Archive for Brent Pope’s Player Watch Blog
BRENT POPE 3RD TEST REVIEW
It is was perhaps ironical that it was the Springboks who wore armbands with the words “Justice” written on it them (in support of their suspended lock Bakkies Botha) when the Lions could have just as easily worn the same arm band in terms of at least deserving a test win, possibly the series?
Teams do not have a God given right to win matches, but prior to this third and final test, you felt that this Lions in particular, deserved a rub of the green. Largely written off prior to this tour, the brave and wounded Lions came within inches of emulating the 1997 side in a “would have, could have” test series. After two test matches that will rank with some of the most enthralling battles in years, it was the Springboks who made the most of their chances, and perhaps unfairly lead the series 2 nil, but they still wanted a whitewash, as revenge for the perceived unfair treatment of Botha, and more importantly to erase the painful memories of 1997. What they got was a Lions backlash of epic proportions.
In the end it was the Lions who produced a magnificent 80 minute performance, to not only justify this particular Lions tour, but also ensure that the Lions ethos and future is still in good hands despite a long and arduous season. In the end the 28-9 point win meant that on try count (7-5) and on points aggregate, the Lions were probably the better and more consistent team over the 3 match series- yet they still lost. Sport is so often about the “if’s and buts”, just remember Stephen Jones’s last minute penalty dipping under the bar to give Ireland their Grand slam winning title? Maybe in retrospect the Lions should have won this series, but they didn’t, and if the Springboks had needed to win the third game they certainly wouldn’t have made 10 changes they did. Still the Lions could still only do what was asked of them, and they did it with some aplomb yesterday. Paul O’Connell, so often unfairly criticised on this tour by the English media, was magnificent, both as a player and as a captain. It is funny that the difference between O’Connell emulating the feats of such great Lions Series winning Captains as Willie John McBride (74) and Martin Johnson (97) was in inches not miles. In fact as a player alone, O’Connell was probably superior in many regards to Johnson, and a Jeremy Cuscott drop goal verses a last minute Morne Steyn penalty was the only difference in the end. In my opinion apart from his general play, bravery and quiet achievement, O’Connell has led this team with distinction and pride. Remember not one story of any off the field misdemeanors has filtered back to these Islands, and for the most part on and off the field, the Lions team has been well disciplined, courteous and fiercely proud, this has to had something to do with O’Connell’s leadership.
For once the Lions had the rub of the green in this match, firstly with the scrum penalties going their way early on, a late disallowed Springbok try, and a timely interception by Ugo Monye that could have just as easily been a try at the other end of the field for the Springboks, who were hot on attack before Monye intervened. England’s prop Phi Vickery has weathered a media storm since the first test (myself included) and spoke during the week of the importance of this match to his creditability, and he delivered, not only in the scrums where the added weight of Simon Shaw aided him, but also in his around the field play, with one gang tackle on Springbok No 8 Ryan Kankowski a highlight of the props welcomed rejuvenation.
A patched up Lions backline that contained an ex Kiwi, turned Englishman and now playing next season in France Riki Flutey, and Irish winger Tommy Bowe just showed again how weak the Springboks are in this area, with not a lot of creativity after their well documented kicking game. Flutey had a peach of a match, using his side stepping running to good effect, and pulling off some tremendous tackles. Bowe was also responsible for the two tackles that denied the Boks try’s in the corner, and despite looking a little uncomfortable in an unaccustomed position of centre, Bowe did remarkably well, and was not that far down the pecking order as the overall player of the tour.
Rob Kearney again delivered, with another first half performance that just continued on from where he left off last week. Kearney will return home as one of the most talented footballers in the world, and with the rugby world at his feet, he is now a certainty for the Irish no 15 jersey, and apart from injuries should not appear on the wing again, for any team. On the other wing the diminutive Shane Williams finally found the type of form that made him the world’s best player last year. Williams has struggled to replicate his high billing on this tour, mainly because he is just too small in a country that favors big, straight running backs, but given some space Williams can get thought the smallest of gaps, and while his two tries were plated up for him by the outstanding Jamie Heaslip( my man of the match just ahead of Mike Phillips and O’Connell) and then Riki Fluety’s sleight of hand, William’s experience still put him the right place at the right time, and it was just reward for William’s constant following up.
Like Vickery, Ugo Monye had a point to prove after making a hash of his opportunities in the first test, and his timely intercept try really spelt the end of the match for the hosts. If the Springboks had scored when Monye intercepted, then they may have clawed their way back into this match, but Monye, like Brian Habbana on so many occasions, took his chance. Stephen Jones and Mike Phillips in particular were both outstanding, with Philips surely the most aggressive defender in his position in the world, while Jones moved onto Phillips passes at pace. In the Lions pack the outstanding player was Jamie Heaslip, who set up one try with a never say tackled movement, and then saved another minutes later with an over-head save. Heaslip tackled, burst up field with the ball in hand and assisted Martyn Williams at the breakdown. The South Africans have a new found respect for a young player that is now challenging the best No 8’s in the world. A few years ago Heaslip was out bid as the “world under age player of the year” by All Black No 8 Jeremy Kaino, this Lions series, Heaslip has left the man with the silver fern in his wake, and as long as the Leinster man stays sound and fit he is going to be a phenomenal player. Alongside Heaslip, England’s Joe Worsley emptied the Springboks with every tackle, and won some valuable lineout ball to boot, while open side flanker Martyn Williams showed that maybe he should have been selected to start in the first two tests, with a display of ground hog play that the Lions badly needed. Shaw and O’Connell were majestic in the engine room, and Shaw in particular has given new hope to those players thinking that 30 years of age is on the downhill slope for a test player, think again? Shaw will be 37 soon, and who would bet on not seeing him in an English shirt next season.
It was a fitting end to a magnificent test series, and a series that brought back memories of the amateur days where team spirit and determination can still win the day. The Lions Players and Management can be proud of what they have achieved, and like Paul O’Connell said post match, “to win in the Southern Hemisphere may lead to greater days for the home unions” Lets hope so? From a South African prospective, the World Champions looked far from that, with a pedestrian backline that when missing some key players look well short on creative play. Teams will work on combating the Springboks kicking game as Kearny and co did, and they have a lot of rebuilding to do before another tilt at the World Cup in 2 years.
How the Irish rated:
Rob Kearney. 8.5
Now rivals ALL BLACK Mils Muliania as the best No 15 in the world game. After one of the great fullback performances of all time last week, Kearney started this week as he had finished last weeks match. Brilliant on the counter attack, and in the air, Kearney must be a candidate for the overall player of the tour. Came in originally under Lee Byrnes shadow, but has now emerged well ahead of the Welshman. Made a few small mistakes late in the match, but overall another brilliant display.
Tommy Bowe 7:
Has been a revelation on this tour, and in Irelands Grand Slam winning season this year. Bowe was made to play in an unaccustomed position of centre, and did it reasonably well. Made a few central trusts, one of which could have resulted in a try, but understandably struggled with the change in position at times. Defended heroically, and was the last man defending in two of the Springbok’s main try scoring chances.
Jamie Heaslip: 9:
My “Man of the match” An absolute complete display from the modern day No 8. Heaslip is athletic, intelligent, hardworking, and is the new fit for all future No 8s.
An excellent tour that defies his age
Paul O’Connell. 8:
Led his team magnificently and took lineout ball with ease. Looked like a leaping Jack Salmon when steeling the opposition throw and carried more ball that any other forward. Perfected two or 3 ruck turnovers and spoke articulately after the game. Well respected by everybody on the tour. Ireland can be proud of his massive input.
John Hayes: 7
The “Bull” Hayes gets to savor a test win in another red jersey, and he will dine out on it for life. A long way from the tractor in Bruff, but played his part, by shifting tiring Springbok bodies out of the way like he was picking up litter off the street. No coincidence that the Lions snaffled more lineout ball when Hayes was on the park.
Made a cameo performance, but was not going to match the heroics of Martyn Williams. Like the other Irish players a fantastic tour.
Player of the match: Jamie Heaslip:
Turing Point: The first scrum and Ugo Monyes intercept try that finally saw the Springboks out the gate.
BRENT POPE – 2ND TEST MATCH REVIEW
12 years ago a young looking Jeremy Cuscott launched a last minute dropkick that broke the hearts of a rugby mad nation, this time it was Springbok replacement outhalf Moune Steyns chance for immortality, as his last second penalty kick meant that the Lions dreams of forcing a “do or die” game next week sadly went with it.
The tale of this lost series was that the Lions just couldn’t play for the full 80 minutes, and while they dominated for the last 40 minutes of the first test, and the first 60 minutes of this one it was the lack of clinical finishing that eventually cost them.
Over his illustrious career Ronan O’Gara has enjoyed some massive highs, and as a goal kicker he has often been the one to step up and take the responsibility for a win or a loss.
Yesterday, Ronan O’Gara’s last minute penalty(correct but cruel) realistically cost the Lions a chance at squaring the series. The real question is, was O’Gara right to keep the play alive with a speculative Garryowen when a kick to touch would have seen the end of the game and a creditable draw? I think O’Gara’s decision was the correct one, given that just minutes before the Lions had gone deep into South African territory and managed to convert a penalty, thus forcing the draw.
O’Gara’s intention was to get good field position and then hope it was the Springboks who infringed, and he went into the air in an effort to win the ball back. O’Gara simply wanted to win the match, and who knows on another day it may just have may have worked.
It will still sit heavy on the shoulders of O’Gara, simply because this is not a Munster or Irish team where his fellow players will remember the days that O’Gara won matches for them on his own, but rather a composite collection of four home union players, who may not be so sympathetic. One must also take into account the Lions growing injury list, and with the Lions down two of their attacking kingpins Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll that may have had also some bearing on O’Gara’s last minute decision? In the end it was still a game that the Lions could have won, and some weak Lions tackling allowed replacement Springbok centre Jacque Fourie to work some magic in just 3 inches of space. Fourie should never have been allowed to score, and probably wouldn’t have if either O’Driscoll or Roberts had still been on the park.
The game started in controversial enough circumstances with Springbok Flanker Schalk Burger being yellow carded for eye gouging on Luke Fitzgerald. Burger along with secondrow Botha has been cited, and Burger will play no part in this years Tri-Nations Series. Burger’s overall performance in the match was poor anyway, and when replacement Heinrich Brussow came on the park later in the second half, the Springboks suddenly began to dominate the loose ball again. In the first half the Lions were magnificent to a man, but one player was exceptional, Irish fullback Rob Kearney. Kearney put in one of the finest fullback displays ever seen on any rugby pitch, and his catching of the high ball was GAA schooled from the top drawer. The South Africans only had one game plan in the first 60 minutes or so, and it was to kick, and with Kearney and his all Irish back three of Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe taking everything the Boks could launch at them, it looked as if the Lions would hold on. Stephen Jones was doing his part by punishing the home team every time the Lions got into Springbok territory, while the South African kickers were going to pieces under the pressure until the arrival of hometown hero Steyn, who not only converted Fourie’s try from the sideline, but then coolly banged over the winning kick from about 50 metres.
There can be no criticism of the Lions selection prior to this match, as the visitors scrum not only held up, but dominated until they became uncontested (something that also helped the Springboks) and the whole Lions backline look sharp with every attack. Simon Shaw was like a concrete pillar at every kickoff and fully justified his selection at 36 years of age, while players like David Wallace (first half in particular) and Jamie Heaslip (defensively) were turning in massive individual performances. The Lions were not helped in the secondhalf by the ridiculous ruling of uncontested scrums, and while injury prevention is key in this game, especially in the area of the front row, something needs to be done in accommodating more front row players on the bench. Once the scrums became uncontested, the South Africans had one of the best No 8’s in the world Pierre Spies to take full advantage of a more secure platform, and it was the big No8 who started to make valuable yardage off a Springbok scrum that had been struggling badly in the first spell.
With the Lions tiring badly into the last 20 minutes but clinging on thanks to Jones’s boot the loss of their midfield Generals O’Driscoll and Roberts was the eventual death nail, it meant a complete reshuffle of the Lions backline and it was hugely disruptive especially in defence. You still have to take your hat off to the Springboks however, they were on the rack and they wouldn’t give up. For the first half they were on the brink of collapse, and facing a third winner takes all test against a confident and buoyed up Lions team in a rugby mad country that would not have accepted that. The Springbok public wanted quick revenge for 1997, and a loss yesterday would have meant a week of criticism for the home team and some of its players like Botha and Burger. So the Lions tour is effectively now over, with just pride to play for next week. The Lions will want to avoid a series whitewash, but it’s hard to see what sort of team the Lions will start with next week, in fact with such a high attrition rate yesterday, what sort of side is actually left?
Some questions will emerge today (especially from sections of the English media) as to whether Paul O’Connell was the right man to lead the Lions? In my opinion, he was. O’Connell is a quietly spoken man who always gives of his best, be it for Munster, Ireland and the now the Lions. His Lions team in the two tests were for the most part disciplined and courageous, and what people forget is that unlike the likes of Willie John McBride and Martin Johnston, O’Connell did not have any other National Captains in the forwards to assist him in some of the key decisions. Martin Johnston had the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Keith Wood and others to call on for advice, players for whom captaining national sides was second nature, O’Connell had a forward pack with little or no experience in this area.
In the end it was a fantastic test match that will live in the memory for years, it was just an unfortunate result and an unfortunate moment for Ronan O’Gara, who will take things on the chin and bounce back as he has always has.
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:
BRENT POPE – 1ST TEST REVIEW
Lions Coach Ian McGeechan is in a real selection dilemma now? Does he stick with his starting team selection of this week (apart from the obvious removal of prop Phil Vickery) or on the basis of their second half revival, does he jump ship and select a new starting team in an effort to square up the series? You can guarantee that apart from a possible reshuffle in the centres, that the South Africans will not change their starting team much.
There were two aspects of this match that ultimately affected the end result, and both had nothing to do with the players but rather their respective head coaches. Firstly Ian McGeechan’s failure to pull floundering prop Phil Vickery from the field much sooner than he did, and then the arrogance and near tactical suicide of the Springbok Coach Peter de Villiers, who emptied his bench in an effort to give all his players a run out, and it very nearly cost him the match. Had the game run on for another 10 minutes the Lions would have won and De Villiers left with egg all over his face? In the end what looked like a one sided humiliation by the hosts just after halftime, turned out to be a fantastic second half revival by a team that refused to lie down?
Paul O’Connell can be proud of the way he nearly pulled off one of the great comebacks in Lions and test match history, and had a couple of passes stuck, or kicks at goal gone over, then the Lions would have emulated Lazarus. Of course this predisposes that the South Africans did not take their foot off the pedal figuring the game to be done and dusted? I said last week that the Lions would dominate in the scrums, but in the first half they received a battering up front that could only be described as embarrassing. Phil Vickery, who had come into the game as the form tighthead on tour, was destroyed by the “Beast” Mtawarira, a former flanker who is probably not even the best loose head prop in the country, but rather selected on the coloured player quota. Vickery scrummed far too high, and while the Beast may have been penalised by another referee for old-fashioned, but illegal boring in on the Lions hooker, the English Captain and the Lions front row in general was more often popped up in the air, or face down on the ground facing another kickable penalty. It also meant that Irelands No 8 Jamie Heaslip was almost anonymous in the first half, being unfairly asked to pick up ball or make ground from a retreating scrum.
The Lions lineout was not faring much better at this stage, with South Africa’s artful poacher Victor Matfield stealing some of Lions hooker Lee Mears loose throws to the tail of the lineout. With the hosts enjoying supremacy in the maul (the Lions being driven 20 metres in one memorable flex of South African muscle) scrum, lineout and kicks at goal, the points just kept ticking over courtesy of Pienaars reliable boot. For all intense purposes the Lions were not only losing the match but being humiliated. Paul O’Connell’s career as Lions Captain was about to be heavily scrutinised by the English media and the whole history of future Lions tours lay in the balance. But to be honest the Lions had not been that bad in the first spell despite the flattering score line, they had gifted the Springboks an easy first try to get them up and running, and should have scored a couple of tries themselves.
The South Africans didn’t actually create anything, the Lions problems unfortunately stemmed from one man Phil Vickery. Without a scrum and a badly misfiring lineout, the Lions basics were shot to hell, with only Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll offering some chinks of light. Every kickable penalty for the Boks seemed to stem from another scrum infringement, and you had the sense that Lions forward Coach Warren Gatland should have seen it a lot earlier. Gatland knew what Adam Jones could contribute, so why didn’t he tell Ian McGeechan to substitute Vickery midway through the first half? And why did Vickery appear after halftime, only to dive over a ruck and give the Springboks another 3 points? Four minutes into the second half and the wholly haired Adam Jones finally appeared, and the agony was over, things began to change almost immediately, although at about the very same time the Springbok Coach Peter de Villiers started making the changes that would ultimately let the Lions back into the game.
Suddenly the Lions scrum and lineout was superior, and the forwards lead by Paul O’Connell and Tom Croft began to punch holes in a tiring Springbok defence. O’Driscoll’s angled run that had sent Croft in for his first try worked again for Crofts second, and when the South Africans started to panic, Welsh scrumhalf Mike Philips was in again, to leave just a try between the teams going into the last few minutes. What had seemed impossibility just after halftime, was now not only possible, but probable, the only problem was had the Lions left their assault about 5 minutes too late? Had the Lions scored earlier when they were repeatedly assaulting the Springbok line then they may have had time to win, especially as the South Africans were making mistakes all over the park.
In the end a bad scrum, a weak lineout and some missed kicks at goal cost the Lions the first test. They will learn and have confidence going into the second, but so will the South Africans, and the world champions will now be all the better for losing a tight game, and having a much needed game together. The Springboks despite the win will look at where they went wrong as well, namely they will probably reselect their midfield, and will not be as eager to empty the bench this time out. The influential Swalk Burger may also be back, which is not welcomed news for the tourists.
From the Lions perspective Ian McGeechan is in a tricky position now, does he stick with the bones of the side that made such a remarkable comeback? Or does he shake things up a bit, meaning a few changes? The problem is had the Lions lost badly, which looked odds on after 60 minutes, then the decision would be easy, just make the changes, but McGeechan is now faced with a dilemma, the only certainty is that Phil Vickery will be no where near the Lions side or even the replacements bench next week, with Irelands John Hayes or Andrew Sheridan now poised to come onto the bench. It is a harsh end of the tour for the English Captain, but without a scrum a team cannot hope to win, and Vickery cannot hope to improve that much in a week, it now looks as if the midweek and Saturday games to date were a false dawn, and will require a major rethink.
The Lions must win next week, but at least their team spirit and confidence is still intact and not in tatters, they also know the South Africans will be waiting in the long grass better prepared and at high altitude. The odds of a series win does not favour the team that loses the first rubber, but as in Australia a few years ago, when the Lions won the series after losing the first match all is not over yet, it just got considerably harder that’s all.
How the players fared:
Lee Byrne: Unfortunately for the Welsh star, Byrne was forced to play in a defensive role rather than showing his attacking prowess. Was replaced in the second half by the big kicking Rob Kearny, who had a good game and possibly showed enough to usurp the Welsh fullback for the second test. 6/10
Rob Kearney: Came on and made a huge difference. Took all the high balls majestically in the air, and kicked to touch well. Kearney was lucky that the Lions started to attack and get some ball in the second spell rather than just kick and chase and it will be a close selection call for next week. 7/10
Ugo Moyne: Made the mistake that gifted the hosts a soft try in the first few minutes, and also dropped some early high balls. Nearly scored a good try, but was turned over at the vital time, another player who might struggle to get selected for the second test if Ian McGeechan decides to vary things, still a chance that Luke Fitzgerald might get a chance if selected and plays well midweek. 6/10
Tommy Bowe. Bowe made one incision into the backline that should have resulted in a try if the Irishman had of just held onto the ball. Did not see enough of the ball to show his tour form, but will probably hold his position based on reputation. 7/10
Brian O’Driscoll. Along with Jamie Roberts, O’Driscoll made mince meat of the South African midfield backs, and looked dangerous with every touch of the ball. Created Tom Crofts first try with a sensational step and feed. Gave the Lions every chance in the dying minutes and continues to defy the critics with a season of dreams. 8/10
Jamie Roberts. Forget Pienaar, Roberts was the star of the show, and broke through the Springbok backline at will. Amazing to think now that Roberts was overlooked for the overrated Gavin Henson against Ireland in the Grand Slam decider last year. Roberts is now emerging as the “player of the tour” and the South Africans will have to restructure their whole defensive plan just to shut him down next week. 9/10
Stephan Jones: Just adequate, and could well be replaced by Ronan O’Gara next week, especially after Jones missed two kicks at goal when the Lions badly needed points on the board. 6/10
Mike Phillips: Scored a crucial try, but took far too many steps before passing, and was slow in clearing ball at the base of the scrum and rucks. Invited the South Africans up flat on defence, and is not the answer. The Lions will rue the injury to Tomas O’Leary, who would offer a much faster delivery. Harry Ellis may put pressure on Phillips now, especially if O’Gara is preferred to Jones, thus breaking up the Phillips, Jones Welsh combination. 6/10
Jamie Heaslip. Had to try and operate behind a dismantled scrum and hence could not make much of an impression. Much better in the second half when things went more the Lions way, but will want to perform better next week if selected. 6/10
David Wallace: Was the Lions best forward in the first half despite very little good front foot ball. Made two or three trademark Wallace breaks, one of which could have resulted in a try. Unfortunately for Wallace when Martyn Williams came on the Lions were dominant and Williams looked good. Another Irish player who may not make it next week, all depends on how the coaches view things. 6/10
Tom Croft: Not a physical presence like say Stephen Ferris, but ran good support lines for two tries, took some ball at the tail of the lineout and made some great tackles. Rangy and fast, Croft was one of the better Lions performers. 7/10
Alun Wynn Jones: The lineout did not function as well as the Lions would have anticipated, especially with four jumpers at their disposal. Lee Mears throws too often went over O’Connell and Jones head. The Welshman was good in defence, with some bone crunching tackles but may be overlooked next week. 6/10
Paul O’Connell. As usual the Irish lock worked his socks off carrying ball around the fringes of rucks and mauls, but at times it was probably too predictable, especially in the first half, and the South Africans had him well read. Made a lot more ground in the second half, and lead the team well. 7/10
Phil Vickery; The English tight-head was touted by Lions scrum-coach Graham Roundtree as the “man to do the job” on what was deemed to be a weak enough South African front row, but he failed badly. Vickery is not a villain, he just had the worst day of his career in an area that he must take full responsibility in. Will not make the second test, and his international career may go into free fall. 4/10
Lee Mears. Mears throwing has been accurate up until now but on this tour but on Saturday his darts went astray against the tall timbers of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Mears did not get enough loose ball to make any impact where he is best with ball in hand, and was eventually replaced.
Gethin Jenkins: Jenkins while part of an overall dismantled front row, seemed to get a new lease of life when Welsh team-mate Adam Jones came on. Kept his side of the scrum reasonably steady throughout, and got around the park like an extra loose forward, including one memorable tackle of Bryan Habbana from behind, will be retained…7/10
Adam Jones: Not only held the scrum up, but actually took it forward on the tight-head side. Admittedly the South Africans had made some radical changes and were tiring badly, but all tour Jones has been slightly underrated and must start the second test.
Matthew Rees; Like Martyn Williams, Donnacha O’Callaghan ,Jones and Kearny all had the luxury of coming on when the Lions were on top but Rees carried ball well, and is a bigger physical presence than Mears. Helped fill the scrum and also the lineout came right, a coincidence or just good timing?
Donnacha O’Callaghan: Like the above mentioned it was a good day to be a sub. O’Callaghan may have done enough to make the second test, but will have to see how the selectors feel about Nathan Hines after the Scots poor run out last week against the Southern Kings.
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.
Brent Popes Lions Player Watch After Lions 26 Western Province 23.
Despite being somewhat fortuitous to come away with a 3 point win against the Western Province in soggy Capetown courtesy of replacement fullback James Hooks last gasp penalty goal, the Lions management team will still be pleased at being given such a vigorous hit-out just a week out from the main event. A one sided win for the tourists would have been facile for the Lions preparation leading up to the first test, and would not have allowed Coach Ian McGeechan an opportunity to assess if some of his fringe “test” players had what it takes for the big stage.
Coach McGeechan has talked about the need to “put themselves under pressure” in training for the much tighter test matches, and while the game could have gone either way, and probably should have resulted in a draw, once again in the last few minutes the Lions were patient, played the phases well and gave themselves every chance to win. The Western Province did the opposite, turning over two vital scrums in Lions territory, snapping at a reckless 50 metre drop goal in swirling winds and making far too many errors when they just needed to refocus. There lay the difference in the two teams, and the difference between winning and losing. Winning soon becomes a habit and the Lions have it, just.
While the Lions continue to experience problems in turning over ball and a mounting penalty count, they did show a willingness to dig in for a win, an early indication that the Lions camp are beginning to gel together as a unit, something that Clive Woodward did not achieve in 2005, when constant infighting between players quickly caused dissention in the Lions camp. Some problems still exist in the Lions defensive policy and they need to be ironed out quickly. It is now common knowledge (by the Springboks) that the Lions defence coach Shaun Edwards and his forwards Coach Warren Gatland, both favour a aggressive in your face defence policy that attempts to shut out the opposition attack from the outside in. This means that players rush up in a banana shape on the outsides more quickly, in a philosophy that aims at preventing teams from trying to get the ball wide. The older and perhaps more traditional way of defending, was what players used to call the “one out or drift defence” where the defender preferred to stay on the inside shoulder of the ball carrier thus pushing the players outwards rather than back in. Edwards and Gatlands policy proved reasonably successful over the years with Ireland, Wasps and Wales, but it definitely has its flaws as well, firstly its success is based around all the players (especially the centres) coming up in an even line to cut down the space.
This week the Lions were wrongly penalised for moving up too quickly on a couple of occasions, but in reality the Lions were just too efficient, and while they were actually all behind the last mans feet and legal, the touch judges and referees saw it differently. In effect these penalties and those for not staying on their feet a ruck-time just kept the opposition in the game. Ian McGeechan and Paul O’Connell must breach this point of “not” being offside with the media and referees this week, otherwise they will be penalised time and time again.
Really this week’s game in Capetown was nothing to do with what the opposition did, but more about a few test positions still up for grabs. Going into this game Ian McGeechan needed to know who his test front row would be, find another partner for Paul O’Connell, finalise the composition of the wings, determine whether Welsh veteran Martyn Williams could usurp David Wallace from the number 7 jersey and copperfasten his out half. In an area where most of the home union teams are struggling, namely in the quality of their props, the Lions are blessed in this area. In all the games to date, the Lions front row has dominated in South Africa, granted the opposition teams are missing their Springbok squad members, but with current South African Captain John Smit now looking like he may be forced to play on the tighthead side of the scrum rather than in his usual position of hooker, the Lions appear to have the early ascendancy in this area. Scottish strongman Euan Murray made a huge difference when he came off the bench on Saturday, actually forcing two crucial scrum turnover against the head in the last few minutes, while England Captain Phil Vickery was superb around the park and would also offer Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll extra leadership qualities on the pitch against South Africa. Andrew Sheridan has had a relatively good tour to date, but Gethin Jenkins has better body position at ruck time and is a better ball carrier around the park, the only thing that counts against Jenkins is Jonathon Kaplan’s insistence that Jenkins scrums illegally, it may rub off on some of his colleagues. Against this background I still predict a starting frontrow for the first test of Jenkins, Lee Mears and Vickery with Murray to come off the bench.
In the second row Scotland’s resident Australian Nathan Hines, a forward who has developed a harder edge with Perpignan this year, has played particularly well in his two outings to date, and may just have edged pundits favourite Alun Wyn Jones to partner Captain Paul O’Connell. Hines does not possess Jones mobility, but can match the bulky South Africans in the tight, while Paul O’Connell carries ball, the decsion of who will play second row ultimately depends on the way the Lions want to play the game or more significantly the way they see the Springboks playing them, namely will it be an open, running game plan or a tighter, mauling one. I sense that McGeechan will say “that he has too win the battle up front first” and if this remains his policy, then Hines may well start.
The wing positions have almost sorted themselves out as well, even before Tuesday afternoon’s match, with Ulster and Ireland’s wing Tommy Bowe quickly becoming the player of the tour to date. Bowe, often chastised in the media prior to Irelands Grand Slam winning season has been one of the world’s most improved players this year. Strong and with an ability to offload in the tackle (courtesy of a season with the Ospreys), Bowe makes up for a lack of real top end speed with excellent lines of running, intelligence and an ability to finish well and pop up in the best places on the park. On the other wing Luke Fitzgerald still has a chance if he gets a start on Tuesday, but England’s Ugo Moyne seems to have done enough now, with another excellent display on Saturday. Moyne looks a little awkward at times, with a slightly ugly running style, but he is deceptively quick, and has improved his kick and chase game and defence immeasurably on this tour.
The back row has now become the most difficult area for McGeechan to select from, especially who to start at no 7. Presuming that McGeechan does not opt for both Wallace and Williams to start on the flanks which would be foolish, then Tom Croft and Jamie Heaslip are sure to be selected at No 6 and No 8 respectively. Martyn Williams is perhaps a better link player than David Wallace, and is a better forager on the ground, while Wallace is the more dynamic player with the ball in hand, and clears out the opposition better than the Welshman at ruck time. With the Lions likely to use the likes of Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll to crash the centres, then they need a player on their shoulder to continue play over the gain line, and that player is Wallace. But if the Lions do not win at least 50% of the first phase possession, then Williams may be the more valuable acquisition given his better reading and play at the all important breakdown area.
Unfortunately while Stephan Jones did not have a great game, his Welsh combination with scrumhalf certainty Mike Phillips will probably see him start ahead of the improving Ronan O’Gara, with James Hook’s extra versatility keeping O’Gara off the bench. While Tuesday’s last chance saloon match is still an outside chance for some players like Fitzgerald and perhaps O’Gara to stake a claim, it would seem that most of the team is already in ink.
My starting XV for the first test.
BRENT POPE – PLAYER WATCH – MATCH 3
The tale of this tour to date reads 3 games played, and 3 games won, but things are not that simple. Yesterday the Lions started this match as they had finished Wednesdays match, namely crisp, cohesive and clinical. For 20 minutes the Lions scored at a point a minute against the unfortunately named Cheetahs, who at that stage looked anything like the fastest animal in the world.
The Lions young backline that contained an untried midfield combination of Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls at inside and outside centre respectively could not have made a better start, especially Earls who latched onto a pinpoint James Hook grubber kick and weaved his way to the tryline. It was a fantastic moment for young Earls, especially after his first match, and you could see what it meant to the touring party as well who all stood and clapped to a man when they realised that Earls confidence was now back.
Ulster’s Stephen Ferris completed a great start for the Irish with another try that underlined his power and pace, but just when we started to think that the Lions might run away with it they shut up shop and allowed the Cheetahs to not only come back into the game but win it. Had the hosts converted several kicking opportunies including a last minute drop goal attempt that shaved the posts then they would have surely won, and based on the last 60 minutes they would have probably deserved it.
The Lions dominated the set pieces so convincingly that it appeared as if the Cheetahs would have to live on scraps. The Lions scrum anchored by the impressive Andrew Sheridan was powerful and destructive, often reeling the Cheetahs backwards, but too often the Cheetahs just wheeled the retreating scrum so that it negated the effect, while Munster’s Donncha O’Callaghan and Captain Paul O’Connell nearly got a hand to every one of the opposition throw ins.
In the backs Welshman James Hook followed in Ronan O’Gara and Stephen Jones boots by converting every penalty the Lions received so as the butler asked George Best when he lay on his bed with Miss World and covered in casino winnings “where did it all go wrong”? The Lions simply lost all momentum and rhythm because once again they lost the battle of the loose ball, and like against the Royal XV on day 1 after that they struggled for a triumvirate of loose forwards that could get to the ball first and keep the continuity play going.
While the loose forwards have all played reasonably well as individuals, they are yet to gel as a unit, which not only gets to the loose play first, but also effects turnovers and blows the opposition infringers off the ball. In my opinion the best combination for the 6, 7 and 8 axis is this, a fast, groundhog type of no 7 who beats his opposite number to the ball, normally a player slightly shorter than his other 2 flankers but quicker. The ideal No 6 is the taller, powerful more stocky type of player, a man that blows fringe players off the ball and is a good tail of the lineout option. The third of the trinity is the No 8, a strong and intelligent ball carrier who makes yards off the set scrum, controls ball at the base of that scrum and acts as an intelligent link between backs and forwards. In just under two weeks time and against the full Springboks the Lions will face such a perfect unit in Smith, Burger and Spies the ideal backrow, against this the Lions management need to quickly determine their test back row sooner than later, and more significantly give them some discernible game time together.
Time and time again yesterday the Lions just got into good field position and with some effective phases built when they turned over the ball, granted sometimes it was illegal playing of the ball on the ground by the Cheetahs, but a lot of the time it was simply the play of the magnificent Cheetahs No 6 Heinrech Brussow (how is he not in the current Springbok test squad?) who time after time plundered the Lions at ruck and tackle time. Referee Wayne Barnes was in my opinion far too lax in determining if the likes of Brussow was back on his feet before he played the ball especially after the tackle, but like all good flankers, Brussow and co just play to the letter of the law, and if he is let away with it, he will do it-all day!
Joe Worsley proved yesterday that he is not an International 7, and while he may play there for England, to me he is a defensive no 6 and should not be switched to the openside of the scrum again on this tour. Welsh No 8 Andy Powell started the game very well, but then reverted back to his old one trick pony self, Powell is a powerful ball carrier no doubt, but his control of the ball at the base of the scrum is slow and spasmodic, while his failure to look for space with his running is the main reason why he cannot make the staring XV for both club or country. Twice yesterday Powell made crucial mistakes that a schoolboy player would not make, once he ran to the openside of the field from a set scrum when he did not have the support of an openside flanker (Stephen Ferris was yellow carded at the time and Joe Worsley had moved to the blindside of the scrum) and with out support he lost the ball. Then minutes later he tried to run the ball back from a defensive scrum and again was turned over. It is vital he communicates with the rest of his forwards; they need to know when and where he is headed.
When I played rugby in New Zealand the ball and retention of it was gold, if your team lost the ball when you went into contact with it, it was your fault and you would have been singled out harshly at the next training session. The Lions need to tighten up this area of play before the first test, otherwise they can assume that without domination of the set pieces which they have enjoyed in all three matches to date, where will they get enough second phase ball to play with? Warren Gatland will have the players working on retaining the ball in contact, lower body positions, speed to the loose ball and blowing out the South African bodies at ruck time.
The South Africans also showed that the reinstatement of the maul will suit them come test time, and it is an area that may test the Lions severely when they meet the bigger bulkier packs, it was always a traditionally strong area of play for the physical Boks, and it is back!
Elsewhere there was encouraging signs from England scrumhalf Harry Ellis who had a sharp pass and looked lively. Outhalf James Hook had an excellent first 20 minutes when he looked confident and assured, but after that his quick ruck ball slowed to a dribble and as a result the backline didn’t really have any front foot momentum. That sort of slow, disjointed play did not help Luke Fitzgerald’s cause, and while the Irish and Leinster winger tried valiantly and showed encouraging glimpses of his dancing feet, he will regret not having a decent shot at his rightful position. Fitzgerald has been slightly hard done by to date, and he must be allowed to play in his best position of wing in the next few games so that he can challenge for a test position.
Shane Williams again showed that his lack of size will not cut it in South Africa, and it will be a major surprise if he gets a test position, if he does it will be on reputation only and while he has been given a handful of chances on the wing already, the likes of Fitzgerald has had none. Fullback Lee Byrne again showed that his angles of running, insertion into the backline and especially his pinpoint up and under kicks means that he has already nailed down the fullback berth for the first test anyway. On the other wing Leigh Halfpenny chased kicks well, but like the others didn’t really get a chance to show a clean pair of heels.
From an Irish point of view Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan performed wonders out of touch, while Stephen Ferris again showed what a wrecking ball of a player he is, just shading England’s Tom Croft to date with a performance full of vim and vigour. Ferris has revealed an amazing turn of speed for such a big man on this tour, and his probably the no 6 for the first test based on his two outings. Keith Earls took his try very well with an excellent chase, regain and swerve, he also carried ball well into contact for a relatively light man and performed his duties reasonably well, but like Fitzgerald and others he will be disappointed that after the first 20 minutes he did not really get a chance to show his obvious attacking prowess.
So the winning record is still in tact, just, and thanks mainly to a lack of goal kicking from the opposition, and while there are some positives in the Lions strength and depth, their northern hemisphere fitness levels and their complete domination of scrums and lineouts, there is also major concerns in the high penalty count, loss of ball in the contact area and an inability to be more clinical close to the opposition line. There will also be some concern over the referees interpretation of what happens at the ruck and tackle area and the illegal feed to the scrum by the South African halfbacks, it seems that while the lineout throws are being scrutinised heavily, the South African scrumhalves are still practically putting the ball under the second rows feet so that they can win it back.
Brent Pope player ratings
· Lee Byrne: 7: Didn’t get to see as much of the ball in attack as he would have expected after 20 minutes, but always broke the gain line, and at least kicked so players had a chance of regaining the ball. Dropped a sitter and knocked on to give the Cheetahs a royal chance to steel the game. Still the test 15 at this stage.
· Leigh Halfpenny: 6: Chased kicks well, tackled well when asked to chase back, but like the other backs had nothing to do when supply dried up.
· Shane Williams: 5: Tried far too hard to squirm and shiver out of tackles. Gains ground but is like a pinball and loses his support in doing so. Was pushed off a couple of times by bigger players, and telegraphed the intercept past out of pure desperation.
· Luke Fitzgerald 6: Clearly and foolishly played out of position for such a young and talented player. Too light for the crash and bash play in South Africa. Brave in the tackle, and showed good feet on occasions. Multi talented but must be tried where he is best. A failed and wasted experiment put him on the wing or at fullback.
· Keith Earls 6: An excellent start, but then the ball dried up for Earls and co. Tackled well and showed his strength on occasion, probably needs an more experienced player like D’Arcy alongside him just to garnish his obvious speed and talent. Will be much happier than last week.
· James Hook: 7.5. Kicked for goal well, passed and tackled well and had good lateral vision for Earls try. Jury is still out on whether he can run a backline in the heat of battle as well as Jones or O’Gara, but looked a good bet off the bench.
· Harry Ellis 7: A far better tour opener than Mike Blair and looked quite sharp. Tends to panic a bit from free kicks, but at least looked to add some spark to the loose play. Not as physical as Mike Phillips and will not start the first test.
· Andy Powell 5: Started like a freight train, but then reverted back to seeking out players to hit rather than running to space. Lost the ball far too many times in contact and did not communicate well enough from the vital position of No 8. Will not challenge for a test spot on this tour, and will play a minimal role.
· Stephan Ferris.7.5: Possibly the pick of the Lions pack. Strong and mobile, he also adds considerable weight at scrum time. Made some good takes in the lineout to cap off another fine game. Is in direct competition with Tom Croft for the test No 6 jersey.
· Joe Worseley. 7: Tried harder than anybody, especially in the tackle area, but far too slow for an International 7. Must be now played at No 6 only. But overall brave and committed.
· Donnacha O’Callaghan 6.5: Brilliant in the lineout, and scrummed hard, but would have liked to get his hands on the ball more. However did a feast of donkey work and will get better with each outing.
· Paul O’Connell 7: A massive amount of work carrying ball, but this needs to be varied more from now, as the South Africans have quickly recognised him as one of the danger men. Always has two men lying in wait for him, but began to offload and change points of attack well. Excellent again in the lineout.
· Euan Murray 6: Scrummed well, but didn’t offer enough around the field or in rucks. Is under pressure for a test spot, and needs to offer more than just a powerful scrum
· Ross Ford 6.5: Again not mobile enough after his usual duties needs to offer himself as an additional ball carrier just to take the mantle of O’Connell. Is well behind Lee Mears at this stage, and how Jerry Flannery would have loved the hard rounds.
· Andrew Sheridan 7: Was the strongest man on the park and drove a one-sided scrum, but again needs to use his huge frame more effectively in the loose.
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
BRENT POPE LIONS WATCH – WEEK 1
The Irish and British Lions opened their South African tour in what was meant to be an easy Rustenberg puff out before the big games in the coming weeks, and what a puff out it was, both in altitude and performance. Like the win inflicted by Munster on the All Blacks in “78” the Royal XV were just minutes away from history and had their winger just left a kick that was obviously going out alone the Lions may still not have had enough time to win.
The Lions struggled all over the park, turning over the ball 14 times in contact when in reality the Paul O’Connell led team was expected to post a cricket score. The Blue Bulls demolition of the Waikato Chiefs just down the road will have sent shivers up the Lions management and reminded them of how much they have to improve before Wednesday.
It was a mixed day for the Irish against the previously unheralded Royal XV. Whatever the excuse about the Lions being ring –rusty, lacking patterns, cohesion and fluidity given just their two weeks together, the Royal XV could have used the same excuses, with many of their team just a collection of part time Currie Cup and Super 14 players and the rest made up of 3rd tier local provincial players.
In fact you actually felt a little sorry for the hosts especially given the effort they put in, and the 12 point 37-25 winning margin by the Lions was not only overly flattering, but particularly fortuitous considering the three late try’s scored by the lame visitors the last 8 minutes. With just 15 minutes to go the Royal XV led the Lions by as many points, and had it not been for fullback Lee Byrne’s speculative kick and catch try, then the Lions may have started this tour on a major downer? As it was, the morale loss was with all the hosts, and the Lions will have some serious soul searching to do before the first Springbok test in a couple of weeks.
From a players and selectors perspective, only a handful of the Lions ended the game with a positive tick in Coach Ian McGeehan’s big black book, others will probably have wished they had not even started the game, while a couple of individuals may have already cost themselves a chance of forcing the coaches for test selection with substandard efforts.
Ronan O’Gara ended the game with an impressive personal haul of 22 points, courtesy of a last minute try and an immaculate day with the boot, but was one of only a handful of better than average performers. O’Gara started the match slowly enough, but much of O’Gara’s negative play was due to the Scottish Captain and Lions scrumhalf Mike Blair, who looked ponderous, passed poorly and was bereft of the scintillating halfbreak he possesses so well for Scotland. In fact Blair was so convincingly outplayed by his opposite number Pretouris, a player who along with the outstanding try scoring hooker Barnes will surely attract some interest from the English Premiership sugar daddies, and either would be a good purchase for any one of the Irish provinces)
Head Lions Coach Ian McGeechan may now have wished that he had brought another scrumhalf given Blair’s substandard performance. O’Gara did come good when he came to terms with a ball that travels miles in thinner air; and when he went back to basics just when the Lions needed it. David Wallace playing back at No 8 (a position many feel he may have made the test team) had an ideal platform to show off his powerful running from a dominant enough scrum, but Wallace made far too many uncharactersitic mistakes, especially with ball in hand to really impress. One characteristic “Wallacesque” break in the first spell showed what he can do with extra space and being able to run onto ball, but maybe a lack of game time at No 8 for Munster and Ireland this season has hampered him in this specific position, he will need to do a lot more than this to force a shift the No 8 spot away from Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip. Wallace will be further annoyed in that Martyn Williams performed fairly well in Wallace’s usual spot on the open side of the scrum.
Tour Captain Paul O’Connell was as usual asked to carry a lot of ball in the loose and was safe enough out of touch, but he was as generally well marshalled by the Royal XV loose forwards. O’Connell will probably receive some unfair criticism from the English media on his ability or inability to motivate his players, and settle things down on the field but that is biased and unfair. Watching Sky Sports coverage on the game, England’s Stuart Barnes was continuously having a quip at O’Connell’s captaincy, but O’Connell’s main strength is in his ability to be quiet and thoughtful when it counts, and not rant and rave.
England’s great Captain Martin Johnston was very much in the same mould, a mans man who just gets on with it. Barnes was saying that O’Connell should have had an early word with the nervy Keith Earls, just to settle him down, but why? O’Connell knows that his Munster team-mate was having a bit of an off day, and he knows full well that Earls realised that as well. In my opinion O’Connell was right just to leave the young Earls alone to work things out for himself.
The rest of the Lions forwards were largely anonymous on the day, Andrew Sheridan missed vital tackles all over the park including one that lead to a try, Adam Jones was never even mentioned, apart from in the scrum as was Welsh hooker Matthew Rees, (England’s Dylan Hartley would have been a better selection) while Joe Worsley never got his hands on the ball at all. The only thing the forwards did well as a unit was the basics i.e. restarts, scrum and lineouts which was really to be expected at this level.
Outside of O’Gara, Welshman and inside centre Jamie Roberts had a strong first half and then weakened slightly, while Lee Byrne was the opposite, and probably the Lions “Player of the Match.” Byrnes long loping stride is deceptive, and at least his kicks had some chance of being recaptured, others kicked aimlessly. Shane Williams may have been the “World player of the Year in 2008” but he looks to have lost all his pace, and is a shadow of the player he once was. The South Africans have now read Williams turning and squirming game, and apart from a few runs from broken play he will be lucky to make the test team. Tommy Bowe took his try well, and nearly set up another for Keith Earl’s replacement Riki Flutey and along with O’Gara, Roberts and Byrne will be happy enough with his first day’s outing.
Unfortunately for Munster and Irish fans the tours youngest player Keith Earls will not be so happy. Earls just could not seem to hold onto the ball, and while he looked safe in the tackle and good on his feet, he had a nightmare trying to offload or catch the ball (he was not the only onehowever) he will be devastated especially when he was replaced by Fluety later on in the game as the Lions chased the win, the ultimate vote of no confidence. On the plus side Earls is young and nerves are understandable for a player that thought a few starts for Munster in the Heineken Cup would be his lot this year. Earls just tried to hard and has the skill set and mental edge to bounce back, but as a player he will be bitterly disappointed, as perhaps he tried to hard to justify his wild card selection, next time he just needs to relax. The hard grounds in South Africa will suit Earls top end speed, and hopefully he will get a runout on the wing or at fullback, perhaps two future positions where he is better suited for the extra space afforded him.
The Lions management will say “a wins, a wins a win” but it is not the ideal start by any means and unless they get a powerful performance come Wednesday then two things can happen fairly quickly, the tour can start to go downhill with players starting to complain, or the team can come together in adversity and accept that there is a lot to do, pray it is the latter. Paul O’Connell and Ian McGeechan talked pre-tour of the importance of players having a few good nights out on this tour, but I suspect their will be too much cracking open of champagne after day 1. The celebrations and champagne are still on ice.
Lions watch, weekend 1:
Winners Lee Byrne, Tommy Bowe, Ronan O’Gara, Martyn Williams, Jamie Roberts, Paul O’Connell.
Worth another look David Wallace (at 7)
Disappointed: Mike Blair, Keith Earls, Andrew Sheridan, Joe Woresley, Matthew Rees, Shane Williams.
BRENT POPE – PLAYER WATCH – MATCH 6
Regardless of what was said by Ian McGeechan and his management team prior to Tuesday’s match against the largely unheralded Southern Kings, it seemed pretty obvious that apart from some key injuries McGeechan would hardly risk his first team on paper by playing them just 5 days out from the all important first Test. In reality McGeechan would have been looking at the remaining players to assess who to include on the bench, but even then many of his front line choices in that area ran into difficulty in a nasty, high attrition 20-8 win.
Scottish prop Euan Murray(injury) Second row Nathan Hines (sub standard performance) and utility back James Hook(injury) were all suddenly out of the equation for Saturdays match 22 and at least 2 of them Hook and Murray would have appeared certainties in the replacements. Ronan O’Gara came on after Hook’s early departure, and probably gave the selectors enough headaches at outhalf given his superb goal kicking, but in the end it may not be enough to sway the combination strength of Welsh team-mates Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones, but that could all change fairly quickly if the Lions lose the first rubber, and O’Gara is certainly barking at the heels.
I said last week that I felt Nathan Hines might partner Paul O’Connell in the second row if the Lions needed a hardier edge than Alun Wynn Jones, but despite a huge weight and height advantage against the Southern Kings, the Lions forwards again struggled for dominance and more alarmingly again lost the battle for the loose ball. A few years ago Irish Coach Eddie O’Sullivan was preoccupied with selecting big forwards, to such an extent that he took Stephen Ferris to the World Cup as an open side flanker, when most of us could see that the young Ulsterman was too big and strong to be anything other than a world class No 6 or perhaps a No 8. While extra height is an obvious advantage for the second row, and perhaps a No 8 or blindside flanker, a smaller more dynamic type of player is always needed off the tail of the lineout and off the openside of the scrum to get to the breakdown first.(The openside is where most of the back play originates)
On Tuesday we witnessed the smaller Southern Kings flanker perfecting tackles, and in one movement sliding to his feet and gaining either the penalty against the Lions for holding on, or effecting the turnover. Not once in the match did we see the likes of Joe Worseley, Andy Powell or Nathan Hines do the same, Why? Simply because for a number 7 Joe Worseley is just too big, he may be powerful and in wet, slow conditions valuable, but on hard and fast grounds like those in South Africa if you don’t win the race to the loose ball or at least dominate and control possession so that is not as important, then it makes it difficult to win especially against better opposition than the Kings. The Lions Management team can talk all they like about the different referee’s interpretations of the breakdown law, or the Southern Hemisphere game, but in the end the rules have not changed in this area in over 100 years. It is as simple as getting your player(s) to the breakdown first, and then either speeding the ruck ball up if you have it, or conversely slow it down if the opposition do, either way (with or without the ball) it still necessitates getting your hands on the ball first.
Again the Lions will be pleased just to have won this match and keep both the 100% winning tour record and team confidence on a high, but they will not be pleased at the attitude of the Southern Kings who seemed intent on roughing up the Lions as much they could. Late tackles, hits off the ball and other unsavoury incidents marred a brave and committed performance from the local team and you wonder what their brief was. Still a wins a win and it’s onwards and upwards to the first Test.
How the Irish players fared?
Keith Earls. The youngest member of the touring party now that the younger Leigh Halfpenny has departed, Earls has grown in confidence after a shaky start that would have knocked many other players. Earls showed that fullback may be his long term position with a classy performance. He needs to work on his body bulk and basic duties like the kick and pass, but he is an exceptional talent for the future.
Luke Fitzgerald Should never have been played at inside centre, while the like of Shane Williams was given 3 or 4 starts on the wing to little effect. Fitzgerald has looked sharp and edgy in all his matches but unfortunately the ball has not flowed to him as it has for say Ugo Moyne. Will miss test selection simply because he has not had enough ball to play with.
Ronan O’Gara: Took a while to get into an angry game, and it was hard to come off the bench when he didn’t expect it, but as usual kicked at goal immaculately, and set up Moynes somewhat lucky try. Heaped tons of pressure on test favourite Stephan Jones despite not having his best game to date.
Donncha O’Callaghan; Like some of the other players O’Callaghan had to wait to long time to get his first game and by that stage the names of O’Connell, Alun Wynn Jones, Simon Shaw and even Nathan Hines were already ahead of him. But, O’Callaghan has been steadily improving, and his work around the park is perhaps the best of all the second-rows on display. The Munster man was given the Captains armband for the match and responded with a very good performance, although the lineouts were not as secure as they had been in other games. Still has a chance for a say in the second or third tests.