Neither coach covered himself in glory at the weekend. While Ben Mowen’s shutdown of Mike Phillips was a highly successful tactic, that has to be balanced with Deans’ selection of James O’Connor as outhalf and placekicker.
On the other side of the board, because the Lions managed to escape with a win, neither much scrutiny nor criticism has attended Gatland’s use of tactical substitutions. Frankly put, they almost lost the Lions the game.
It has since emerged that Alex Corbisiero’s calf strain is serious enough to require a call to the holidaying Tom Court asking him to join the squad for the Tuesday game against the Melbourne Rebels: fair enough to take him off on 51 minutes in that case.
However, whipping Adam Jones off at the same time was an odd call, and it turns out a flawed one. Dan Cole’s chief advantage in the loose over Jones is his jackalling at the breakdown, and given referee Pollock’s interpretations of the laws governing that part of the game, it was questionable to begin with; if Cole had stuck to his usual habits around the tackle area, he would have been blown off the park.
Furthermore, Jones is well used to breaching the 70 minute barrier at test level. He didn’t need replacing, certainly not for another 15-20 minutes. Here’s a breakdown of his gametime from the 2013 Six Nations tournament:
- 73 mins vs England [replaced by Scott Andrews with score at 30-3]
- 80 mins vs Scotland
- 73 mins vs Italy [replaced by Craig Mitchell with score at 26-9]
- 78 mins vs France [replaced by Craig Mitchell with score at 16-6]
- 73 mins vs Ireland [replaced by Craig Mitchell with score at 15-30]
In any case, Parling is a far more like-for-like substitute for O’Connell than for Jones – a rangy, lineout-calling middle jumper rather than a 119kg powerhouse. O’Connell’s presence on the pitch is a big deal, but rugby’s a position-specific game. Parling scrummages behind the loosehead for England, not the tighthead. Why would you bring him on to replace Alun-Wyn Jones, who’s a far more effective scrummager, when you have already weakened your front row? It was a poorly-judged call, and the Lions scrum, which had already lost the dominance it had previously held when Corbisiero and Jones were substituted, deteriorated further.
In terms of damage limitation, of the two left on the field, O’Connell has spent more time for both club and country scrummaging behind No3. You’d imagine that he would be the one to switch over, but instead it was Parling who took on the unfamiliar and tougher scrummaging job. Result? Scrum goes to the dogs entirely.
Second Test Selection Conundrums
If, as rumoured, O’Connell does miss the second test, The Mole thinks it likely that it will have a knock-on effect on the selection of the backrow.
Tom Croft didn’t have a bad game, but nor was he ever able to impose himself on it or make any real inroads through his stand-out athleticism. Lions tactics dictated that he was primarily used at No2 in the lineout, which is a role that any of the back five forwards could have filled when you consider that the Australians rarely contested in the air when the ball went to the front. Dean Ryan wrote an excellent article on the Lions’ ‘invisible’ problems at the line-out, which is well worth a read.
Furthermore, Croft was badly caught out in defense for both the Australian tries. On both occasions he found himself in no-man’s-land out wide, moving up out of the defensive line to create a dogleg but failing to execute a tackle or disrupt the pass [video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L36At4UGmvk – 0:53 for the first try and 1:39 for the second]. Having the pace to defend outside backs in space is a major plus for any backrow player, but it’s f*ck all use if you don’t get the reads right.
The Leicester flanker is not a lazy player. He made plenty of rucks as first or second man in, but at this level he’s not particularly hard-hitting or aggressive, nor is he precise in carrying out clear-outs that will take somebody to the floor and out of the game, i.e. rolling out with a limb [or a head], or bundling a jackal up head to knee-cap and taking away his centre of gravity. In short, while he’s a willing enough worker, he doesn’t look like somebody who prides himself on his technique at the breakdown. In contrast to the efforts of O’Connell, Alun-Wyn Jones or Corbisiero, his clear-outs didn’t generate quick, clean ball. With Parling likely to replace O’Connell, The Mole reckons that Gatland will bring in Dan Lydiate on the blindside to effect these big clear-outs when the Lions are in possession, and to man-mark Will Genia around the fringes, just as Ben Mowen so effectively marked Mike Phillips on Saturday morning.
Parling can’t adequately replace the Munsterman’s abilities at the breakdown, so the Lions will need more physical power and aggression from somewhere else. As we wrote recently, Lydiate is a Gatland favourite and the type of player any coach would like to have in a tight test match.
Mike Phillips – From Trump To Liability
Mike Phillips was practically game-planned out of the contest, and even without any Aussie influence, there were significant problems with his kicking game and even his general match fitness. Watching him trail half-heartedly after Will Genia when the Wallaby scrum-half tapped and went from his own 22 was an eye-opener. Sure, it was after a rake of phases that had gone back and forth across the pitch, but the game was only ten minutes old. Too much pain de campagne and salty Noirmoutier butter in Bayonne!
There’s no reason to believe that the same thing won’t happen again if Gatland selects Phillips again. It’s not as though the weather conspired against Phillips, that he was totally unprotected by his backrow or that he was simply unlucky; he’s a predictable player, and he was found out. There’s nothing to stop Ben Mowen carrying out exactly the same practice as he did before.
If the Lions don’t pick Sean O’Brien in the backrow and one of Jamie Roberts or Manu Tuilagi in the centre, then the Wallabies will be free to leave somebody to police Phillips all day. Those three players mentioned above demand two-on-one attention from defenders because of their ability to break tackles, and as big and strong as he is, Phillips needs a chink of light to effect his breaks. If there’s always going to be a back-rower doing a man-marking job on the scrum-half, you’re trusting the rest of your defense to be able to effect one-on-one tackles with some of the most dangerous tackle-breakers in world rugby.
What’s To Be Done With This Tackle-Breaking, Ball-Passing, Ruck-Hitting Colossus? Leave Him Out Altogether, Probably
It’s depressing that it seems a fait accompli that Sean O’Brien won’t start. He’s the best tackle-breaker of the Lions forwards, and from the evidence that has been offered by the tour matches to date, he’s right up there with the two No8s as the best handler and passer of the backrowers:
- Heaslip [3 starts + 2 sub appearances]: 311 mins | 26 passes + 4 offloads
- Faletau [3 starts + 2 sub appearances]: 258 mins | 25 passes + 7 offloads
- Tipuric [3 starts + 1 sub appearance]: 247 mins | 17 passes + 0 offloads
- Warburton [3 starts/0 sub appearances]: 233 mins |12 passes + 0 offloads
- O’Brien [3 starts/0 sub appearances] : 216 mins | 18 passes + 2 offloads
- Lydiate [2 starts + 3 sub appearances]: 214 mins | 5 passes + 0 offloads
- Croft [3 starts/0 sub appearances]: 201 mins | 6 passes + 3 offloads
O’Brien’s major issue is his concession of penalties: he has conceded 5 so far, trailing Lydiate and Croft [3 each], Heaslip  and Tipuric, Warburton and Faletau [1 each]. Three of those came in the frustrating game against the Brumbies, and The Mole has a degree of sympathy for him in that regard. The Lions front five were half-hearted and one-paced in the loose, and O’Brien and Faletau spent the majority of the first hour throwing themselves into breakdown after breakdown when their low-numbered team-mates weren’t getting the job done. Faletau picked up his sole penalty of the tour in that match, but O’Brien went two better and was pretty much pinged off the park.
The two blindsides also outdo him at lineout time, with Croft having taken seven and stolen one, while Lydiate has taken six. O’Brien has only taken four [incidentally, this is where Heaslip has a major advantage over Faletau, with the Irish No8 having taken twelve throws in comparison to his Welsh counterpart’s solitary one]. However, neither of the Welsh opensides has won ball in the lineout yet.
In O’Brien’s defense, it’s a bit of a gammy stat: of his three games, Rory Best was the hooker in two of them [vs Western Force and the Brumbies] with the lineout struggling in both, and in the game against the Combined Country side, Ian Evans called eight on himself [and only two on Richie Gray, for example] in a classic bout of me first-ism. O’Brien can’t equal Croft as a lineout target, but Lydiate? Jury’s out on that one.
The Mole has consistently taken Robbie Deans’ side when it comes to his dealings with an oft-immature Wallaby backline, but it’s difficult to back his selection for the first test.
22 year old James O’Connor had only started one game of his test career in the No10 jersey, a meaningless friendly against Wales back in December 2011. O’Connor has played six games at outhalf for the Melbourne Rebels this season; the previous season he alternated between outhalf and first centre, or first and second five-eighth in old coinage. To select him at outhalf for the first test was so risky as to be reckless, and the gamble duly backfired.
Quade Cooper has done relatively little to antagonise Deans this season, and it’s probably fair to say that public opinion has swung back to favouring the outhalf over the head coach. Unfortunately for Australia, Deans looks like he has dug himself into a hole and is too proud and/or stubborn to accept a helping hand out. With Berrick Barnes ruled out of the second test due to concussion and O’Connor a bust at outhalf and place-kicker, Deans has precious few options … except the really f*cking obvious one.
Digby Goes Down
Having been rushed back from a serious knee injury, Digby Ioane was a shadow of himself for the eighty minutes, and is now out of the remainder of the test series with a shoulder injury. Ioane had been electric in Super Rugby prior to his injury, and it’s easy to understand why Deans wanted him back in the side. The Reds winger never looked comfortable though, and while prior to kickoff everybody watching could only speculate on his fitness , Deans had had access to him for three weeks. If he was good to go and just didn’t perform, that’d be one thing; it’d be very surprising given his form this year though. It looked like he was never right in the first place.
Berrick Barnes at fullback? A percentage call, and one that you could argue over until everyone was tired of arguing [it’s the internet, so never]. Folau has been playing exceptionally well at No15 for the Waratahs – Barnes’ Super Rugby team – but it might have been risky to expose him to Jonny Sexton’s tactical kicking in his debut game … and his first season of rugby union, lest that go unsaid. Kurtley Beale did pretty much everything in his power to put a significant distance between himself and selection for the Wallabies, and picking him after just one club game in the last two months would have been another huge risk. KB looked very good when he came off the bench, but his form is a lottery. It’s as simple as that. When he’s bad, he can be terrible.
Fullback probably isn’t Barnes’ best position, but who knows what that is anymore? It’s where Deans has been playing him since September of 2012, but in his last fifteen starts – which date back to the third place play-off against Wales in RWC11 – Barnes has played No12 [twice], No10 [five times], No12 again [again twice] and then No15 for the last six of his run-ons. That’s a hell of a lot of chopping and changing.
Deans has been a right tinkerman with his backline, and with the injuries piling up from the first test, there’s more to come. Gatland has a couple of big decisions to make too: will he ‘play it safe’, keep the same side and not take on board the lessons from the first test, or will he, to quote the shamanic Jim Telfer, “go for the f*cking jugular”?. It’ll be interesting to see where the knucklebones fall on Thursday for both sides.