BRENT POPE’S LIONS PLAYER WATCH – MATCH 2
BRENT POPE’S – PLAYER WATCH – MATCH 2
Last weekend as the Lions stuttered to a lacklustre enough win in Rustenburg against the lowly rated Royal XV, just down the road, the rampant Blue Bulls were taking the New Zealand Waikato Chiefs to the cleaners by a record 61 points.
The South African media duly puffed out their chests, proclaimed themselves almost unbeatable and promptly dismissed the Lions challenge without to much sweat. Even their National Coach Peter de Villiers said “what we plan to do is look ahead, past this Lions tour.”
Well Mr de Villiers you had better wise up, as it is now the Lions squad that has the right to strut its stuff, with a highly impressive and emphatic demolition of the disappointing Super 14 outfit the Golden Lions. This was the biggest Lions win since 1974, (and we know what happened then) but in the end the game disintergrated into a bit of a farce, with so many second half substitutions upsetting the general rhythm of the game.
With the hosts having to resort to a brand of catch-up, sevens style of rugby, it ultimately resulted in a host of intercept and soft scores by the visitors, and as a result it was hard to determine the strength of this win. The Lions can still only play what is in front of them, and this win was vital in improving team morale and getting the tour back on track. In fact you could see the likes of Donncha O’Callaghan, Luke Fitzgerald and others sitting in their civvies just dying to get on the field, and this type of attitude means that the Lions players are already fighting for their positions, and competition for places in the test team will ostensibly force the best out of the players,(further boosted by the arrival of the in form Gordan D’Arcy) You even sensed that tour captain Paul O’Connell was gutted not to be part of this meritorious win, and O’Connell looked anxious to get back in harness, and put his own stamp on the captaincy stakes.
Last night the tourists were magnificent to a man for the first 50 minutes at least, when they looked crisp, cohesive and determined to start well. However the Golden Lions offered nothing tangible either in attack or defence, and for large parts while regarded higher than the Royal XV, they looked disorganised and poor, and apart from a few rare sorties into the opposition territory that resulted in one first half try, and possibly should have resulted in another in the second half, they never really tested the Lions.
In the end the Lions were completely dominant in all areas of play. The tourists scrum was particularly powerful, and in England’s Tom Croft the Lions also had an extra jumper at the tail of the lineout. Props Phil Vickery and Gethin Jenkins were not only strong in their basic duties, but also carried very well around the park, while the second-row pairing of Scotland’s Nathan Hines and Welshman Alun Wyn Jones was a good mix of old fashioned power and mobility, with Hines buried in the tight, and Jones ranging around the field.
Perhaps the strongest combination on the park apart from the centres, was the performance of the loose forwards, where Irish interest lay in the credentials of Leinster No 8 Jamie Heaslip and Munster’s David Wallace, (the latter being correctly reinstated to his more comfortable position on the open side of the scrum). Suspended Munster flanker Alan Quinlan will have been sitting at home, and thought “that should have been me” when his replacement on the tour Tom Croft strolled over for a scintillating first half try. Croft had a particularly influential game, showing remarkable pace, a good offloading pass and was tremendous down the back of the lineout.
Wallace also revelled being back at No 7, where at least he got his hands on the ball this week and made some strong runs, while nobody worked harder in the tight than Jamie Heaslip, who’s tackle count was higher than most. In fact Heaslip’s overall display was especially important, given that he showed that he was prepared to do all the dirty work and let the likes of Croft and Wallace to do the running, as a result the triumvirate looked very comfortable with each other, and may yet constitute the first test back row.
Welsh scrumhalf Mike Phillips had a much better debut that Mike Blair with his direct and muscular running, quick clearance and strong defence, he also led a lot of the Lions forays before he unstandably tired late in the second half. His battle with South African test wannabe Jano Vermaak was so one-sided, it never really materialised. Outside of Phillips at scrumhalf the backline was outstanding, Stephen Jones kicked well at goal, and also showed climpes of soft and quick hands, although unlike Ronan O’Gara last weekend he was never under any real pressure and as a result the jury is still out on the best no 10. O’Gara needs to play a game with Phillips so that at least a direct comparison can be made.
Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll looked a good bet for the test centre pairing already, with Roberts having another strong game while O’Driscoll was sublime both in defence and in his offloads. O’Driscoll relished the extra space and hard grounds, and showed what a class act he is. The only criticism in the centres was that at times the players came up too fast in defence, and it could have resulted in a couple of Golden Lions scores. This type of hard up, outside in defence policy is one of Warren Gatland’s ideals and one that he has used to some success with both Ireland and London Wasps. The idea behind the policy is that in principle it forces the play in close rather than out wide, but it is not without its risks either, and a better team may have made better use of the extra space it can leave.
The Lions back three of Tommy Bowe, Ugo Monye and Rob Kearney also enjoyed the freedom of the park, with both Bowe and Monye crossing the try line twice. It is still early days yet, but Tommy Bowe is making every post a winner, with another excellent display of unselfish play. Last weekend Bowe was one of the only standout players against the Royal XV, and this week he backed it up with another game that had him play a hand in almost all the first half tries. Not the fastest player on the field, Bowe works hard on his angles of running and his ability to get his hands through the tackle and offload the pass (an aspect of Bowes play that has improved since his spell with the Ospreys).
Chasing Lee Byrne, Irelands fullback Rob Kearney was desperate to stay in the race for test selection, and while he did not get as many chances as Byrne did last week due to the nature of the game, he was again excellent in the air and in the few times he entered the line he looked deceptive and strong. With Leigh Halfpenny arriving late, Tommy Bowe and Ugo Monye are already on the up and up, and with Luke Fitzgerald still yet to play, the chances of Kearney switching to the wing for a test jersey already looks remote and as a result Kearney will want to keep Byrne firmly in his sights.
Lions first test team based on game 2
Lee Byrne Tommy Bowe Brian O’Driscoll Jamie Roberts Ugo Moyne Stephen Jones Mike Phillips
Gethin Jenkins Lee Mears Phil Vickery Alun Wyn Jones Paul O’Connell Tom Croft David Wallace Jamie Heaslip