BRENT POPE LIONS WATCH – WEEK 1

By admin · June 1, 2009 · Filed in Brent Pope's Player Watch Blog · 1 Comment »

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.

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George Hook – Lions Tour 2009 Video Blog – Royal XV 25 Lions 37

By admin · May 31, 2009 · Filed in George Hook's Video Blog · 5 Comments »

George Hooks Lions Tour 2009 Video Blog is Here.     Ask George A Question in Our Comments Forum Below The Video

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