Monday, June 22, 2009

Lions Tamed

"Close, but no cigar"

A dazzling comeback from the British Lions fell just short of securing victory in the first test against South Africa on Saturday. Not quite the proverbial game of two halves, more like a game of three miserable quarters and one enormously exciting quarter. However, the harsh reality for the Lions is that they lost and are now one-nil down in a three Test series.

The Lions were not quite good enough and may just have let their best opportunity for a victory slip out of their grasp. As a helpful chap, I would like to assist the Lions management in their post-match analysis by offering my own top ten reasons for the defeat:

  • Don’t know how to score tries. Hang on a sec, didn’t the Lions grab three tries (one more than the Saffers) ? Well, yes, they did, but they also got over the try line four more times without managing to properly ground the ball. In particular, Ugo Monye wasted two great opportunities by carrying the ball in the wrong arm. Either one of the Underwood brothers would have finished those chances. In the superb film “Any Given Sunday”, coach Tony D’Amato, gloriously played by Al Pacino, rouses his team with an inspirational speech, which rings so true after this match: “when we add up all those inches, that's gonna make the fucking difference between winning and losing !”

"Ugo Monye mistakes the ball for a bar of soap"

  • Feeble front row. The sight of Phil Vickery popping out of the scrum like a cork from a bottle after the demolition job from opposition prop Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira was the most obvious sign of the front row’s struggles, but Vickery was given little assistance by his hooker, Lee Mears, who has always looked too small for Test rugby. The Lions’ management could have taken the Cornish Bull by the horns and replaced him much earlier with “Hair Bear” Jones, as this substitution steadied the scrum in the later stages. Also, if the players felt that the ref did not understand that the Beast was illegally lifting a player, then frankly they should have taken the law into their own hands and given him a biff. You can’t see Jason Leonard or Brian “Pitbull” Moore putting up with that nonsense for too long.

"Phil Vickery's thousand yard stare after his Beasting"

  • Substitutions made too late. By this, I obviously refer to the South Africans, as coach Peter de Villiers foolishly brought on a raft of replacements for an early lap of honour. If only his attack of arrogance had come earlier, then we could have been celebrating a famous victory, as the previously comfortable Springboks finished the game in some disarray.
  • Tactical injuries. I don’t mean the “shoulder injury” which allowed South Africa to bring back their substituted captain, John Smit, in order to steady his sinking ship. No, I am thinking of the Southern Kings’ shameful display last week, when a series of cheap shots took out Euan Murray and James Hook. Last November, Scotland’s Murray had given the Beast a torrid time at the scrum and the South Africans clearly remembered that working-over (although the Lions’ management appear to have forgotten). Hook has already shown himself to be a match-winner on this tour and boy could the Lions have used his big boot on Saturday.
  • Lightweight pack. The Lions had clearly opted for mobility rather than grunt in the forwards. This policy had some success, especially when the under-cooked South Africans tired, but for most of the match the willowy Lions forwards were on the back foot. Not only was the scrum splintered, but also the pack was humiliated when a lengthy driving maul put the excellent Brussow over the line for the winning try. Although it might seem strange to call Alun Wyn Jones lightweight, when he is 6 ft 6 in and 19 stone, there is no doubt in my mind that the South Africans would prefer to face him than Simon Shaw, who Lawrence Dallaglio described as the best scrummager he has ever played with. Shaw would also bring an appreciation of the harsher qualities required at this level – Danny Grewcock without the sin-binning, if you will.
  • Cannot kick points. The normally reliable Stephen Jones missed crucial kicks at goals, so the Lions did not score a single penalty. A vital kick to touch for a line-out in the vital last few minutes was also woefully inadequate, barely reaching the 22 instead of the 5 metre line, where real pressure could have been applied. The last time the Lions won in South Africa, another Welsh fly-half, Neil Jenkins, was lethal with the boot and a trusty points-scoring machine. The concern is that Jones’ most likely replacement, Ronan O’Gara, would almost certainly be a disaster, as he would kick away all our ball, thus neutering our incisive centres, who would also exhaust themselves making his tackles for him.
  • Lack of leadership. I have never been fully convinced by Paul O’Connell as captain. He virtually disappeared during his last Lions tour and just does not have the dominant, fearsome presence of a Martin Johnson. Geech apparently picked him to bring some intimidation to the party, but the big fella seems incapable of enthusing his team-mates or getting to the opposition, not to mention influencing the referee à la Jonno. Of most concern was O’Connell’s reaction to the defeat, which he seemed to blame on the ref giving so many penalties against his side.

"Paul O'Connell - no Martin Johnson"

  • Lee Byrne’s sore foot. Although Byrne’s replacement, Rob Kearney, had a fine game at full-back, the Lions badly missed the attacking option that Byrne has provided in the previous games with his ability to break from deep. The medical staff need to find some more effective strapping for his foot by next week.
  • Bossed at the line-out and break-down. The Lions were clearly terrified of Victor Matfield’s prowess in the line-out, so barely used this tactic. Hardly surprising, when they lost two out of the first four, one of which led to a South African try. Almost all of the pre-match talk was about the importance of the break-down and it was very disappointing to see the Lions out-muscled here, typified by the moment when David Wallace took the ball into contact, where he was engulfed by Bakkies Botha who slung him over his shoulder like an old coat. As for Jamie Heaslip – was he on the pitch ? At least there’s room for improvement: more aggression, more power, more speed and more running would help.
  • Poor refereeing. Nobody wants to be a “whinging pom”, but the South African superiority at the scrum was certainly helped by a very generous referee. Scrum laws say that players need to pack square and push straight, and the Beast rarely did either. The ref kept getting it wrong even when he came round to Vickery's side and the angled driving of the Beast was clearly evident. It’s by no means the first time that a southern hemisphere referee has demonstrated a poor grasp of the rules, but you have to rise above it, as England did in the 2003 World Cup Final.

Never mind, there are still two matches to go and the Lions can “look forward” to renewing acquaintances with the Springbok pack, though this time it will be at altitude. Even though this should theoretically work against our boys, the records show that the Lions have won three of the four internationals they have played at Loftus Versfeld. You want another encouraging statistic ? Lions coach Ian McGeechan has never lost the second Test in two tours as a player, and four as a head coach.

Can the Lions build on the hugely exciting midfield partnership of the powerful Jamie Roberts and the classy Brian O’Driscoll (“in BOD we trust”) ? Will the potential of the athletic, try-scoring flanker Tom Croft be matched by the rest of the forwards ? In Clive Woodward’s words, will the Lions “front up” ?

Right now, the Lions are licking their wounds, but there’s just a chance that they can roar back and once again be the Lion Kings. Let’s hope so, as the South Africans need little help in their efforts to be acknowledged as the most arrogant nation on the planet.

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