Category Archives: Lions

Lions: Refine or Redesign?

Warren Gatland has some big decisions to make ahead of the second Test. (c) NAFW.

The Lions are 1-0 up and that is the fact that really counts. But this series is far from won and the Lions will need to greatly improve their performance on Saturday if they are to prevent the Wallabies from leveling matters. Warren Gatland’s game plan didn’t work out as hoped in the first Test and the Lions coaching staff will need to think deeply about how they proceed for the second, and the personnel they choose.

The Lions lineout stats make good reading if taken on a purely numerical basis (100%). However, all but one of those takes were at the front, meaning Mike Phillips wasn’t a running threat and the Lions’ backs weren’t getting ideal possession to play with. Ben Mowen and the Wallabies seemed content to give up the front of the lineout in order to mark up in the middle and at the tail. The Lions appeared to fear Mowen’s defensive prowess and refused to even attempt to beat him at the back.

Jonathan Davies had a good game at 12, but he doesn’t offer the same go-forward as Jamie Roberts. If the Lions are going to continue to accept the easy option at the front of the lineout, then Roberts or Tuilagi have to be considered as the starter at 12. Both of them would be stronger at getting over the gain line and providing Sexton with better quality possession. It would be harsh to drop Davies, but he didn’t look ideal for the role of gain line breaker.

On Saturday, the Lions suffered from an inability to beat a strong Australian defence in phase play. Missing Roberts didn’t help in that regard, but the Lions can’t rely on one player to get them on the front foot. A re-think of the back row looks necessary, with getting an explosive ball carrier into the side important. Sean O’Brien is a player you can count on to tie in defenders and make yards. His hard work with ball in hand close in to rucks creates space for the likes of O’Driscoll and North out wide.

A striking aspect of the Lions’ game plan in the first Test was their utter refusal to kick the ball into touch. The only kicking we saw from Sexton were short chips in behind the defence, a couple of cross-field kicks and a few garryowens. Likewise, Mike Phillips kept all his box kicks well infield. Even when the halfbacks had time to clear directly into touch from their own 22, they kept the ball in play. That ploy simply had to be backed up by a consistently strong kick chase, especially when Phillips was kicking so poorly.

Unfortunately, the Lions were far from their best on kick chase on all but a handful of occasions. Again, the return of Roberts should improve that, and Gatland could do worse than bringing Tommy Bowe into the team to add more aerial ability. Whoever it will be chasing down the kicks, the Lions need to re-focus this ploy of kicking back to the Wallabies.

Jamie Roberts arrives. Wales Grand Slam Celebration, Senedd 19 March 2012 / Jamie Roberts yn cyrraedd. Dathliadau Camp Lawn Cymru, Senedd 19 Mawrth 2012

If Roberts is fit, his return would add a lot to the Lions’ play. (c) NAFW

In the second half, the back three of Ioane, Beale and Folau showed signs of their sharp counter-attacking game, with one scything break from Beale after a badly contested Phillips kick standing out. In refining this game plan, Gatland and his halfbacks need to ensure that their kicks are more contestable (particularly Phillips) and that the Lions chase is far stronger. Folau, Ioane and Beale will be better in the second Test and they just can’t be given the space to counter-attack.

All of these things tie into the idea of refining the current game plan and trying to beat the Wallabies with ‘positive’ attacking play and by scoring tries. That is certainly the approach I would favour. It’s definitely understandable if Gatland doesn’t want to change a winning team, but the Wallabies left 14 kickable points behind in the first Test and Gatland can’t rely on that happening again.

The alternative would be a more ‘negative’ approach and is surely tempting to Gatland now that the Lions are 1-0 up. It’s something that the Demented Mole discussed in his/her excellent article on Dan Lydiate. The Welsh blindside would likely be the key personnel change to such a game plan.

The Lions didn’t kick for territorial gain at all in the first Test, but Gatland may consider completely changing to a system based around territory. Bringing in Lydiate would mean having the best back row defender in the Lions squad on the pitch. Asking Sexton to kick deep into the corners, securing lineout possession and eking out penalties with a low-risk attacking plan to allow Halfpenny to kicks the points may be enticing.

Defensively, Lydiate and the back row would be tasked with stifling Will Genia’s creative play, while the centres would aim to limit the amount of ball that gets wide to Folau and co. As expected, the Wallabies look at their most dangerous in open, broken-up play. This possible change of game plan would be about pining the Wallabies deep in their own half and trying to shut down their attacking flair.

My personal preference for open rugby, and desire to see another Test as exciting as the first, means I hope Gatland focuses on refining the game plan from the first Test. Being loyal to the guys who helped him to come away with a win would be laudable, but I certainly feel that the Lions will have a better chance of wrapping up the series if they make changes to the starting team.

On the checklist for refinement are winning ball at the tail of the lineout, adding more carrying punch to the team, clarifying the kicking tactics, adding aerial ability to the kick chase and limiting the counter-attacking opportunities for the Wallabies. A 10% improvement in each of these areas would probably be enough to earn the Lions a first series win since 1997.

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Photos: National Assembly for Wales.

Video Post: James O’Connor Wallabies Outhalf?

Wales vs Australia

O’Connor looks set to start at outhalf against the Lions. (c) Salman Javed.

Judging on the available evidence, I think James O’Connor will start at outhalf against the Lions in the first Test. My personal preference would be for Quade Cooper to start at 10, and use O’Connor at 14. If the Reds playmaker impresses on Saturday against the Lions, who knows? However, for now Cooper remains outside the Australian squad and everything Deans has said up up to this point suggests it will be O’Connor running out at 10. So what does the Rebels man bring to the outhalf position?

O’Connor defends bravely, can beat players with his footwork, place-kicks competently, is explosively quick, has a high work-rate and passes excellently. All in all he’s a very complete rugby player, as highlighted in the video below. His passing game from outhalf would allow the Wallabies to attack in wide channels from first-phase, as well as in open play. O’Connor is very accurate in this regard, and he’s good at spotting space out wide in defences.

However, that vision doesn’t extend to the space in behind defences and that’s one of the areas where O’Connor lags behind Jonny Sexton. He rarely puts grubbers, chips or cross-field kicks in behind defences. The first thought for him is nearly always either to pass or run. This should allow the Lions defensive line to push up quickly without worrying too much about the space left in behind.

That inability to vary his game leads to the biggest problem with O’Connor playing outhalf: he doesn’t ‘boss’ his team around the pitch. He’s relatively inexperienced at outhalf and, as anyone who has ever tried to step into the number 10 shirt from another position will tell you, controlling a team from 10 is very demanding. O’Connor seems to struggle with making decisions about where he should direct play, when to kick and when to attack.

The Wallabies likely ploy to counteract that deficiency is to use several playmakers throughout the team. As you’ll see in the video, they’ve done this in the past by using a distributing second-five-eighth outside O’Connor, namely Berrick Barnes. Also, Will Genia at 9 will take on a lot of the responsibility for marshaling the forwards around the pitch and deciding when to kick. Also, I think Kurtley Beale will have a big role to play in this regard, stepping up from fullback.

That should allow O’Connor to focus on his strengths. If Australia use other playmakers intermittently, that will allow O’Connor to pop up in wider channels, where he is lethal. If Deans does decide to go with a system similar to this, it will ask demanding questions of the Lions’ defence. With O’Connor, Beale and Barnes/Lealiifano (if they play a creative 12 rather than a bosher like Horne) swapping around the pitch, there will be danger from all angles.

I’m still unconvinced that outhalf is O’Connor’s best position, but he’s still a good option there. While I feel that Cooper would be a better choice for the Wallabies, having O’Connor at 10 is not going to weaken them greatly. The 22-year-old (with 37 caps!) is among the best players in the world. He comes across as very mentally strong and I think this Lions tour will see him stepping up a level on what we’ve seen before.

Check out the video below for some examples of what O’Connor can offer from outhalf, and some of the areas where the Lions could have an advantage.

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Photos: Salman Javed.

Lions Selections

South Africa v British & Irish Lions - 2nd Test

There’s nothing quite like it.

Cian Tracey and I have chosen our Lions squads. Below are the choices, as well as some reasoning on the different picks. Let us know what you think, and what you’d change! This is the last day we’ll all be able to speculate and debate, so get involved.

Fullbacks

Murray: Halfpenny, Kearney     Cian: Halfpenny, Kearney

Agreement here in both squads. Cian has Halfpenny down as the starter after his Player of the Tournament-winning 6N campaign, and says he’ll run the outhalf close for place-kicking duties. Kearney’s relatively quiet season means he’s usurped as the starter. Murray would expect the Lions environment to bring the best out of Kearney. Halfpenny is first-choice due to his form and complete game.

Wings

Murray: North, Cuthbert, Zebo, Bowe     Cian: North, Cuthbert, Zebo, Bowe

Again total agreement, making both squads identical in the back three. Cian’s got the two Welsh boys as Test starters, and Zebo down to cover fullback. Bowe’s finishing ability and experience amongst a group of young outside backs gets him the nod. Murray has Zebo down for sheer talent, despite a nervy game against Clermont. Bowe’s Lions experience gets him in. On form, Cuthbert ahead of North, but the latter a more polished player. The only disagreement was on first reserve, Cian going for Visser, Murray for Maitland.

Centres

Murray: BOD, Roberts, Tuilagi, Hogg     Cian: Roberts, BOD, Tuilagi, Davies

Murray has BOD and Roberts down as his Test partnership. Roberts hasn’t has the best season, but past glories are enough beside BOD’s sheer class. Tuilagi is the impact sub. The same three are in Cian’s squad, although he felt that Roberts actually had an excellent 6N. He has Davies in the squad as another bench option. Murray went for Hogg as back-up in the centre and at full-back.

Outhalves

Murray: Sexton, Wilko, Hook     Cian: Sexton, Farrell, Madigan

No need to discuss Sexton. Murray went for Wilko as back-up, with Cian opting for Farrell. Murray feels that Wilko can place-kick and tackle just as well as Farrell, as well as offering more passing ability and a good touring presence. Cian felt that Farrell is being underrated and controls his backline superbly well and is capable of setting a quick attacking platform for those outside him.

Cian went on to question what James Hook offers, bringing us to the third choices. Murray selected the Welshman because he offers different skills to his other two 10s, namely flair, creativity and vision. Cian went for the ‘wildcard’ in Madigan, saying that he could profit from Gatland’s tendency for putting faith in youth.

Scrumhalves

Murray: Phillips, Care, Murray     Cian: Phillips, Youngs, Murray

Both squads have Phillips and Murray in them; Phillips because he can dominate games and Murray for the fact that he has hit form at the right time, offering a ready-made replacement for Phillips. Cian has gone for Youngs as the man to offer a different style, highlighting his speed and control of tempo. Murray picked Danny Care, despite his woeful form, purely as a bench option. Cian worries that Care would be outmuscled by Genia.

Loose heads

Murray: Healy, Vunipola, Jenkins     Cian: Healy, Vunipiola, Jenkins

Resounding agreement here and not too much to discuss. Healy is seen as first-choice Test starter by both. Vunipola is the explosive impact from the bench. For Murray, Jenkins tours as third-choice, but Cian reckons he could have an important role to play.

Hookers

Murray: Hibbard, Youngs, Ford     Cian: Hibbard, Youngs, Best

This was highlighted by both selections as an area lacking in quality candidates. Hibbard is the likely Test hooker for both, with Youngs as back-up. Cian goes for Best based on his experience, while Murray picks Ford for his offloading game and skills around the pitch. No mention was made of Dylan Hartley.

Tight heads

Murray: Jones, Cole, Murray     Cian: Jones, Cole

Cian decided to take an extra back-row at the expense of a third tight head, so there was no real argument here. Murray has gone for Eaun Murray as his third-choice based on the fact that he is slightly more destructive. Jones is number 1 tight head in both squads, with 25-year-old Cole to serve his apprenticeship.

Locks

Murray: POC, Hines, AWJ, Evans, Gray     Cian: POC, AWJ, Gray, Ryan, Evans

The only difference here is Murray choosing Hines, and Cian going for Ryan. Murray feels that Hines can do everything Ryan does and more. Cian reckons that Ryan has had an immense season, and that the return of POC has overshadowed that fact. He’s going for Ryan, saying it’s maybe a case of heart over head!

Flankers

Murray: Tipuric, Warburton, O’Brien, Lydiate, Wood     Cian: Warburton, Lydiate, O’Brien, Wood, Tipuric, Robshaw

Identical selections, except for the fact that Cian picks an extra flanker in Robshaw. He feels that the back-row will be the key to the series. Murray feels that Robshaw is just too one-paced, but Cian thinks he is being written off too easily. He highlights his performance vs. Ireland at the Aviva as an example of what he could bring to the party.

No. 8s

Murray: Faletau, Heaslip     Cian: Faletau, Heaslip

Faletau is down as Test No.8 for both squads. Murray feels the Welsh man has had a serious upturn in form in 2013 after adding some bulk. Heaslip is in for his excellent surge in form recently, nudging ahead of Scotland’s Beattie. Cian also highlights Heaslip’s late surge, saying he’s lucky there isn’t a plethora of specialist No. 8s out there.

Captain

Murray: Paul O’Connell     Cian: Paul O’Connell

There was no real doubt for either of us in selecting O’Connell. For Murray, the captain being on the pitch for the Tests is vital, and he would go with Tipuric to start at 7. Furthermore, he remains unconvinced by Warburton as a captain. Cian agrees, saying that O’Connell is the man, with an honourable mention for O’Driscoll. He feels that Gatland was always going to go with a forward as captain. O’Connell commands respect and has great influence over others. When he says jump, you ask how high.

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Cian is a freelance sports journalist currently writing for The Irish Examiner, Independent, The Sun, Balls.ie & Fantasy Premier League Transfers. You can follow him on Twitter here.