Brent Popes Lions Player Watch – Test Team Analysis
BRENT POPE – TEST TEAM ANALYSIS
The story of the Lions tour to date and leading into the all important first Test against the reigning World Champions South Africa, this Saturday reads remarkably well, namely played 6 won 6. But the visitors 100% winning record tends to gloss over the fact that on a couple of occasions the Lions got out of jail, and had the opposition been slightly more clinical, especially in the last quarter of the match, then the results may have looked slightly worse. As expected and despite Coach Ian McGeechan keeping some of Tuesday’s fringe players against the Southern Kings motivated by saying that “his first test team was certainly not set in stone” in many ways it already was. And in reality the test team, apart from possibly the backrow, replacements bench and one wing spot had been pencilled in as early as last week.
In many regards there can not be too many gripes on the overall selection and it is more or less based on form rather than the usual tactic of throwing up one or two surprises. Ronan O’Gara must have been close to taking the No 10 spot after another superb goal-kicking display last Tuesday, but in the end he simply lost out to the combination vote of Welshmen Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones. O’Gara was actually lucky even to make the bench in the end, simply because if James Hook had of been fit then Hooks versatile would have given him O’Gara’s spot. Luke Fitzgerald may have also gone close, but he did not see enough of the play despite hunting for work, while the inclusion of David Wallace at openside flanker instead of Martyn Williams is an indication that the Lions will try and dominate possession early on, and attempt to get the ball into Wallace’s hands rather than leave it on the ground where the Springboks have shown a better ability to snaffle 50/50 ball. You can still expect Martyn Williams to play his part off the bench, especially in the second-half when play may loosen up. Perhaps the biggest mover was lock Donncah O’Callaghan who leapt fogged Simon Shaw and Nathan Hines to make the bench, Hines left his chances on the field against the King last week with a poor display, while Shaw’s age possibly counted against him.
The success of the Lions tour will hinge on a series win, and not the midweek games, but it is imperative that the Lions go one up this weekend and heap the pressure back on the home side. Winning game 1 carries a huge advantage both in confidence and also in knowing that you can still afford to lose the second game and still win the series, although that kind of thinking is of course dangerous in the extreme. The Lions may also look to the fact that with the Springboks having no discernible game time together of late they will be understandably ring rusty, and as inspiration the Lions will look to Frances historic win over New Zealand last weekend. Like South Africa the All Blacks looked disjointed, especially in the first half and while they rallied well the French started far better, leading 17-3 at one stage, the Lions must adopt the same strategy. Looking to the test selections I have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, and look at what the South Africans may have learned about Ian McGeechan side in the last few weeks?
Front row: For years the Springboks prided themselves on having the best and biggest scrummagers in the world. In the past the “Boks” literally had a conveyor belt of big, dynamic front-rowers, but that has changed over the past few years, and they are now forced to play their influential Captain and usual hooker John Smit on the tight head side of the scrum just to facilitate the Sharks hooker Bismarck du Plessis. In my opinion they are further weakened by the selection of the “Beast” Mtawarira, who is undoubtedly a good ball carrier but is an average scrummager. The Springboks now also lack the extra weight of Swalk Burger on the blindside, who is of course out with injury
Conversely while most of the home unions struggle to find good young props, this years Lions squad is strong in this particular area, and to date on this tour this has been the one area of complete Lions dominance in every game. If the Lions can gain the upper hand here again as they did in 1997 with the likes of Paul Wallace and Tom Smith, then this will severely negate the Springbok back-row and maul.
Centres: Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts are a perfect combination of both power and guile. Roberts will be used to crash the centres, and angle play back into to the Lions loose-forwards especially early on, so that the likes of David Wallace can get his hands on the ball, while O’Driscoll will use his deft grubber kicks to keep the aggressive South African backs deeper on defence. For some reason the South Africans have always failed to produce many world class centres in their history, with their selectors always seeming to favour the direct and hard running defensive type of players rather than faster, slick creative men.
South Africans Strengths.
Backrow: The perfect balance for any back-row is speed, atheltisim, power and height and in many ways South Africa has that perfect balance. No 8 Pierre Spies is a tall, rangy type of player, who is very quick and powerful with the ball in hand and off the back of the scrum and a useful tail of the lineout jumper, and while Swalk Burgers muscle will be sorely missed, he is replaced by a similar type of nuggety, robust player in Heinrich Brussow, a player who has already caused the Lions serious problems at the breakdown on this tour. While Juan Smith is one of the most underrated players in the world and very good on the ground. The fact that Brussow has been selected on the open side of the scrum, upsets the balance a bit, with the real possibility of the Springboks playing a left and right system (i.e. there is no definite openside or blindside as such) and if this is the case there was a definite case for playing both Martyn Williams and David Wallace in the same way. Tom Croft and Jamie Heaslip will have the edge over the Boks at lineout time; with Brussow a much shorter man than Burger and in fact Croft.
Second row: In Victor Matfield and Backies Botha the South African second row is again the ideal balance of the athletic Matfield and the bulk and power of Botha. Paul O’Connell certainly matches Botha’s physical side; Alun Wynn Jones must now match Matfields around the field and lineout ability. Croft and Heaslip add an extra jumper at the tail of the lineout, but expect O’Connell and Jones to come up against the best second row pairing in the world.
Crucial area of play: The breakdown: Enough has been said about the problems the Lions are having at the breakdown and the Lions must reverse this trend in the Test. The secret is to get more Lions players to the breakdown and blow the Boks off the ball, the game plan may also necessitate keeping the ball off the ground early on so that the likes of David Wallace are running with the ball rather than scrambling around on the ground.
What the Springboks may have seen:
Lee Byrne: A player who must be moved around the park rather than kicked directly too. A great counter attacker who also enters the Lions backline at superb angles. Excellent at his basic duties. A potential danger man if he is floated miss passes by the likes of O’Driscoll.
Tommy Bowe: While Bowe is not the quickest winger in the world he enters the backline to great effect, and has perfected the off load out of the tackle as well. The Springbok backs will look to turn him with deep, long kicks, rather than let him move onto the ball.
Ugo Monye: Could be a dark horse or a disaster? Monye has dodgy enough hands, and is a weak kicker especially off his left foot, but he is deceptively quick and cannot be given space.
Jamie Roberts: The obvious crash, bash man and the Lions will look to get Roberts over the gain line from first phase ball so as to get the loose forwards moving onto the ball rather than retreating. His role is crucial in the Lions game plan, and must be gang tackled behind the gain line early on.
Brian O’Driscoll. O’Driscoll is the creator, and will look to use his dipping body and deft grubber kicks to keep the Springbok backs deeper rather than flat. Will be marked hard, but that allows space elsewhere. The Springboks backs will be paranoid about coming up to early and to flat on O’Driscoll as he has an uncanny knack of breaking the first tackle.
Stephen Jones: Defends his 9-10 channel well and has the ability to get his hands through the tackle if allowed. Not electrically quick, and can lose his composure in pressure situations.
Mike Philips: Not the quickest pass delivery on tour, but immensely strong and effectively works as a 4th loose forward. Keeps the opposition back row locked down at scrum time, and therefore does not allow them to move off into the backs too quickly. Takes on a little too much himself at times, especially around the fringes of rucks and mauls, and the Springboks might just tempt him into the space, isolate him, then seal off his support from the back.
Jamie Heaslip. Will struggle to match possibly the worlds best No 8 Pierre Spies for pace, both around the park and off the back of the scrum, but Heaslip is an extremely intelligent footballer, and already one of the stars on tour. Will be asked to do a lot more of the donkey work this week given the scrums won’t be as one sided as they have been so far.
Tom Croft: Stephen Ferris would have probably grabbed this spot but Croft will worry the Springboks because they do not know too much about him. Fast and rangy, he is not as rugged as some of the Springboks, but his extra height will offer problems for the Boks especially at the tail of the lineout. The Boks will look to tie him in to defending mauls rather than using his pace in loose play.
David Wallace. May be a slight risk here, not in Wallace’s ability with ball in hand, but in the problem area of the turnover and breakdown, Wallace’s selection indicates that the Lions want a dynamic ball carrier, Williams will appear off the bench if play loosens up.
Paul O’Connell. The obvious man to take on the Boks at their own game. Needs to share the ball carrying duties a bit more as it is becoming too predictable, and he will not get any change out of the Springbok loose forwards.
Alun Wyn Jones: Athletic, but is also a slight risk if he cannot find a bit more grunt to counter the Springbok tight five, a good lineout man which is paramount to at least winning your own ball, but is going to have to work harder at the coal face alongside his captain.
Gethin Jenkins; Outstanding and dynamic tour, but wrongly pinged by referee Jonathan Kaplan. The South Africans will not have as much joy on Saturday with the ref and expect Jenkins and co to dominate here.
Lee Mears: The smallest man in both packs, but also dynamic. The South Africans will target his lack of size in getting the maul started, and like Tom Croft the South Africans will want him tied in at the coalface rather than ranging wide where he will create problems. They will also target him for turnovers.
Phil Vickery: Hugely experienced and also a good ball carrier, will put severe pressure on an average looking South African scrum.