OK, OK, I’m back.
The overall plan for this Lions Tour was for me to get out my negativity towards the concept before the first match on the assumption that once the actual rugby started I’d return to my normal rugby nerdiness with analysis, test-team-pondering and what-not.
But then came performances against the Barbarians and the Blues that made the silver lining even harder to spot in my Lions cloud. And it didn’t look like think things would get any better given match three was against a team that was 14 for 14 in Super Rugby while scoring tries for fun in the process.
Now, thankfully, we have a result and a display to offer us some sort of hope that something better than three test tonkings are in store for Warren Gatland’s squad.
It’s a busy weekend here at Harpin Manor what with the Irish team in action too so I’ll keep this writeup brief, going for one of those “5 talking points” type formats.
- TENACIOUS D - Now when I say the Crusaders were scoring tries for fun, I have to qualify that by saying it’s Super Rugby where they were doing it, a place where defending is more an aspiration than an actual strategy. And when we go praising the Lions on how they performed when the home side had the ball, we could also qualify it by saying that it’s no more than we should expect from such an esteemed lineup. Still, given they are still getting to know each other having played in different systems over the past season, they certainly played as a well-drilled unit with a lot of hard hits and fast line speed. Keep that up for the remaining matches and they’ll be tough to beat by anybody.
- IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED - The zero in the tourists’ try column can’t be ignored, and it’s not like there weren’t several chances. CJ Stander’s drop with the tryline at his mercy definitely brought the biggest reaction from yours truly, but that was a basic mistake anyone could make - the fact that we fell into the “black hole of phases” on more than one visit to the 22 has to be a concern.
- GOOD DAY FOR THE IRISH - Conor Murray’s box kicking has to be the envy of World Rugby right now - not sure there’s another scrum half our there who can use it as an attacking option the way he does. In the back row, O’Mahony and O’Brien were outstanding, I don’t care how green-goggled that sounds. I have nothing against Sam Warburton but I can’t for the life of me think of a way his presence would have made the team any better - not something you should really be saying about your squad captain is it? And if you think that view means I’d go for an Irishman instead, actually I’d hand the armband to Alun Wyn Jones, and I’d be more than happy with Tipuric at 7. Sexton was good as well but I’ll leave that for the next point.
- THE SEXTON/FARRELL AXIS - After Hogg’s freak accident and Jonathan Davies also leaving the action early, it meant Johnny Sexton made another prolonged cameo, meaning he’s racked up more than two full matches’ worth of action in just over a week. Still, it meant we got a good look at how he and Farrell can operate together in the 10/12 channel and it really does look as though they tick all the boxes both with and without the ball. Personally I wouldn’t mind if Farrell was at 10 in that scenario. But whatever the combo, I can’t see Warren going for it - he tends to go for a “crash ball” 12 and Ben Te’o is more in that mould for him.
- UPWARD CURVE - I wouldn’t be as ecstatic about this performance as many are in the media, but in Christchurch they definitely looked something close to a test team. Minimum expectations for upcoming matches include a continuation of the defensive capabilities by the “midweek team” against the Highlanders on Tuesday with more clinical finishing added to the mix against the Maoris in Rotorua. When it comes to non-Irish players that impressed me in this match I reckon Mako Vunipola, George North and Anthony Watson “put their hands up” as the saying goes.
Very much looking forward to the rest of the tour now. JLP