great performances that may not lead to super flashy attacking play, but effective, pragmatic play. Both Farrell and Biggar were picked alongside Jonathan Sexton in New Zealand, but I can see the trio being broken this time as Sexton’s poor form will see him left out in favour of Finn Russell, who probably won’t make the Test 23 but will prove a great attacking talent for the midweek games.

Now, on the off-chance that Farrell does make the squad but is considered more as a centre, I still don’t see Sexton getting picked barring a massive upturn in form, which leaves that final spot to be fought between Gareth Anscombe, Adam Hastings and George Ford. For me, Hastings loses out due to his lack of experience leading a team at this point, so it then comes down to the fitness of Gareth Anscombe. It’s worth remembering that he was set to be the starter for Wales at the Rugby World Cup before his injury against England, so if he can prove himself fully fit and back to top form, then I think his ability to also cover 15 will earn him the spot over George Ford, while any questions over Anscombe’s readiness will see Ford get the nod.

Centre

Owen Farrell being classed as a centre means that there are 5 spots to fill at the position in this squad. Now, when picking his centres, I think that Warren Gatland will take a moment to consider the opposition they are likely to face and choose to go for a highly physical set of midfielders to combat the Springboks.

As arguably one of the best 13s in the world, Jonathan Davies seems certain to make the squad provided he is fit, while I also think that Manu Tuilagi will be guaranteed a spot if fit. Hadleigh Parkes’ move to Japan has made it unlikely that he will be selected. The Scottish midfield seems somewhat unsettled at the moment, which I think will hinder them getting any representation at the position. For Ireland, I think that the physicality of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, combined with their experience playing together, will see the pair selected.

Now, these 4 players will do a good job bringing physical parity to the match, but there’s not much in the way of playmaking ability. This could be answered by utilising Farrell alongside one of them, but I can instead be the form of Henry Slade being rewarded with a spot in the touring party, as he has the extra playmaking ability from his time as a fly half earlier in his career, while he has also demonstrated surprisingly impressive physicality over recent years to make the England 13 shirt his own.

Back 3

And so we come to the back 3 and if you were counting, you’ll know that I’ve left 8 spots free to cover this area.

Stuart Hogg is the first person named here as an obvious selection at fullback and will be hoping to get his shot in the Tests after being forced to leave the tour of New Zealand early. Also joining him will be fullbacks Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, who will also be able to play on the wing if Gatland desires. Jonny May and Josh Adams have been 2 of the form wingers in the Six Nations in recent years so will be hoping to secure the wing spots for the Tests. And that leaves 3 spots for players who I think can have hugely positive impacts on the tour but will need some incredible fortune to make the Test squad as things stand. Darcy Graham has looked highly impressive for Scotland and will benefit from the experience of being on this tour with a view to competing for a Test spot on the next tour. Andrew Conway has taken over from Jacob Stockdale as the top Irish winger at the moment, while Stockdale will actually miss out on the final spot to bolter James Lowe, who becomes eligible through residency later this year and has averaged a try every 1.7 games though his time with the Chiefs and Leinster.


So, that’s my prediction. Who do you think Gatland will take with him?

Lions 2017: The Review

The Lions tour of 2017 is now over. An enthralling trip to New Zealand ended with the Lions winning 5 games, losing 3 and drawing 2, including the deciding third Test to end the Test series in a 1-1 tie.

Right from the moment the initial touring party was named, there have been controversies all the way through to the final minutes of the last Test. There were also a number of big individual performances, some from players we’d expect but many from players who many fans likely didn’t expect to have a big part on the tour, especially in the Tests.

As we begin to look ahead to the 2021 tour of New Zealand, I felt it right to say goodbye to the tour with a look back at what has happened this summer and a couple of suggestions as to what I feel should happen in future tours.

My individual match write-ups:

  1. Win v New Zealand Provincial Barbarians 7-13
  2. Loss v Blues 22-16
  3. Win v Crusaders 3-12
  4. Loss v Highlanders 23-22
  5. Win v Maori All Blacks 10-32
  6. Win v Chiefs 6-34
  7. Loss v New Zealand 30-15
  8. Draw v Hurricanes 31-31
  9. Win v New Zealand 21-24
  10. Draw v New Zealand 15-15

The coaches

While the Lions forwards did not always have their own way in the Tests, on the whole they did seem to have an advantage in the pack. I feel that both Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree both come away from this tour looking good, especially Borthwick. Borthwick is still relatively new to coaching a top-tier nation, having joined England alongside Eddie Jones in late 2015, so if he continues to improve I think he has a great chance of being involved with the 2021 tour.

Though a couple of the kickers struggled with the Adidas ball early in the tour, Owen Farrell really seemed to improve his success percentages as the tour reached the crucial last couple of Tests, which eventually proved the difference in the second and third Tests. To my memory, Leigh Halfpenny was the only Lion not to miss a kick at goal during this tour and Dan Biggar also had one of the better kicking percentages, so I feel this shows the importance Neil Jenkins had on this tour. Will he make the trip to South Africa in 4 years? It will probably depend in part as to which kickers are in the squad but he’s certainly got the experience.

Of all the Lions coaches, I feel that Andy Farrell comes out looking best. There were a number of times when the Lions defence held impressive attacking lineups to a low number of points. In the Tests, especially the third Test, Farrell made good use of the blitz defence to minimise the effect of the crash ball on the Sexton/Farrell channel and also put the All Blacks under heavy pressure, leading to a number of uncharacteristic mistakes. If the defence had not been so impressive, the All Blacks could have legitimately finished with a 3-0 whitewash. I think a lot of teams will have been taking note of Farrell’s defensive tactics ready for when they play the All Blacks. Much like Borthwick, if he can continue to impress over the next few years I expect to see him involved in 4 years.

Though the Lions did start to score a few more tries as the tour wore on, I feel that the attack was on the whole a real disappointment. In many of the matches, the Lions left too many chances on the field, and I cannot even remember them creating anything resembling a try-scoring opportunity in the last Test. This reflects badly on Rob Howley, who also didn’t impress in charge of Wales for the 6 Nations this year.

Warren Gatland may have orchestrated an unlikely series draw in New Zealand to go with his 2-1 victory in Australia 4 years ago, but I feel there were too many controversies relating to his decisions on this Tour. I am not a big fan of Gatland, as I feel his Warrenball tactics are outdated yet he has not made much effort to evolve them. When you consider the Lions needed a late – and somewhat controversial – penalty to beat an All Blacks side that spent over half the game a man down in the second Test, you could say that Gatland is extremely lucky to not be the only Kiwi disappointed at a New Zealand series victory. There were also a number of selection controversies that were surely heightened by his involvement with the Welsh national team, as a number of times the Welsh players appeared to be preferred both in the 41-man touring party and in the 23-man squads if there was a 50/50 decision to make. Even worse was his decision to call up 6 nearby players partway through the tour – including preferring a couple of Welsh players who could not even be considered squad regulars for Wales ahead of internationals who impressed in the 6 Nations and were considered extremely lucky not to make the initial 41 – only to then make an abrupt U-turn after seeing the public reaction and decide not to play the ‘Geographic 6’ unless there was no other choice. Personally I would not like to see Gatland or Howley involved with the 2021 tour, and also feel Wales will benefit from replacing both coaches at the end of their current contracts.

While I have no problem with the assistant coaches coming from the Home Nations national teams, as this will help the chemistry of the squad, I personally feel that the Head Coach at least should be a neutral as opposed to one of the Home Nations coaches. My preference would be to have a British/Irish head coach, though I appreciate there may not always be someone with enough experience for this role. Looking ahead to 2021, Eddie Jones has already suggested that he will leave his position with England after the 2019 World Cup, so I can see the Lions looking to bring him in to lead the tour of South Africa, but I will also be interested to see the development of international coaches like Gregor Townsend and Conor O’Shea over the next few years.

The schedule

With the increasing focus on player welfare in an already long season, it is always going to be difficult to get the scheduling right for a Lions Tour. Without even counting clubs releasing players in the buildup to their European Cup finals for the Messy Monday meeting of the Lions squad, there were some clear problems with the scheduling of this tour.

The performance against the provincial Barbarians was so poor, jet lag was commonly used as an excuse, due to the Lions having only arrived in New Zealand mere days earlier. Considering the players involved in their domestic league finals were never going to be involved in the first game – in fact Gatland tried to not even use players who had been involved in the semi-finals either – it would have made more sense to me for the majority of the squad to fly out a week earlier, with any remaining players making the trip out once their club commitments were over.

The suggestions are that the South Africa tour will contain fewer games, and while I initially thought these games were required to help find the right 23 for the Tests, I wonder if less games but more consistently challenging could be better. I feel the Lions could also be used as a way to give extra experience to lower-tier nations. For 2021, I would love to see a game against the Barbarians, 1 or 2 against Namibia and a couple of games against South Africa A and/or a ‘Super Rugby All-stars’ made up of the best available players from the South African Super Rugby franchises.

There has also been talk of including a test against Argentina as a warm-up game. While I agree they deserve a chance to play the Lions and appreciate there probably isn’t enough of an infrastructure yet to host an entire Lions tour, I would not be against a tour of the Americas, with the main test series being against the Pumas but also games against nations from the Americas Rugby Championship (USA, Canada, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile) as this would be good international experience for teams not yet in the top-tier and would also be good to improve the hype and visibility of rugby in these countries.

Player of the Tour

He may not have featured much outside of the Tests but Jonathan Davies gets my vote. In the 6 Nations I was not at all impressed and felt that the injury to Huw Jones and poor performances of Jonathan Joseph were the only factors putting him in contention of a place in the squad. However playing for Scarlets in the playoffs of the Pro12 he looked absolutely fantastic.

Not used until the third game against the Crusaders, a head injury saw him come off in the first half but in that time he had already done enough to show that he was the best option at 13 for the Tests and had worked well with Ben Te’o. During the Tests he was often heavily involved in the Lions’ best attacking play, but he was also an important part of the defence and caused the New Zealand backs no end of trouble in the third Test. I bet Jordie Barrett is still seeing him in his nightmares!

Team of the Tests

I am basing this purely on the 3 Test matches, so though Reiko Ioane was impressive in the first Test and for the Blues, he misses out here due to his quiet second Test and his non-involvement in the tour finale.

  1. Joe Moody
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Brodie Retallick
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Kieran Read
  9. Aaron Smith
  10. Beauden Barrett
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Owen Farrell
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. Israel Dagg
  15. Liam Williams

 

What are your thoughts on the tour? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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

What an 80 minutes of rugby! With the Test series tied at 1-1, the entire Northern Hemisphere rugby season had been building to the series-deciding final Test… which ended up deciding nothing! Though the All Blacks crossed for 2 tries, the metronomic kicking of Owen Farrell and the monster boot of Elliot Daly kept the Lions (who never created a try-scoring chance of note) in the game and some last-ditch Lions defending held the All Blacks just short in referee’s time to end the game 15-15 and end the series in a tie. While this felt like something of an anti-climax, the game itself was a fantastic affair and even though I knew the result by the time I was able to watch (I was at work when the game was played), I was still completely hooked on the game.

With the series now over, it feels odd not having to predict the next Test team, but I still wanted to carry on the tradition of putting pen to paper (finger to keyboard?) on my big thoughts from the game.

 

Controversy again

Ken Owens in my opinion is a very luck boy. At the final restart of the game with mere minutes left, Liam Williams fumbled the kick-off under pressure from Kieran Read and the ball bounced into the arms of the Welsh hooker, who was making his way back from an offside position. Romain Poite initially gave a penalty for offside and appeared to stick to this decision after speaking to the TMO, but by the time he spoke to the captains, he had changed his mind and ruled it an accidental offside, resulting in a New Zealand scrum that Rhys Webb was able to turn over.

The sections of World Rugby’s laws that would be applicable here is as follows:

11.6 Accidental offside

(a)

When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, the player is accidentally offside. If the player’s team gains no advantage from this, play continues. If the player’s team gains an advantage, a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

(b)

When a player hands the ball to a team-mate in front of the first player, the receiver is offside. Unless the receiver is considered to be intentionally offside (in which case a penalty kick is awarded), the receiver is accidentally offside and a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.

11.7 Offside after a knock-on

When a player knocks-on and an offside team-mate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to sanction if playing the ball prevented an opponent from gaining an advantage.

Sanction: Penalty kick

To be fair to Poite, this does leave a grey area that I feel this incident has fallen into, as it was almost impossible for Ken Owens to avoid the ball, however on viewing, he did appear to initially grab for the ball – a reflex action in my opinion – and then let go the moment he realised he was offside. Going on similar previous incidents, my opinion is that had the ball simply bounced onto Owens then a scrum for accidental offside would have been fair. However by actively grabbing the ball, even for a moment, he has played the ball so it should have been a penalty. We will never know for certain whether Beauden Barrett would have been successful with the kick (he finished 2 from 4 on the day) however the penalty was in such a good position I feel it would have been the game winner.

Next off the conveyor belt…

Among the changes that Steve Hansen made for this third Test were the introduction of the inexperienced Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett tot the starting XV. Jordie especially had a mixed game, with some great moments like his involvement in both New Zealand tries, but he was also put under a lot of pressure by the Lions’ defence (more on that later). I have faith that he will improve with more experience and he certainly looks like a player for the near future.

Laumape, however, looks like a player for right now! After his impact (literally in many cases) on the Hurricanes game and the second Test, I was not surprised to see the Hurricanes centre given the 12 shirt in place of the suspended Sonny Bill Williams. After the way he played, I wonder how easy it will be for Williams to earn the shirt back. He may not be the fastest, as we saw when Jonathan Davies was able to chase him down, but he makes up for it with his strong direct running – just ask Dan Biggar! He read the intentions of both Barrett brothers to take his try well on 15 minutes, and his part in the second try just before half time could only be described as Williams-esque: drawing in both Farrell and Davies to make the tackle on the second phase, before offloading the ball while on the way down to Anton Leinert-Brown who duly put Jordie Barrett over. At 24, he will just be starting to hit his prime, and to play regularly alongside so many All Blacks for the Hurricanes will only improve the chemistry of the national team’s back line.

Lions defence

In the Disney film Remember the Titans, during a stirring team-talk with his defence, assistant coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) tells them “I don’t want them to gain another yard! You blitz all night!” I get the feeling the Lions were given a similar speech pre-game. While Sam Warburton led the harassing of the breakdown, the Lions defensive line were constantly up in their opponents’ faces as quickly as possible, forcing them into a number of mistakes that you would not usually expect from the All Blacks. Passes were off target, catches were fumbled and kicks were put out on the full, most notably from Jordie Barrett who was frequently targeted by Jonathan Davies. As I worried about earlier in the tour, there were a couple of occasions where Beauden Barrett took advantage of the narrow blitz defence with cross-kicks. Luckily for the Lions, their pacy back 3 were fast enough to recover and then willing to put their bodies on the line to make the necessary tackle (Liam Williams becoming a human speed bump for Julian Savea sticks in my mind). When next series of Test matches comes around for New Zealand, it will be interesting to see if their opponents try to emulate the Lions’ defensive tactics.

 

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

Lions 2017: The Final 23

The last year of rugby culminates in this weekend’s big match: the series-deciding (and series-defining) third Test between the British and Irish Lions and the New Zealand All Blacks.

After a demoralising 30-15 loss in the first Test, the Lions took advantage of Sonny Bill Williams’ first half red card to draw the series level with a 24-21 victory. Williams’ 4-week ban means that Steve Hansen will be forced into making a change at 12 – possibly a first start for Ngani Laumape of the Hurricanes – after having already lost Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty to injury in the first Test. Waisake Naholo also failed a HIA in the second Test but I have not heard anything to suggest that he will be ruled out of the final Test. The Lions have been fairly lucky with injuries on this tour, however they have lost Stuart Hogg, Ross Moriarty, Robbie Henshaw and George North as the weeks have passed. Jared Payne has also been struggling throughout the tour, first with calf injuries and then in recent weeks with headaches. They did receive a boost, though, with the news that Sean O’Brien will receive no punishment for his part in Naholo’s head injury.

On my recent write-ups of the Lions games, I have tried to predict the 23 man squad for the next Test. As this will be the last time I do so for this tour, I decided to do something a little different. As well as predicting Gatland’s selections, I will also be showing the 23 I would pick if I was in his position. Obviously many of the positions will be the same, but there will also be some differences that could drastically affect the way the Lions play.

My Lions 23:

  1. Jack McGrath
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. Iain Henderson
  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. Mako Vunipola
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Peter O’Mahony
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Jack Nowell

My predicted Lions 23:

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

 

In both these squads, Mako Vunipola drops to the bench in favour of Jack McGrath. The coaches have already mentioned the importance of discipline – had Beauden Barrett been more accurate with his goal kicking, this weekend’s game would be a dead rubber – and Vunipola gave away almost a third of the Lions penalties, including a stupid late hit on Barrett and the illegal clean out that earned him a yellow card. His talent and his ability in the loose will keep him in the squad, but I see McGrath being given the chance to get at the All Blacks scrum from the start.

In the second row, Maro Itoje has to start, but there is a tough fight for the number 5 shirt. Alun Wyn Jones had a much better second Test and brings a lot of experience to the pack – which I think will give him the start in Gatland’s squad – but I worry that he could struggle if the game becomes as open as the first Test. Courtney Lawes has played well when given the chance but I feel that he will be kept as reinforcements from the bench. His yellow card aside, Iain Henderson was one of the best performers against the Hurricanes and brings a great combination of strength and dynamism tot he side. In my 23, I have paired the Ulsterman with Itoje, with Courtney Lawes ready to come on from the bench. Gatland has surprised us with at least 1 selection for each Test (Williams at 15 for the first, Farrell at 12 for the second) and I feel that the selection of Henderson on the bench alongside Courtney Lawes will be his surprise this time. His selection of Stander over O’Mahony last week suggests that the captain of the first Test has fallen down the pecking order, despite Stander having not had the best of tours. Itoje, Lawes and Henderson all have experience of playing 6 at international level so I think Gatland may pick two of them on the bench to give him more options inboth the second row and back row.

In the backs, I expect Gatland to stick with the Sexton/Farrell axis that won at the weekend, however I feel that this leaves the Lions too lightweight in the centre with players like Jerome Kaino, Naholo, Laumape and Ardie Savea likely to attack the 10/12 channel on a regular basis. Before going off in the second Test, Kaino had already successfully ran over the top of Farrell to make extra metres and as Laumape grew into the game, he and Savea were having some success making metres through the centre of the Lions defence. I therefore decided to pick Te’o at 12 to combat the All Blacks’ physicality, as he did when he kept Sonny Bill Williams marshalled in the first Test. Having a runner as strong as him in the back line also gives the Lions extra options in attack.

 

Regardless of the 23 men that Warren Gatland picks, you can be sure that they will be fired up and looking to do everything they can to win the series 2-1. Good luck to them!

 

What do you think of the squads? How do you feel each would do in the third Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

International Rugby Ramble

Farewell to a legend

This weekend saw the USA national rugby team make history by qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the top American qualifier for the first time ever. Their win over the Canadians in San Diego – on Canada Day, no less! – was by no means perfect, as they frequently struggled at the scrum, but they frequently impressed in open play and scored some beautiful tries on their way to a 52-16 victory. This result has confirmed the USA’s place in Pool C alongside England, France, Argentina and the currently unconfirmed Oceania 2 qualifier.

While there was a lot to celebrate at full time, the moment was also bittersweet, as it signalled the international retirement of the USA’s most-capped player. Rugby’s very own Captain America, flanker Todd Clever made his international debut in 2003 and has gone on to amass 76 caps, as well as appearing for the USA in the World Sevens Series on a number of occasions. For a number of years, he was the face of USA rugby, and even with the emergence of a number of talented Americans, he has remained a key part of the national team. I can’t help but wonder if the USA would have been more successful in the 2015 World Cup had he not been left out following a disagreement with then-Head Coach Mike Tolkin.

Clever was the first American to play in Super Rugby (for the Lions in 2009) and has even competed against the British and Irish Lions on their tour that year. He spent 5 years playing in the Japanese Top League and also played in the Aviva Premiership for Newcastle in the 2015/16 season.

Now back in America, he is a player and co-owner for the Austin Huns, who will be part of the inaugural Major League Rugby. Though PRO Rugby did not work out, I have heard a lot of promising things regarding the MLR and I look forward to seeing how things go once the league begins. I still feel that the USA have the potential to be the next rugby superpower and seriously hope that players continue to come through to take Clever’s place.

 

Clever is not the first captain to announce his international retirement this summer, as he is joined by Geogia’s Mamuka Gorgodze, who has similarly helped to put Georgian rugby on the map. I am sure that both of these players have been inspirations not just for their teammates, but for the children who will now want to grow up to represent their country on the rugby pitch. Though the big names may be stepping down, I fully hope and expect both national teams to push on and continue to improve without them.

 

A hairy situation

Over the weekend I read an article on Pundit Arena stating the Japanese Rugby Union raised the hairstyle of hooker Shota Horie as a topic of discussion and expressed their disapproval at a recent board meeting.

The hooker has won over 50 caps for the national team and plays for the Sunwolves, so should be considered an inspiration for those looking to get into rugby in Japan. From what I have read, the union seem to be citing the idea of integrity, yet does a players hairstyle really constitute such a problem? It’s not like he’s got a cock and balls shaved into the side!

Maybe its something to do with me being follicly challenged, but I would never imagine playing rugby with the hairstlyes that some of these pros do. That said, I do not see any problem with players having their hair as such and if I’m completely honest I couldn’t imagine players like Todd Clever or Richard Hibbard playing with close-cropped hair.

Even if they are going to be strict on a player’s personal appearance, are there not more important things for the JRFU to be worrying about right now? The World Cup they are hosting is just over 2 years away and the Sunwolves have only managed 2 wins and a draw in their first 28 Super Rugby games and are on track to finish bottom of the combined table for the second year running. I think the JRFU need to get their priorities right, quickly!

 

Lions tour disciplinary results

When I wrote about Saturday’s second Test between the Lions and All Blacks, I mentioned that I would not be surprised to see Sonny Bill Williams receive a ban for his high tackle on Anthony Watson. I was proved right as it was announced yesterday that the cross-code star had received a 4-week ban.

It would appear that the commission felt the same as me, that the incident was more reckless than intentional. I was however a little surprised at the length of the ban. The incident was considered a mid-range offence, which has a starting point of 6 weeks, however the ban was reduced to 4 weeks after considering mitigating factors including his early admission, disciplinary record, good character and remorse. The mention of his good disciplinary record surprised me as there have been other occasions in the past where he has been penalised for not wrapping in the tackle, so considering how strict World rugby are being with contact to the head I would have expected the entry-level 6 weeks to stand, possibly with an extra week added as a deterrent.

 

Williams wasn’t the only player attending a hearing over the weekend though, as Sean O’Brien was cited for a forearm on Waisake Naholo. I was surprised when the citing was announced as to me the incident looked accidental rather than reckless. Had it been picked up during the game I feel there would have been some justification for a yellow – harsh perhaps, but there was enough force for Naholo to fail a HIA – but I did not feel that there was enough to warrant a red card. The case was dismissed, which shows the commission felt that no action was required, as they could have issued a Citing Commissioner Warning if they felt the challenge was worthy of a yellow. This will be a huge boost for the Lions as they prepare for the series-defining third Test this Saturday.

 

What are your thoughts on these stories? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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

After New Zealand’s 30-15 last weekend, the Lions knew they needed a win in order to keep their hopes of a series victory alive. For this game, Warren Gatland made a number of changes – some expected, some surprising – to the 23-man squad, whereas Steve Hansen chose to limit his changes to those necessitated by the injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty.

In a game that started in awful conditions, the big talking point of an exciting but low-scoring first half was the red card shown to Sonny Bill Williams on 25 minutes for a shoulder to the head of Anthony Watson. The Lions went on to score 2 unanswered tries in the second half as conditions improved, but discipline issues allowed Beauden Barrett to keep the game tightly poised, before a late penalty from Owen Farrell gave the tourists a 21-24 victory.

With no midweek games remaining, both teams now have a week to recover and prepare for next Saturday’s third Test, which is now a winner-takes-all showdown. As we begin to look ahead to next weekend, these are my thoughts on today’s game.

 

The big moment

Where else could I start other than the red card? With the scores at 3-3 25 minutes into the game, Anthony Watson took possession of a high ball and was grabbed by Waisake Naholo as he came inside. Sonny Bill Williams came in to help complete the tackle but there was contact between his right shoulder and Watson’s head. After reviewing the replays, referee Jerome Garces made the decision to show the centre a red card.

The replays did not look good, but I do not feel that this was at all deliberate or an attempt to injure the player as some people have suggested, but instead an unfortunate accident. Despite Stuart Barnes’ insistence otherwise, Watson was not upright, but instead bent over due to Naholo tackling him around the torso and trying to drag him down. There was some force in the hit (would you expect anything else from a tackle by Williams?) however Watson passed a HIA in approximately 7 minutes, so the collision possibly looked worse than it felt. There was also the slightest attempt to wrap the left arm, however this was minimal enough that I feel the hit could still be considered a no-arms tackle, something that we arguably see too often in union from Williams and likely due in part to his switching between union and league.

I am not saying the punishment was harsh, when you look at the directives relating to high tackles this was clearly a reckless tackle and there were not enough mitigating factors, so there was no other option for Garces. It would not surprise me to see Williams fall foul of the citing commission and receive a ban.

The impressive thing is how well the All Blacks continued to play despite being a man down for 45 minutes (Mako Vunipola’s yellow meant that the numbers were even for 10 minutes of the second half) and they still created a couple of try-scoring chances and would have won the game had both kickers finished with 100% records (Barrett missed 3 penalties, Farrell a penalty and a conversion).

What did surprise me, though, was Hansen’s decision to immediately replace Jerome Kaino – an experienced operator and real physical presence – for the inexperienced Ngani Laumape. This is nothing against Laumape – he carried his form from the Hurricanes game into this match – but the decision to go down a man in the pack when the weather was resulting in a territorial game with a number of scrums baffles me and I wonder if the All Blacks would have done better delaying that substitution until conditions improved later in the game.

Justified selections?

I was very surprised to see Alun Wyn Jones retain his place in the starting lineup after a poor tour, however the conditions led to a less expansive game which appeared to suit him and he had a much better performance before being replaced by Courtney Lawes just before the hour mark. His partner in the second row, Maro Itoje, fully justified his promotion from the bench with a great performance. Despite his youth, Itoje led the line out with aplomb and the only real error I remember from him was a knock-on in the New Zealand 22 in the first half.

Due to the way the conditions were played, it was harder to judge how successful Gatland’s other changes were, though it must be noted that the Sexton/Farrell combination was highly influential in Taulupe Faletau’s try, which actually came when both teams were playing with 14 men. However towards the end of the game Ardie Savea and Laumape did begin to have some luck making big metres in the centre of the pitch, so I was a bit surprised Gatland refrained from bringing on Ben Te’o in the latter stages. I was also quite surprised not to see Rhys Webb introduced late on to take advantage of the extra man, but Conor Murray took his try well and controlled the game well with experienced play, including pulling an angry Kyle Sinckler away from Charlie Faumuina as Garces gave what ended up being the match-winning penalty, ensuring that there would be no reversal of the penalty for retaliation.

Given the weather and the man advantage in this game, it will be interesting to see what changes Gatland decides to make for next week.

Ill-disciplined Lions

Beauden Barrett was 100% from the tee last week, but Lions fans will be very happy to have seen him miss 3 penalties today. The discipline from the tourists today was absolutely shocking! The All Blacks had 10 shots at goal in this game and would have won the game had Barrett been a bit more accurate. Mako Vunipola alone gave away 4 penalties, including a stupid late charge on Barrett after he kicked downfield (Barrett nailed the kick at goal from where the ball landed) and then a silly clear out of Barrett at a ruck mere moments later, where he clearly used the shoulder as opposed to wrapping an arm. Admittedly this sort of challenge happens frequently in a game without punishment, but it was far too obvious from a player the referee is already paying attention to and Barrett did also take a while to get back to his feet following the challenge.

The Lions played with an extra man for 45 minutes, scored 2 tries to nil, yet still only won by 3 points. If they are to win the third Test, they will need to improve their discipline considerably

 

As next weekend is the final game of the tour, I have decided not to rush to name my final 23 today, but will instead have a post dedicated to it over the next few days, so keep your eyes open for that!

 

What were your thoughts on the second Test? Do you think I missed anything? How do you think the Lions will do next week? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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

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