Lions Tour 2021: British & Irish Lions v Japan

Lions Tour 2021: British & Irish Lions v Japan

The 2021 British and Irish Lions tour kicked on Saturday at Murrayfield as the Lions warmed up against Japan. While Japan put up a brave fight, the strength of the Lions pack saw them largely in control of the match and they opened up a 21-0 halftime lead, with tries from Josh Adams, Duhan van der Merwe and Robbie Henshaw. The Lions continued the assault after the break, and just minutes after Courtney Lawes had a try chalked off for losing control as he tried to ground the ball, Tadhg Beirne was put through a gap just outside the Japanese 22 and sprinted in for a try under the posts. As the replacements began to change things up, the momentum changed and the Brave Blossoms began to get some chances, with Kazuki Himeno scoring just before the hour mark and being held up over the line up in the final 10 minutes. The Lions emerged with the 28-10 victory, but it came at a cost, with Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric both ruled out of the rest of the tour, with Adam Beard and Josh Navidi being quickly drafted in to replace them and Conor Murray taking over the role of Tour Captain.

Tactical Insight

With the quality of back rows available to the British and Irish Lions, I think that the selection of Tadhg Beirne at 6 gave an insight into Warren Gatland’s plans for the Test matches.

The South African pack is a formidable unit and the word “behemoth” would be an accurate word to describe many of the players. While the Lions have some big units available in the back row, many of their players are smaller, more technical players. However, a number of the second rows selected for the touring party—Beirne, Maro Itoje, Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes—all have significant experience of playing at 6, so could appear on the flank rather than at lock to add some extra ballast to the pack. Not only would they add ballast at the scrum, but it’s also another option at the lineout—another South African weapon.

Of these players, I think that Henderson (and now Itoje, with Alun Wyn Jones out) are more likely to appear at lock, where they will add energy and work rate with Beirne my favourite for the number 6 shirt, as he is a constant threat at the breakdown, but also has the engine and ability in the loose to be a legit threat to the Springboks—just look at his try and his perfectly weighted kick against Japan.

As we watch the upcoming matches against the United Rugby Championship sides, keep an eye on the personnel filling the blind side spot.

Depth in the back row

It’s not just the Lions who have deep options in the back row, as Japan demonstrated in this game. With their star from the World Cup Kazuki Himeno having only recently joined up with the team following the Highlanders’ Super Rugby campaign, he started this match on the bench, with captain Michael Leitch joined in the starting XV by Amanaki Mafi and Lappies Labuschagné.

Labuschagné was arguably one of the best players on the pitch for Japan, winning a number of crucial turnovers, whilst getting involved in the wide channels in attack. Neither Mafi nor captian Leith had the best of games against such a strong Lions outfit, but their quality is well known. However it was no surprise to see the Japanese attack looking more threatening once the replacements cam on in the second half, with Himeno looking extremely dangerous every time he got close to the line, and showing some really smart play all around the park. But the real surprise for me was his fellow replacement Tevita Tatafu. The 25-year-old was an absolute unit, using his size and strength to crash over the gain line with his carries, swatting off Dan Biggar with ease.

While Japan play some beautiful rugby, sometimes it appears to lack the grunt to push over the gain line and draw in the defensive line, leaving them often going sideways rather than forwards. As Japan face Ireland in the coming weeks, I would suggest that the Brave Blossoms pick a back row of Himeno, Labuschagné and Tatafu to challenge the Irish back row, with Mafi and Leitch providing experience and quality off the bench.

On a wing and a prayer

While he may have been able to celebrate a try on his British & Irish Lions debut, Duhan van der Merwe may count this as a missed chance to secure a spot in the Test team.

With the Lions playing quite a narrow defensive line, the Scottish wing found himself caught too far inside on a couple of occasions, allowing Japan to get over the gain line by going round the outside with players like Matsushima. While it never proved overly costly in this match, it’s hard to imagine that players like Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe and Sbu Nkosi would not take advantage of this, while a more physical Springbok centre pairing could draw the Lions’ defensive line in even narrower, leaving van der Merwe even more exposed.

Sadly, it wasn’t just the defensive positioning that proved an issue yesterday, as the giant wing also struggled under the high ball, being beaten in the air by smaller opposition on several occasions. South Africa’s march to World Cup glory (currently still the last Test they played) was built on a solid defensive effort, set piece dominance and the territorial kicking of Handré Pollard and Faf de Klerk. If a player in the back 3 is showing signs of issues under the high ball, then they will find themselves under constant pressure. Luckily the Lions have 2 fantastic players in Anthony Watson and Liam Williams who are capable of covering the entire back 3 and dangerous in the air, another wing in Josh Adams who is solid under the high ball and another elite 15in Stuart Hogg, so they have the personnel to deal with the South African kicking game. Unfortunately for van der Merwe, that will likely come at his expense.

feat rugby british and irish lions south africa sringbok 2021 promo header

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

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Super Saturday’s second match saw England and Ireland completing their 2021 Six Nations campaigns in Dublin. England had been the victors in their recent encounters and soon took a 0-3 lead through the boot of Owen Farrell, though Jonathan Sexton soon cancelled this out. The match was a tight contest but Ireland found the breakthrough going into the second quarter with a lineout move, overthrowing to Jack Conan who peeled off the back of the line and – under pressure from Tm Curry – played the ball back into the gap between him and the line and straight into the hands of Keith Earls, who had timed his run to perfection an rounded Jonny May to go over in the corner. Sexton added the conversion before trading penalties with Farrell, and it looked like the game would see itself out to half time, until Hugo Keenan beat Elliot Daly in the air competing for a Sexton bomb into the 22. This put the Irish on the front foot and after a couple of phases, they managed to bring the ball up to the English 5m line, before Jack Conan picked from the base of the ruck and managed to power and stretch his way to the line for a second try, which Sexton converted for a 20-6 lead at the break.

Ireland looked like they had scored another try 9 minutes into the second half when Earls dotted down a Sexton cross-kick, however the try was chalked off for a knock on from Cian Healy in the build-up and the men in green were forced to settle for a penalty to extend their lead, while Sexton added another penalty on the hour. Things were looking bad for England, who were without a recognised fly half having replaced George Ford and then lost Owen Farrell to a head injury just minutes later – Max Malins having also pulled out the night before – but they were given a lifeline as Bundee Aki was shown a red card for a high tackle on Billy Vunipola. England kicked the resulting penalty to touch and after pulling in the Irish pack to defend the driving maul, Jamie George peeled off to the blind side and fed Ben Youngs to cross in the corner. The English discipline was – unsurprisingly for this tournament – lacking and Sexton added 2 more penalties to secure the game. There was still time for one final hurrah from England, and after Conor Murray was sent to the bin, stand-in fly half Dan Robson threw a wide pass to put Jonny May over with just minutes left, Daly converting for a final score of 32-18, that condemned England to a 5ᵗʰ-place finish.

James Ryan may be one of the darlings of Irish rugby, but I would argue that Saturday’s pairing of Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne is Ireland’s strongest second row.

While both of the pair have the physicality of locks, they play like extra back rows in the way they carry in the loose and act around the contact area, while they both have the energy to play the full 80 minutes at 100%. Even with CJ Stander having just played his last game in an Ireland shirt, the team has so many great options in the back row – Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Will Connors to name just a few – that having Beirne and Henderson in the second row allows the team more chance to tailor the back row to fit their opposition, such as playing carriers at 6 and 8 or a more defensive option of Connors and van der Flier on the flanks.

Do I expect the Irish to stick to this pairing once Ryan returns from injury? Not likely, though Beirne may return to 6 to keep the pair in the starting XV, but I feel that this is the second row partnership that will lead to the best Irish performances.

England

After last week’s great performance against France, was it any surprise to see England revert to type against Ireland?

Less that 2 years ago, England were playing in a World Cup final, but if you look deeper, the team was already stagnating under Eddie Jones. The win over New Zealand was the only performance of note in that tournament, with England benefitting from facing France and Argentina – both of whom were woefully lacking form – in the pools, and playing a quarterfinal against an Australian team that was also at a low point.

Following the tournament, England should have done as France had, change coaches and bring in the youth to give them a full 4 years playing together to build ready for RWC2023. Instead, Jones has stayed in place and the team has fallen apart. Too many players are picked on the strength of their name and performances years ago, while the form players who should be the stars of this team are not even getting picked for the squad. This has proved especially disastrous this year with the decision to keep picking Saracens players who had been relegated the the Championship so not played rugby for months, and it has left the team with players lacking match fitness in key positions. Meanwhile, the team has also unquestioningly gone for the new Eddie Jones approach of kicking the ball away at every opportunity and trusting a defence that isn’t actually as good as the think they are, while giving away dozens of ridiculous and completely avoidable penalties that kill off any chance of competing.

This 5ᵗʰ-place finish should be the last straw. Now is the time to move on from Jones before the team stagnates any further. 2 years is still enough time to bed in players like the Simmonds brothers and build this team up ready for the next World Cup.

Come on RFU, make the right decision!

Lions Watch

As well as the lock pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain HendersonKeith Earls put in a timely performance to remind Warren Gatland of his reliability. Jonathan Sexton has also done a great job of guiding the Irish attack as it has grown more expansive during the tournament.

Meanwhile, another anonymous display that included an early removal will surely put the nail in the coffin of George Ford‘s Lions chances, while Mako Vunipola was pulled off at half time after struggling in the scrum.

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

After a week off from the competition, the 2021 Six Nations returned with just 2 of the 3 scheduled matches following an outbreak of COVID-19 in the French squad. First upon Saturday was a trip to the Stadio Olimpico, where Italy were hosting Ireland.

The Azzurri were already missing a number of players coming into the match and lost scrum half Stephen Varney to injury in the warm-up, but took an early lead through the boot of Paolo Garcia. Ireland soon drew level through Jonathan Sexton, before Iain Henderson thought he had scored the opening try of the match, only for referee Mathieu Raynal and TMO Romain Poite to both decide that he had lost control during the grounding. This only delayed the inevitable though, as a series of phases just short of the line drew in the Italian defence, allowing the ball to be spread to Garry Ringrose, who crossed next to the posts, giving Sexton an easy conversion. Sexton added another penalty and then on the half hour match found themselves over for another try, with a break downthe blind side of a maul from Jamison Gibson-Park, Sexton and Keith Earls, and when the ball came left, Garry Ringrose offloaded to Hugo Keenan on a great line to go in unchallenged, leaving Sexton with another easy kick for the extras. Just a few minutes later, some silky hands from Ronan Kelleher, Sexton and Jordan Larmour saw Will Connors put over for a try out wide with Sexton scoring a much more difficult conversion. The game was at risk of getting away from the Azzurri, but a penalty at the end of the half gave them a lineout 5m out, and after bringing the ball infield for a couple of phases, Garbisi attacked the blind side and managed to get his arms through the tackle to offload to Johan Meyer for the try, which the young fly half converted for a 10-27 halftime deficit.

That was pretty much the last time that the Italians looked like scoring in this game, while Italy soon found themselves securing the bonus point as CJ Stander powered over just a couple of minutes after the restart, Sexton again converting. The rest of the third quarter was a dull affair as the replacements stared to break up the game, but all that changed on the hour mark as replacement prop Giosuè Zilocchi was sent to the bin for going off his feet at a ruck. From the resulting penalty, Kelleher took the tap and go, and a couple f phases later CJ Stander had his second try, though this was ruled out when the TMO found a knock on in the build-up. This as just a brief reprieve however, and after captain Luca Bigi was also sent to the bin, the Irish pack used their numerical advantage to control a 5m catch and drive, pushing Will Connors over for his second of the day, with Sexton once again adding the extras. The Irish thought they had another try just minutes later as James Lowe came onto a Craig Casey pass at pace to burst through the Italian line, but a TMO referral eventually decided that the replacement scrum half’s pass had gone forwards. There was time for one more try from the Irish, as one final attack ended with Sexton throwing a flat miss pass to send Keith Earls over in the corner, and the Irish captain kicked the conversion to secure a 10-48 victory.

Italy

This was the most disappointing performance so far in this year’s competition from the Azzurri, but it’s almost understandable. While they have been playing some great rugby at times, they are seriously missing the spark that some of their absent stars create.

While Johan Meyer can be relied on to make a couple of impressive carries per game – usually out on the wings – he and Michele Lamaro have so far failed to replicate the impact that the injured Jake Polledri has on a game, while Danilo Fischetti’s impact was missed in and around the breakdown today. Meanwhile in the back line, injuries have ruined what looked to be a bright future for Michele Campagnaro, while Matteo Minozzi’s 11 tries in 22 Tests have been severely missed as he ruled himself out of the tournament, describing himself as “physically and mentally tired, a bit too much to live another two months in a bubble.” And then to add to this, livewire scrum half Steven Varney was forced to pull out with an injury in the warm-up, leaving Italy with more experienced, but less deadly options.

Sometimes all it takes is one spark of magic to turn something into nothing, and these are the players who would usually be providing it. Paolo Garbisi is certainly trying his best to provide it when playing with ball in hand, but then lets himself down with his kicking game that invites the opposition to counter. Seb Negri can always be relied on to run hard, but Polledri’s absence is allowing defences to put more focus on stopping him, while Montanna Ioane has shown glimpses of the danger he possesses, but has generally been well marked by defences so far.

This spell of playing without so many gamechangers will benefit Italy in the long term, as it will force other players to step up and create those chances, leading to even more dangerous options when the usual stars return, as defences will have more stars to account for and will not be able to double up on them. If Franco Smith could find a way to convince the currently uncapped Paolo Odogwu to switch allegiance to Italy, that would be another player that defences would need to account for in their defensive planning.

Ireland

When it comes to the British and Irish Lions, the second row position is always going to be a tough call, with all 4 countries boasting such talent at the position. One person who is surely securing his place in the 2021 Lions squad (assuming there is one) is that of Tadhg Beirne.

Finally enjoying a spell of consecutive games in the Irish starting XV, Beirne has fully settled into Test rugby and is now showing the level of performances that those who have watched him play regularly for the Scarlets and Munster knew he was capable of. He’s a huge player and can use his physicality well, but is also so fleet of foot in the loose and has such impressive handling skills, while he is also an expert at jackaling over the ball while still supporting his weight. With this wide skillset and an incredible engine, he is one of the few players who is successfully managing to play both lock and back row to such a high quality.

With this Man of the Match performance, it is becoming all but impossible to drop him from the XV, putting him at 6 if you want a bit more ballast in your pack, or moving him into the second row if you want to add a different dynamic into your back row. Against the Springboks’ giant pack, don’t be surprised to see a dual-position player like Beirne earning a spot in the Lions squad, and potentially even pushing for a spot in the XV.

Lions Watch

So I’ve already waxed lyrical about Tadhg Beirne above, but I think that the entire starting back row for Ireland enhanced their chances of making the Lions squad, with CJ Stander continuing to highlight a return to form with another try, while Will Connors showed his reliability in defence as well as scoring 2 tries.

While nobody really stood out as having a bad performance, another solid performance from Jamison Gibson-Park and a great increase in tempo from replacement Craig Casey will surely be making it difficult for Conor Murray to earn his spot back when fit, while the continued form of Hugo Keenan means that Jordan Larmour is becoming somewhat of a forgotten figure, having a largely quiet first half today before being replace by Keith Earls.