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LIONS MUST TRY AGAIN
If rugby union was a simple game we could blame Leigh Halfpenny for this result and prepare for the decider in Sydney next Saturday.
But however awesome his boot has been on this tour, his kick at the death which, though straight, still fell short is not the reason the Lions lost this contest.
And if you delved a little deeper into the way the match transpired, you’d probably then point to the way the Wallabies scored the only 5-pointer of the match and say that is how the result came about.
It was a try that was finished by a good line by Adam Ashley-Cooper, who seems to have a knack for scoring at the Etihad Stadium, but a Lions’ share of the blame would have to go to the two starting centres for the tourists.
The Wallabies were applying such pressure on the stubborn opposition defence at that late stage because not for the first time we handed possession back to them. On this occasion we had Jonathan Davies fumbling the ball at midfield, to be briefly rescued by O’Driscoll who had the right idea in punting it long but given he was heading towards his own 22, even he couldn’t force a good result from his kick and it gave the home side the very open field broken play opportunity the craved all day.
Eventually, after several attempts, their phase play created the millimetre of space they needed in the back line and after almost 160 minutes of a pretty watertight channel the O’Driscoll/Davies axis cracked to allow AAC through.
But however much I can point my finger at the seldom used centre pairing for that try, I STILL don’t feel that is the reason the Lions lost this second test.
For me, restricting a SANZAR nation to just 16 points on their home patch is a pretty decent achievement for any test side, and when your defence does that, it’s up to you to put enough points on the board to make it count.
Sure, there were a couple of occasions when the Wallabies’ own defence did well…O’Connor kicked a monster of a clearance from behind his own tryline at one point and at another, skipper James Horwill (who possibly shouldn’t have been playing in the first place according to the IRB) did some excellent work to force a turnover after a Lions lineout/maul.
But more often than not, Warren Gatland’s charges were masters of their own failures when it came to racking up points, and there was plenty of blame to go around the side.
Johnny Sexton had a poor first quarter by his standards. He was able to dig deep and recover later, unleashing a stunning series of bombs in open play which landed on a sixpence outside the Aussie 22 each time, but for me it was absolutely vital for these Lions to establish a lead early, and with first a rushed kick into touch on the full and then missing touch altogether with a routine penalty, he certainly played a part in our wrong-doing.
Of course it wasn’t just him by a long stretch; throughout the match we had the rest of the starting XV taking their turns to foil momentum…much was made of Vunipola’s problems at scrum time but there were also some issues with lineouts from Tom Youngs, basic handling & grubber errors from Davies and poor timing by Lydiate getting himself caught offside, that gave the Australians either relief or scoring opportunities.
But it wasn’t even the individual errors that were doing for us overall – a lot of it came down to risky decisions that were made that just simply didn’t pay off.
I for one certainly can’t fault a coach who sticks to his guns, and Warren Gatland has done that on this tour in many areas, not least of which was a persistence with Sam Warburton. And for the most part, in this decision his faith was rewarded as I reckon the Cardiff Blue put himself about the pitch extremely well.
But elsewhere the decisions weren’t doing so well…like Vunipola in the scrum. When the margins are so tight, just how many times does a prop have to be pinged before he gets the hook? We might as well ignore the rights and wrongs of the individual calls…the whistle was in the hands of Craig Joubert and whether it was genuine or thanks to pressure from the Aussie media, he had Mako’s number and there was a strong case for Ryan Grant to be sent on to at least try and fix the set-piece.
Still, for me, the biggest decision we got wrong came around the 7th minute. We had already won a kickable penalty yet chose to go for the lineout/maul. The sight of Brian O’Driscoll in the line let us know a famous Warren 15-man-job was on the cards. It didn’t quite pay off, though we not only won another pen but Horwill was warned for successive maul-collapses and a yellow card wasn’t far away.
In the wild, should a lion ever have a wallaby wounded for real, it would most certainly go straight for the kill. I couldn’t for the life of me work out why, having already shown an attacking intent, we then chose to play it safe. The placekick may have been successful and gotten the scoreboard moving, but it also gave Horwill the chance to re-gather his troops and just 10 minutes later they had worked their way into a lead.
People have criticised the coach’s tactics on this tour but if I were him I wouldn’t change them overall…they were what won him the job and for such a honoured one-off position why should he stray too far from his comfort zone?
But if “Gatland-ball” is to work, not only does the scoring have to come early & often, but also the right amount of beef is required to make the necessary gainline breaks. As well as replacing his injured skipper, Warren will have to make some changes to his lineup for Sydney.
Some may say replacing Warburton will be his most interesting choice, but I reckon he’s got himself a dilemma at scrum-half. His instincts will have him going back to Mike Phillips. Ben Youngs earned his starting place but is more suited to a bench role for this particular series. And Conor Murray’s cameo made a more than decent case for starting all three tests with different 9s. Personally though, I think he should go with the one he knows and show Phillips some faith similar to that he did in his tour captain.
As for the back row, Lydiate may have tackled his heart out but this would be more useful in the final quarter. My ideal trio for Sydney would be O’Brien, Tipuric & Heaslip with Farmer Dan & Tom Croft on the bench. The Wallabies can only get better at the breakdown after Melbourne and this blend should at least match them as well as bringing the bash.
In the centre, since it seems O’Driscoll is going to be captain the question is…do we go with Davies again if Roberts doesn’t make it? I reckon Sexton needs stronger lines coming down that channel. Sadly, in this squad, outside of Roberts he’s actually a decent candidate for the 12 jumper himself but that would be too unorthodox for such a vital game.
Manu? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? I dunno. One minute I say “hell, yeah” the next I say “meh…” Anyway, hopefully Dr JR will make it.
My apologies for sailing into next week’s waters when I’m still writing up Saturday’s match but I can’t look at the second test without asking myself how we can win the third.
Among the other starters to impress, Tommy Bowe justified his fast-tracking into the side, while although Paul O’Connell was conspicuous by his absence as expected, Parling came very close to pinching a few lineouts and more often than not the Aussies were taking big risks throwing the ball to his part of the lineout.
Returning to Halfpenny’s kicking for a moment, I reckon that last-gasp effort was just on the limits of his range and to be honest I never thought he’d make it. His success has been based on a strict regime but I feel the closed roof played its part…his last kick wasn’t a million miles away from where he took his first which just hit the wrong side of the crossbar and there was no gust of wind to give it a hand either way.
Still…could an argument be made that a tap and go option would have been better for that penalty situation? Could we have trusted ourselves to avail of the extra ten metres and more to work our way into drop goal territory? I think so, but it would most definitely have been a brave call. And while we’re on the subject of placekicks, it has to be said that Christian Leali’ifano was superb from the tee on what was virtually his test debut , particularly with what turned out to be the winning conversion.
One other incident I can’t ignore was the George North “He Ain’t Heavy” moment when he charged through Israel Folau’s attempted tackle. The YouTube clip went viral so there’s not much more I can add about that BUT I will say that had it not happened, RugbyDump could well be featuring that bit of the match anyway because I can’t believe nobody is talking about BOD’s pass through his own legs that got the ball to North in the first place!
So for the second week in a row we had one team losing a match as opposed to the other winning it. Sure, the Aussies did some good things, but when you’re outplayed at such key positions as 6,7,8 and 10 you shouldn’t win too often at test level.
For me, this series is a classic even without all the trips down memory lane provided by the folks at Sky. It’s the perfect matchup of contrasting styles…for the tourists you have the well-drilled organisation while for the home side, even though Robbie Deans went to such trouble keeping Quade Cooper out of the equation, his charges are still forced to instinctively making the most out of what chinks in the armour they can find, which more often than not is leading to their own mistakes.
Absolutely every millisecond will count in Sydney. Assuming the Lions defence can stay resolute for the 80 minutes, I reckon we need to be aiming for around the 24-point mark to put an historic series win within reach, so since I can’t see us getting 8 kicking opportunities, we MUST breach the Wallaby line.
But I reckon we can do it. And all with BOD as skipper no less. It seems to be writing itself doesn’t it. I’d better stop now before I jinx things. JLP
My ideal Gatlandball lineup for Sydney, with injury cover in brackets…
Halfpenny, Bowe, O’Driscoll, Roberts (Manu), North, Sexton, Phillips. Corbisero (Grant), T Youngs, Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones, Parling, O’Brien, Tipuric, Heaslip. BENCH – Hibbard, Vunipola, Cole, Croft, Lydiate, B Youngs, Farrell, Cuthbert.
PS – Major kudos to the Irish Womens 7s team for their top 8 finish at the World Cup in Moscow, which not only earns them a place in the World Series, but also is a big step for Olympic qualification.