Brent Pope Lions Player Watch After Lions 13 Emerging Springboks 13 On Tuesday
BRENT POPE – MATCH 8 ANALYSIS
Like most of the latter games on this tour, this game against the emerging Springboks was about a couple of things, firstly the assessment of a few players that the selectors would be considering for Saturdays do or die clash with South Africa, and secondly to bounce back to with a win and build confidence for the squad. Neither experiment really materialised in conditions more suited to the West of Ireland than the usually sub- tropical South African Cape.
In fact the outstanding Lions player on the night was a player who will almost certainly have played his last game on this tour, Keith Earls. Earls will be delighted to have finished the tour on a high, especially after his dubious start. I said before this tour that Earls would emerge as a fullback first, and then as a winger but definitely not a centre? Earls while understandably shaky under the artic conditions early on was excellent in taking his try and his long kicks to touch, especially from an educated and booming right boot. Earls is a massive young talent, and has fully justified his selection as the youngest player on this tour (after Leigh Halfpenny’s early demise) In 4 years time Earls will be on the Lions tour again especially if he continues his upward projectile and he will be a much better player for the experience.
Other players to benefit from the match was out of form Welsh winger Shane Williams who showed some glimpses of his previous ability, Luke Fitzgerald, who while starved for ball always looked a bundle of energy. Ronan O’Gara did enough to make the outhalf spot his with a well controlled performance while England’s Simon Shaw and Ireland’s Donncha O’Callaghan are still fighting neck and neck for the second row spot. Martyn Williams will probably confine David Wallace to the bench with an excellent performance in the loose and on the ground, while the front row will surely be an all Welsh affair of Jones, Rees and Jenkins.
As a match it was tight if not error ridden, with a number of balls being spilled in contact, obviously not helped by the slippery conditions. The Lions should have put the game beyond doubt after leading by 10 clear points, but like so many other times on this tour they “gave the sucker an even break” and let the emerging young Boks back into the game. In fact overall the young Springboks kicking game was far better than the Lions, and at least they gave their chasers a target to pursue. The Lions, O’Gara and Earls apart, seemed to kick aimlessly far too often, either too deep or too ineffectual. Up front and in the scrums the Lions as they have all tour dominated, with the new tourists John Hayes and Shaun Payne doing well, considering they had just got off the plane. Scotland’s Nathan Hines did not do enough after a promising start to the tour, while Donncha O’Callaghan has come on leaps and bounds. Simon Shaw has made an impact nearly every time he has come onto the park, and with his extra height, experience and bulk he may get the nod for Saturday. Shaw’s tackle count for a man that turns 37 later this year has been a feature of his play.
In the end the last minute try and the sideline conversion by Willem de Waal was probably justified given their second half dominance, but it was still sloppy finishing by the tourists, who looked to have done enough to win a tight game. Will it affect the morale of the test team, it’s hard to say, but probably not? The Lions know what they have to do come Saturday; they must obviously get parity in the scrums and mauls and then like last week convert possession into points. Last week the Springboks were still dull, they kicked rather than passed, and used grunt rather than guile, but they played to their strengths and won. The Lions strengths are in its attack, namely the centres Roberts and O’Driscoll, and if they are given a quicker service, from whatever scrumhalf makes it, then they have shown what they can do. Last week Mike Phillips was too slow in his delivery, and while Harry Ellis put half a hand up to be selected, Phillips extra power and bulk around the fringes of the rucks may still be what’s required. The Lions management cannot afford to tinker too much or be overly reactive with selection, otherwise it is them that becomes the more inexperienced unit despite a long enough tour, meaning that not try out too many new combinations in such a crucial game would be foolish, they should keep the spine of the team but change a few positions to achieve an more open game plan.
How the Irish fared?
Keith Earls: With a veritable riches of selection for the Irish fullback spot in the years to come, with Kearney, Fitzgerald, Earls, and now Seapoint’s Felix Jones (Ireland A) the country is blessed. Earls was in my opinion, the “Man of the match” with a wonderfully taken try and some lovely touches with boot and hand. A little wobbly at times under a high ball in awful conditions, but Earls has learnt well on this tour, and has matured. Definitely a justified selection, and now one of the game’s best young talents. 8
Luke Fitzgerald: For Ireland and Leinster Fitzgerald enjoyed a feast of ball this year, but not so with the Lions. Always busy, and like a good winger looks for work, but the ball just has not come his way when he needed it most. Made one slashing break and defended well, may yet still make it on what he has in his locker: 7
Gordan D’Arcy Like Luke Fitzgerald play just has not run D’Arcys way, and with Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll such a form pairing, D’Arcy was always just going to be a bit player. Made some nice half breaks and teamed with Riki Fluety well. D’Arcy will be delighted to be back playing some fulltime rugby and will be back to his best for Ireland next year. 7
Ronan O’Gara. Looked a much better option than James Hook, and played the conditions as if he was back in Thomond Park. Missed a sitter of a kick early doors, but kicked the lines well, and lead the team in a dominant first half. The team lacked direction when he left after 40 minutes, and thereafter they coughed up a 10 point lead. Will force the selector’s hand. 8
Donncha O’Callaghan; One of the most improved players on tour. O’Callaghan has kept his discipline in check, hardly giving away any of his trademark penalties, and was given the distinction of captaining the Lions on one occasion. Has matured into an experienced world class second row, but may, just may, lose out to Simon Shaw’s extra couple of inches in the lineout and a stone in weight, but at the very least will be on the bench. Fingers are still crossed in Cork for an elevation to the starting XV.
John Hayes: Was driving his tractor peacefully in Bruff last week for a well earned rest, then another bloody tour! Hayes never puts a foot wrong, and deserved to be on this tour at the start rather than the end. Irish rugby may be pleased he was not, as Irelands most loyal servant needs some well needed R@R. Srummaged well in tandem with Shaun Payne. 7
My team to play South Africa: