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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.
CONOR WARD takes a look at the Irish touring contingent and their chances of making the side to face the might of the South African when the Test series kicks off on Saturday week
The Lions have been in South Africa for just over a fortnight, but on such a short tour management will soon be looking to piece together their starting Test side. And it’s been a case of varying fortunes for the Irish boys thus far. So without further ado, let’s take a look at their chances at this stage of the tour…
Tommy Bowe – A standout performer on tour so far. His enormous impact in the opening two games yielded three tries, which places the Ospreys man in a very strong position for Test selection at this stage. Bowe is also a popular figure who finds himself in the midst of international as well as club colleagues on this trip. With Shane Williams failing badly to find his form, the momentum is with Bowe and he will be raring to go against the Boks.
Gordon D’Arcy – Despite some damage to his reputation at the tail-end of the 2005 tour (some so-called experts proclaimed that D’Arcy would never wear a Lions jersey again), McGeechan and co have seen fit to call on his services to enhance their midfield options. Forget the rumour and idle gossip – a player of D’Arcy’s calibre belongs on a Lions tour. That said, D’Arcy has too much ground to make up to get in contention for a Test place having belatedly joined the party. Jamie Roberts, with one star turn after another, should have the inside centre berth nailed down now.
Keith Earls – The Limerick youngster’s tour got off to the worst possible start as he endured a torrid opening period against the Royal XV, apparently suffering from a bad case of nerves. Against that backdrop, his classy early try against the Cheetahs on Saturday was all the sweeter. That score was a good demonstration of Earls’ fine footwork. Even with all his talent though, it’s difficult to see a player of such limited international experience playing anything more than a backup role in a physically grueling test series.
Luke Fitzgerald – Was done no favours by his selection out of position at inside centre in an overall lightweight backline which struggled against the Cheetahs. At least he survived the game competently enough and, to their credit, management gave Fitzgerald his head on the wing against the Sharks in Durban. The Leinster livewire didn’t disappoint as he struck for a try in a decent all round display. He has the requisite quality for the Tests and is now knocking on the door.
Rob Kearney – With his form little more than average going back as far as the Six Nations, Kearney doesn’t make a strong case for selection ahead of consistently excellent Welsh full-back Lee Byrne. Kearney didn’t feature against the Sharks, as another classy display from Byrne now means he’s indispensable in the plans for Saturday week. Kearney will need to pick up his form and be ready to rumble if called upon later in the series.
Brian O’Driscoll – All-time great O’Driscoll had to be virtually nailed on for the number 13 Test jersey ever before a ball was kicked in anger on tour. Now vastly experienced – a Grand Slam winning captain and playing on his third Lions tour – O’Driscoll is worth his weight in gold. Although he’s not the captain, O’Driscoll is arguably the most important and influential member in the squad. For my money, he’s still the best player in the world at thirty. His partnership with Jamie Roberts was again top class against the Sharks. Together, they carry much of the Lions hopes on their shoulders. O’Driscoll’s attacking prowess, defensive doggedness and cool head will all be needed if the Lions are to somehow upset the odds.
Ronan O’Gara – Kicked his goals and notched a nice try in the opening game, but that was not enough to mask a poor team performance. O’Gara display against the Sharks was more assured as he released his backs well at times and showed the kind of variation that comes with a player of his experience. Overall, the Munsterman has kicked with authority in his two outings. Stephen Jones also stepped up to the plate against the Golden Lions however. As things stand, it’s a very tight call between the two.
Jamie Heaslip – Rivalled only by Sergio Parisse as the best number 8 in the Six Nations, and having gone on to play a crucial role in Leinster’s Heineken Cup triumph, Heaslip was always the prime contender for the Test spot. Andy Powell’s erratic display against the Cheetahs at the weekend has done nothing to upset that either. Heaslip was heavily involved and very impressive against the Cheetahs, capping the display with a late burst over the whitewash. McGeechan and co will surely now bank on his talents against the Boks, though they will provide the most arduous challenge of his career.
Donncha O’Callaghan – Always gives huge work-rate and total commitment, but his performance against the Cheetahs was hardly of the head-turning variety. Although he nailed down a test place in New Zealand four years ago, the Lions would surely be better served by the more rounded skills of Alun-Wyn Jones this time around, and O’Callaghan would in fact be doing well even to make the bench.
Paul O’Connell (Captain) – Obviously guaranteed to start, but the Lions want to be careful about placing too much faith in his ability to damage the Boks up front. I don’t recall the occasion when he stood out and dominated against a full-strength Southern Hemisphere pack. Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha are actually both bigger men, they have vast experience, and certainly won’t be living in O’Connell’s shadow. He will bring leadership and intelligence, but the reality is that the Lions forwards are hugely up against it.
David Wallace – After a slow start on tour, Wallace staked his claim properly against the Sharks with a huge all-action display in which he repeatedly made ground for his side. Easily talented enough to mix it in the Test match cauldron, his ball-carrying attributes will be a big asset to the Lions. With the might of Smith, Burger and Spies lying in wait, the Lions will need Wallace to take the fight to them. One of only a few players in the squad who could strike some fear into the Boks defence, it would be hard to see McGeechan overlooking him now.
A word on Stephen Ferris: His injury is just an awful awful shame, not just for himself but for the squad as a whole. Ferris was having a fabulous tour until he was agonizingly cut down in the middle of a great run. His brutish physical strength and searing pace off the mark made him the standout contender for the number 6 jersey, but now we can only think of what might have been. Let’s wish him the best in his recovery and hope to see him back in that kind of form next season.
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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.
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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
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