Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

We are now a couple of days removed from the decisive third Test, which saw Morné Steyn’s late penalty hand the World Champions a 2-1 series win. So before we turn our attention from the Lions Tour and onto the Rugby Championship, all that remains is to pick the Team of the Series.

For this, I will purely be selecting based on the 3 Test matches, so players like Josh Adams and Tadhg Beirne who had solid tours but barely featured in the Tests will not make the squad. Now of course, the biggest issue with limiting myself to just the 3 Tests is that they were three of the worst matches that I have ever witnessed, so I hate to admit it but many of these selections came down to “who was the least worst?” rather than “who was the best?”

Let me know who would make your XV.

1) Trevor Nyakane: Had Wyn Jones been fit for the full 3 Tests then I think there could have been some more competition here, but injury limiting him to just over 40 minutes of rugby and the lack of consistency from Mako Vunipola or Rory Sutherland made this an easy win for the South African. Steven Kitshoff may have got the start for 2 of the Tests, but it was Nyakane who really shone, putting some poor performances behind him to justify his spot in the 23, winning a number of key penalties in the scrum.

2) Luke Cowan-Dickie: Bongi Mbonambi was far from his best, Malcom Marx didn’t get enough minutes and Ken Owens’ lineout issues were exploited, so Cowan-Dickie gets the nod here. Despite not quite reaching the level of the warm-up matches, he was the most reliable of the hookers, while his strong carrying and low body position caused an issue for tacklers.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Furlong did not always have things his own way but was largely reliable both in the scrum and around the park. Vunipola and Jones’ success against Frans Malherbe in the first and third Tests respectively did the Irishman a favour here.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Eben Etzebeth: Finally a position where it was hard to choose due to the high quality of performances. I am often critical of Maro Itoje as he too often toes the line of legality, but when he holds back just that tiny fraction and stays legal, he is a world class player and showed it throughout the series, with his performance in the first match arguably the performance of the series. Meanwhile Etzebeth did a great job of breaking up the Lions’ lineout at key moments, while also carrying hard in midfield to break the gain line.

6) Siya Kolisi: So as this series went ahead in South Africa, I am looking at the flankers from a South African point of view, meaning that 6 is the openside position. Tom Curry certainly had his moments, but what really stood out in his play were the penalties he conceded, while Kolisi combined solid play around the park with the burden of captaining the World Champions to a series victory.

7) Pieter-Steph du Toit: Courtney Lawes put in some solid performances, but nothing that stood out from what is expected of any player. The same can be said from Franco Mostert. Du Toit may not have even featured in half of the series, going off injured midway through the first half of the second Test, but while he was on the park he stood out, especially with his cleaning up of some erratic passing by Handré Pollard in the first Test.

8) Jack Conan: Boy did this series miss Duane Vermeulen. Kwagga Smith’s skillset did not suit the usual Springbok approach, while Jasper Wiese was a penalty machine. Jack Conan was quieter than ideal and butchered a fantastic opportunity to score in the second Test by carrying on what appeared to be a set move off a scrum rather than playing what was in front of him, but was by far the most impressive of the number 8s with a number of dynamic carries.

9) Faf de Klerk: Ali Price came close, but a couple of key interventions earned the Sale halfback the pick here. A fantastic game manager whose style of play is perfect for the current South African approach. Mad a try-saving ball-and-all tackle on Conor Murray off a Lions scrum 5m from the Springbok line, while put in a clever grubber for Lukhanyo Am’s try in the second Test.

10) Finn Russell: Maybe a controversial pick here as he only played 70 minutes, but Pollard was erratic at times with his passing and goal kicking, while the Lions’ tactics limited Biggar far too much. Russell came in and barely puta foot wrong, varying the game up much more and causing real problems for the South African defence. If only we’ seen more of this.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: Is Mapimpi one of he most underrated wings in international rugby? The wing is forced to play a largely defensive role and does it well, but when given the chance to score he was clinical, with a and an assist in the second Test. Imagine how dangerous he would be in a team that created more chances for him.

12) Robbie Henshaw: Damian de Allende was a solid reliable option at 12 and at many positions that would have been enough to earn selection, but unfortunately he finds himself up against Robbie Henshaw. Despite playing with a different centre partner in each Test (and shifted to 13 for the decider) Henshaw was reliable in both defence and attack, while his 2 breaks of note through the series were more than any other Lion managed.

13) Lukhanyo Am: Granted he wasn’t tested overmuch, but this series was anther great opportunity for Am to show his proficiency as one of the best defensive 13s in world rugby. Did a great job of shutting down a number of the Lions’ attacks and scored a crucial try as momentum shifted in their favour during the second Test.

14) Cheslin Kolbe: Arguably should have received a red and a yellow (if not 2 reds) in the second Test, but was allowed to play and earns his spot here. While quiet, his try was a timely reminder of his quality as he fended off Luke Cowan-Dickie and stepped Liam Williams. That Mapimpi and Kolbe basically earned selection by finishing off tries shows just how poor things were out wide.

15) Willie le Roux: The World Cup winner was relatively solid but far from spectacular, but even that was enough to beat out Stuart Hogg. It says it all that Liam Williams was in with a shot despite only playing in the decider, but his selfishness with a 2v1 was criminal. At least le Roux showed us how it should be done when given a chance later in the match, setting up Cheslin Kolbe for his try.

Six Nations 2021: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2021: Team of the Tournament

rugby six nations 2021 wales champions

Of course, there is only one way for me to cap off the competition: picking my Team of the Tournament. As always, I’d love to hear who you would pick, but without further ado, my Team of the 2020 Tri Nations is:

1) Cyril Baille: The general consensus used to be that a prop doesn’t reach their prime until their 30s, and while John Afoa may still be a great example of this, Cryril Baille is showing that this prime may now be coming earlier. The Toulouse loosehead is already a dominant scrummager, but the way that he gets involved around the park takes his performances to another level, with strong carries and reliable handling skills.

2) Julien Marchand: After years of being a superb back-up to Guilhem Guirado, it felt like this was finally the time for Camille Chat to dominate the French number 2 jersey. Instead, he finds himself now behind Julien Marchand, as one of the most dangerous hooker pairings in World Rugby. The Toulouse hooker is solid at the set piece and showed against Scotland how he could combine with Baille to dominate a tighthead, while throughout the tournament he showed his threat with ball in hand, combining with Antoine Dupont to make significant ground around the fringes.

3) Kyle Sinckler: Sinckler gets the spot here off the back of some strong displays, but the tighthead spot certainly wasn’t full of players clamouring for selection, while the fight for the starting spot between Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter proved costly for the Irish pair. Sinckler is a strong scrummager and physical defender, and hopefully a more attacking mentality for the English going forward can utilise him here too.

4) Iain Henderson: If you read my thoughts on the Irish second row last week, then you probably won’t be too surprised by my selections here. Henderson combines the physicality and set piece organisation of a lock with the engine and breakdown threat of a back row while also bringing plenty of leadership from his time captaining Ulster.

5) Tadhg Beirne: I was a massive fan of Beirne when he was at Scarlets due to his qualities, and now with a regular run of games in the Ireland XV he is showing that ability to the world. Equally capable of playing at lock or in the back row, I feel that he is still better suited as a lock as it opens up another spot in the back row for more tactical flexibility. After multiple Man of the Match awards in this year’s tournament, expect to see him as a regular in the Irish XV for the rest of this cycle.

6) Seb Negri: It was a tournament to forget for the Azzurri, but Seb Negri makes the list here by continuing to give a physical edge to the Italian attack despite the loss of Jake Polledri. The flanker continually gave 100% for the team and regularly looked one of their better players. Hopefully that effort will soon start translating into wins.

7) Hamish Watson: Anyone who says Watson is too lightweight to face the Springboks as part of the British and Irish Lions needs to watch him play more closely. The openside may not be the biggest guy on the park, but carries with such strength and determination you will often see him throwing players off and breaking the gain line when given the ball. Meanwhile in defence, he is a reliable tackler, and when you get him latched over the ball as a jackal, you’re not moving him until he completes the turnover or wins the penalty.

8) CJ Stander: Taulupe Faletau looked much better this season than he has in a couple of years and is unfortunate to just miss out here to Stander. The South African looked more mobile this year when carrying while still having a great impact around the park. Caelan Doris will be a great player for Ireland once back from injury, but Stander will be tough to replace.

9) Antoine Dupont: Is there a better scrum half in the world right now? Dupont seems able to do everything. He has pace, guile and elusiveness, while he always seems to pop up in the right spot to carry on (or finish off) attacks. Not only that, but unlike many young attacking 9s, he also has the cultured boot and tactical kicking game to put the team in the right areas on the pitch.

10) Matthieu Jalibert: Jalibert was my pick following the Autumn Nations Cup and just keeps hold of the spot here, ahead of Jonathan Sexton. He came into the tournament as aa starter courtesy of Romain Ntamack’s injury, but he quality of his play was such that he must surely be running his rival close now. Had he not suffered a head injury in the first half against Wales, I can’t help wonder if the Six Nations trophy would have gone to Les Bleus.

11) Duhan van der Merwe: He may not be the most reliable defensively, but the Edinburgh wing had a huge impact on matches when Scotland were going forwards. He has that strength to run over people out on the wing or even to crash through in midfield, but he also has the speed and athleticism to exploit any space given to him. I’ll be shocked if Warren Gatland doesn’t take him to South Africa after breaking Brian O’Driscoll’s record for defenders beaten in this year’s tournament.

12) Robbie Henshaw: My vote for player of the tournament. It doesn’t matter who you put around him or whether you play him at 12 or 13, you know that Henshaw will put in 100% effort from first whistle to last. Not only that, but he has such a broad range of skills that he can excel in defence, crashing up the middle or spreading the ball wide.

13) George North: I’ve been questioning how long North’s international career could continue with the quality of players now available to Wales on the wing, but a move to outside centre looks like it may have just extended his international career by a couple of years, and he even beats out Chris Harris for the spot in this XV. North has a great blend of pace and physicality that come in handy at a position where you will see such a variety of attacking play, but he has also adapted well to arguably the hardest position on the pitch to defend, while Wales look to be moving him around well in attack to create match-up nightmares or draw in defenders to release players like…

14) Louis Rees-Zammit: The Gloucester flier has the kind of pace that a former prop like me could only ever dream of… and he knows how to use it to get to the try line. Capable of also slotting in at 15 if required, he is capable under the high ball, and is not the defensive liability you may expect from many young attacking wingers.

15) Stuart Hogg: The Scottish captain is on fine form and will surely be wearing the 15 shirt in the first Lions Test. Hogg has the all-round game to act as a second playmaker, with a howitzer of a right boot to put his team in the right areas of the pitch. And you can always guarantee that the Exeter fullback will give 100% to the cause and wear his heart on his sleeve.

Guinness Six Nations

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Ireland kicked off their Six Nations campaign at home to England on Saturday, but it’s safe to say things didn’t go as planned for them. England came flying out the blocks and went ahead within 2 minutes through Jonny May, while tries from Cian Healy and Elliot Daly left the halftime score at 10-17. A second half brace from Henry Slade confirmed England’s victory, while Ireland got a late consolation through John Cooney for a final score of 20-32.

 

Welcome returns

It was great seeing Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi back in the starting XV for England this weekend  and for me, it was one of the key reasons for their success. Often in recent matches, England have found themselves lacking the big ball carriers, which has often limited their attacking options. However having these two big names back, along with Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler in the front row, gave the team a number of options when looking for the hard metres and this gave the attack a new edge where they could be attacking the Irish in a number of different ways.

Further than this, the added impetus from a couple of big names returning after so long could draw a big performance from the players around them, as happened in this game. Everyone stepped up in this match and did everything they could to deny the Irish even a foothold in the game. Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose were quickly closed down every time they got the ball and it gave the players outside them very little decent ball to attack with.

Watching this game, I found the performance reminiscent of the win over New Zealand in 2012 under Stuart Lancaster. After a poor 2018, are things once again on an upwards trajectory for England?

Sorely missed

Though I wouldn’t say that his presence would have given Ireland victory, I really think Rob Kearney was missed this weekend. When it was suggested that Robbie Henshaw could start at 15 in the days leading up to Joe Schmidt’s team announcement, I scoffed at the idea considering how long it has been since he frequently played the position. I understood that with Kearney having just 1 appearance for Leinster under his belt since his return from injury meant he was unlikely to play, but I thought that we would see his deputy at Leinster, Jordan Larmour given the 15 shirt given his recent experience in the role.

Henshaw played a decent game, but he was put under heavy pressure which is exactly what you don’t want when playing in a position that you’re not 100% comfortable in. England continually had him running around his 22 trying to get to their kicks, which often found him finally getting the ball in a corner, close to his line, with a wall of white stopping him doing anything.

I can’t help wonder if Kearney’s presence would have helped as he is so good at getting himself in position ahead of time, it may have allowed him to deal with the England kicking game better. I think Kearney’s ability under the high ball would have been utilised too, as Elliot Daly was not tested in this area anywhere near as much as I expected given his performances in the Autumn Tests.

With a trip to Scotland (who will likely be fielding 2 recognised fullbacks in Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn again) next weekend, it will be interesting to see if Henshaw keeps his place in the 15 shirt.

Unused

With just a couple of minutes left, and the game won, Eddie Jones brought on George Ford, Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie from the bench. Now first off, I don’t understand why these changes were made with just a couple of minutes left as I doubt the players they replaced all got inured at the same point, but there was no time for them to have any impact on the match or really gain anything from the experience. And if he was just looking to give the players a cap, then why was Dan Robson left on the bench?

Gregor Townsend did something very similar in bringing on Adam Hastings with just a few minutes left, but besides getting players an extra cap, I don’t see what benefit it has for anyone!