Saturday, June 15, 2013

NSW Waratahs-17 Lions-47

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GATLAND’S GOGGLES

We have all offered our opinions about the lineup for next week’s first test over the past year or so…there may be one match left but it was this one in Sydney that was to provide the final clues.

And in the end, we may all be convinced that we know best but there’s a reason why Warren Gatland has been charged with the task…he has proven himself at the Welsh helm with Grand Slam titles in 2008, 2012, a championship in 2013 (yes I credit him for that even though he “wasn’t involved”) and a World Cup semifinal that could have been more.

So a writeup of this contest can’t be a traditional one.  Sure, it kicked-off, had some action then finished much as any other, but the composition of the matchday 23 from next week was always going to be the context.

What you see below is part what I would do, part what I believe Gatland will do regardless of what I think makes sense.  Still, even where I disagree with him, I retain a measure of respect for what he has achieved at the highest level and still I remain quietly confident going into the series.

15 LEIGH HALFPENNY – Has anyone checked Neil Jenkins for magical powers?  Is he reciting some kind of spell plucked from the library at Hogwarts as Halfpenny lines up his kicks?  The former Welsh legend even takes a couple of steps with the Cardiff Blue as he starts his run-up.  A bit spooky if you ask me, but who cares, it works.  The way these Lions are moving the ball quickly through the hands it doesn’t seem to matter where the tries are touched down, it should result in seven points. 

And just in case anyone has question marks about his general play, he helped himself to two tries here as well.  For someone that is hardly the most imposing back three player from a physical standpoint, he certainly knows how to make his presence known and has earned his place ahead of Kearney by a country mile, something I previously thought only Isa was capable of.

14 ALEX CUTHBERT – Simon Zebo gave a good account of himself overall, especially in the first half.  Unfortunately for him he needed to be absolutely perfect to claim a fairytale ticket into the test side, and with a toe scraping into touch in the first minute denying him a try and a bad error from a restart leading to the Tahs’s second on 45 minutes, I reckon he falls short.  Tommy Bowe is the right man for this jumper, but with him unavailable I reckon Cuthbert’s finishing power negates any defensive issues he may have.

13 BRIAN O’DRISCOLL – The true leader on this tour.  You think Warburton is going to have more influence than Heaslip did as captain with BOD on the park? It’s simply not possible.  And perhaps Andy Farrell will take the credit for any successes the Lions have on the defensive side in the test series, but you can be sure he’s counting on the Leinster man’s experience to keep the red wall solid.

12 JONATHAN DAVIES – Stephen Jones tweeted yesterday that the loss of Jamie Roberts is a series-changing savage blow.  I would agree if the good doctor was showing his 2009 Lions form, but he isn’t.  Just how many goes did it take in Sydney for him to find the right line that crashed through the Tahs defence?  Sure, once he managed it early in the second half, it led to a fine Halfpenny try but he has been poor by his own standards on this tour overall and in such an elite gathering, that should cost you no matter who you are.  Meanwhile Davies has put his hand up at every opportunity and would work well at 12 with BOD outside him.  With Cuthbert & North coming in off the wings the crash ball option is still there so I reckon “savage” was a tad over-dramatic.  Then again, the only thing about Jones that ever has me agreeing with him is the fact he’s a Spurs man, so I may be biased.

11 GEORGE NORTH – Mixed reports on his fitness.  I only choose to believe the ones that say he can play.  His loss WOULD be a savage blow in my book.  With all the troubles the Welsh had overcoming the Wallabies in recent times, having an even better group of players around would be enough for him to leave a big mark on this series.  Top of the wing pecking order before the squad got on the plane.  I will remain in denial that he is unavailable until the team is announced.

10 JONATHAN SEXTON – I wonder if O’Gara will stand behind him Jenkins-style when he kicks for Racing Métro?  Joking aside….having the kicking duties done by someone else can only help Sexton crack on with his true value to these Lions – quarterbacking the offence and keeping his channel firmly shut when the Wallabies have the ball.   All of the above were on display in abundance in Sydney.  And although the Tahs front row tried to rough him up I reckon he’s well able for it.  There are 240 minutes in the test series.  Sexton needs to be on the pitch for at very least 220 of them.

9 MIKE PHILLIPS – This wasn’t his best outing but players of his temperament are needed to front up to the expected southern-hemisphere intimidation.  Besides, our quick hands and crash ball options are bound to tempt the Wallaby defence away from the breakdown and he is just the man to exploit gaps around the fringes.

1 MAKO VUNIPOLA – Gets to the top of the loose head pecking order simply because he is “Church Lite”.  With Healy pencilled in from the start it makes sense to have a similar style of player in his stead, but Mako didn’t exactly set Sydney alight though then again none of the alternatives have.

2 RICHARD HIBBARD – With so many excellent lineout options available this should be an area the Lions can excel in…once they get the ball.  Rory Best getting the Tuesday captaincy was a much-deserved honour for him, but it also makes it pretty clear he won’t get near the test lineup once Hibbard and Youngs are fit, and it all comes back to the darts.  Anything a hooker offers in the loose should be considered a bonus to the coaching staff.  Aussie commentators for this match noted his locks wouldn’t be out of place on Bondi.

3 ADAM JONES – Offers everything you need from a test tighthead and so much more.  Maybe Jenkins could work his magic and have him kick a goal or two if needs be?  But I’ll settle for the scrum thing.

4 ALUN-WYN JONES – As much as I want to call myself a writer I find it hard to explain just why the AWJ/POC lock pairing works for the Lions.  It just does. 

5 PAUL O’CONNELL – The most amusing part of Sky’s presentation of the Waratahs match was their half-time montage of Sam Warburton’s “contribution” to the breakdown.  More on that later…but what they should have done is show what Paulie did.  A steal here, a jackle there – he had it stripped off him in contact at one stage but more than made up for it the rest of the match.  And what’s more, it turns out all that work with Rob Penney has made him a more than decent quick passer as well.  Much like O’Driscoll, it can’t be easy for Warburton to impose himself as leader with Paulie on the park.  But be there he must.

6 TOM CROFT – His lineout prowess and open-field running put him ahead of Lydiate for me.  Being English doesn’t hurt either…they surely have to have a starter or two, right?  I would love to see Sean O’Brien running at these Wallabies from the word go but I very much doubt that will happen.

7 SAM WARBURTON – Wasn’t awful in Sydney.  A better option than Tipuric though?  I couldn’t see it.  But watching Sky big him up at half-time told me resistance must be futile.  We see one thing on the pitch yet get told another.  I have absolutely nothing against Sam, he’s a fine player.  But he’ll be 28 in 2017 and that’s a much better age for a Lions skipper; he’d have been better served carrying out the stuffed toy for the midweek games this time around.

8 JAMIE HEASLIP – I do my level best to hold back when I see what I consider ridiculous opinion on the net, but I have to say I am getting increasingly sick of the Jamie-haters.  I get it…if you don’t like his personality, fine.  But people actually said he was “rubbish” against the Waratahs.  Really? I fully admit he let one ball get by him on an attacking scrum (and Stu Barnes went to great lengths to make sure we didn’t miss it).  But does that negate all the times he HAS controlled it?  All the breakdown work?  All the tackles?  All the marauding runs?  All the lineouts caught?  Accuse me of Leinster goggle-wearing and I’ll remind you what the province achieved in May.  It’s now only June.  Jamie’s overall form means he deserves the 8 jumper more than Faletau.

REPLACEMENTS

16 TOM YOUNGS – Already explained why he makes my mostly-English bench ahead of Rory.

17 ALEX CORBISIERO – Would have Ryan Grant here if he had been summonsed before Alex as he should have been. 

18 DAN COLE – Better option than Stevens.  By a lot.  Are either of them better than Ross?  Well that only leads me back to my blue goggles argument and I’m saving that for a different sub.

19 GEOFF PARLING – Pinched a lineout in Sydney.  Good enough for me.  Evans and Gray haven’t showed enough on tour for my liking.

20 SEAN O’BRIEN – Tipuric, Lydiate and Faletau are all strong contenders for this role, but again I play the “Leinster trophy-winning form” card.  Seanie can play 6, 7 and 8 with ease and needs a mare in Canberra to knock himself off my bench.

21 BEN YOUNGS – I previously had Murray here for “Phillips Lite” reasons but I have been won over by Youngs on the tour.  More mischievous around the breakdown, just what could be needed in the closing stages.

22 OWEN FARRELL – I feel about this guy what many seem to feel about Heaslip.  I don’t like his personality so that feeling can cloud my assessment of his talent.  But his temperament is a major problem.  The earlier he comes on, the more chance the Wallabies will have to rattle him, and we all know they will try.

23 STUART HOGG – The term “token Scot” is highly insulting I know, but in this lineup seeing Hogg’s name at 23 certainly makes it look like that doesn’t it?  But for me he has shown enough on the tour to show he can do a job despite being the baby of the group (age-wise, I mean, number 22 has the honour when it comes to actions).   Maitland has improved since the Barbarians match and Kearney and Zebo have shouts here too, but I’m going with Hogg.

Of course it would be unfair to the Tahs to ignore them in a match writeup.  They took their two tries well and there were some impressive displays from the likes of Drew Mitchell, aplus Michael Cheika seems to have some prospects for the future like lock Will Skelton.  And I can’t really blame them for the rough-stuff from their front row…this was another below-Super-Rugby-level strength selection so they had do something to make it a contest.

But however you try to hype the warm-up matches, they are just that, and the real stuff starts next Saturday morning Irish time. 

My superstitious nature prevents me from predicting a whitewash.  I think all three tests will be close, but I also think the Lions have enough weapons at their disposal, even with all the injuries, to stay ahead of their hosts – though a bounce of the ball or a dodgy call could make a difference.  The bookies give the Lions a 3-point edge in the first test; I reckon that could be about right, though we’ll see who is left standing after the Brumbies!

All we can do now is count down the days.  Whatever colour goggles we tend to wear though, only Warren’s will matter. JLP

Note – Canada v Ireland writeup will publish Tuesday morning.

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