Errors And Omissions Dwelt On

"And that's my gameplan, gentlemen." Who's going to tell him? "Shit gameplan, cap'n." Good man, Prop Number One!

“And that’s my gameplan, gentlemen.” Hmmm.

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]

Dt. James Robson examines Paul O'Connell's right arm towards the end of the first test [screen capture via @Murray_Kinsella]

Dr. James Robson examines Paul O’Connell’s right arm towards the end of the first test [screen capture via @Murray_Kinsella]

Replacing Alun-Wyn Jones rather than Paul O’Connell with Geoff Parling was another questionable call. Granted, you want O’Connell on the pitch for as long as possible but, just like Corbisiero, it has subsequently emerged that he had injured his arm during the game, an injury that could see him miss the rest of the tour.

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.

Whether it's in partnership with the South African-born veteran Mauritz Botha, the 21-year old Wasps prodigy Joe Launchbury or even somebody who regularly plays in the backrow in blindside James Haskell, Parling typically scrummages on the loosehead side: why ask him to scrummage behind the tighthead in a massive test match for the Lions against the Wallabies?

Whether it’s in partnership with the South African-born veteran Mauritz Botha, the 21-year old Wasps prodigy Joe Launchbury or even somebody who usually plays in the backrow in blindside James Haskell, Parling typically scrummages on the loosehead side: why ask him to scrummage behind the tighthead in a massive test match for the Lions against the Wallabies?

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: – 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.

Tom Croft didn't get the opportunity to take advantage of his best-in-class speed. When you don't use him up and down the lineout and when he's not getting the ball in space, the parts of his game that differentiate him from other test blindsides are made null and void

Tom Croft didn’t get the opportunity to take advantage of his best-in-class speed. When you don’t use him up and down the lineout and when he’s not getting the ball in space, the parts of his game that differentiate him from other test blindsides are made null and void.

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!

Mike Phillips getting tackled by Will 'Genius' Genia and Michael 'Centre' Hooper. This happened a good bit, but normally it was Ben Mowen putting the skids on things.

Mike Phillips getting tackled by Will ‘Genius’ Genia and Michael ‘Centre’ Hooper. This sort of thing happened a good bit, but normally it was Ben Mowen putting the skids on the Welsh scrum-half.

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 [2] 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.

Sean O'Brien has another chance to put his case forward for a spot in the test 23 against the Rebels. Everybody knows that he can bash holes ... it will be interesting to see if he can stop himself giving away penalties at the breakdown

Sean O’Brien has another chance to put his case forward for a spot in the test 23 against the Rebels. Everybody knows that he can bash holes … it will be interesting to see if he can stop himself giving away penalties at the breakdown.

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.

Wobbly Wallabies

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.

12 thoughts on “Errors And Omissions Dwelt On

  1. I missed you mole. Glad you are back 🙂
    I though Gatlands selections across the board were, for the most part, terrible. Never been convinced by him as a coach and this just settles it.
    Can we talk about Mike Philips for a moment? Most Welsh fans I speak cannot believe I think he’s terrible. But I really do. Take away his size and he has nothing to offer. No quick hands, no excellent pass, no imagination and his box kicking is pants.
    My favorite part of the commentary was just before kick off when they said ‘We have a scintillating battle at 9 coming up; Philips Vs Genia’!
    Really? Please lads! Genia is so far removed from Philips predictable bosh game that he might as well be playing a different sport

  2. Go on the Mole! Such a pity Quade isn’t going to be brought into the second test. The fallout with Deans runs deep in the coaches blood and Quade’s exclusion from the 26 man squad confirmed that he will play no part in any of the test’s. James O’Connor doesn’t have the bottle for the place kicks but his kicking out of hand also leaves a lot to be desired. The Aussies surely would have won if Quade had been at 10…even if he played to his inconsistent best.

    I think you are right about Beale as well, everyone watched him in that second half and bought into the collective hype that he has to be included for the second test but to me he looked well short of match fitness (which isn’t surprising). It would be a bold move for the Aussies to throw Beale straight into the ten spot, and move O’Connor to wing, with Folau taking over from the concussed Barnes but one I feel that might have to look into to offer a real threat outwide.

    Great article Mole, brightened up a dull Tuesday #Lions

  3. Great piece as always mole, but I gotta protest.

    Can’t we have a bit more sympathy for Deans here. Quade Cooper, mixes excellent incisive stuff with some of the most error strewn flakey muck in the whole of Australia. His lack of commitment to Deans’ style and some wanting performances practically put the noose around Deans neck where it hangs to this day. If he had of played, he would of thrown three beautiful direct passes and Davies would intercept the fourth and run the length of the field to touch down under the posts.

    Faced with the options he had, he selected the most gifted and well tempered all rounder he had, to play in the most demanding position on the field. If the pressure was too much for O’Connor, surely it would have crippled the, ”lesser men”. As for the kicking game, its a foreign concept to most in the Wallabies back line, I wouldn’t blame them though as they seem to play better without it anyway.

    I know they love to hate Deans down there but they came within a kick of winning it, with a stitched together backline, and a weakened pack.

    • YouTube clip at the bottom is good analysis of how cooper was missed in this game.not all o’conors fault but you see the opportunities missed by not having a guy who plays ten on the pitch.

  4. brilliant analysis Mole. Like your point about the tight 5 substitutions, great read of it, I just don’t the game well enough to see it quite that clearly, but now I’ve read it here, what you say about weakening of whole scrum through possible bad coaching judgement makes a lot of sense. Also interesting that you reckon PO”C’s absence fro second row also having (possible) knock-on selection implications /effects for back row selection next Saturday.
    But apart from SO”B, who else would you start? We’ve all been agonizing and arguing about this for a month now, and to be honest I still don’t know who’d I’d start. I hate the idea of not starting the tour captain SW, but even chucking that bit of sentiment ruthlessly over-board, I still don’t know.. As your stats above show, on a per/min-on-pitch basis, SO’B is the best allround tackle-breaker, passer & off-loader. So pens and lineouts aside, that would indicate that whether he does start or not (at 7), he definitely Should start. But with who? Who is the best 8? Every time i see Toby Faletau (including the final mid-week game, earlier today) he’s been brilliant. Not as dynamic far out as SO”B maybe, but around fringes he’s been amazing. Has nice step and makes nice off-loads too. But Heaslip has also been excellent. He always seems to know what needs to be done and when and where to be. And what about 6? I’m not a huge fan of Croft, but could Warburton play at 6 to allow SO’B in at 7? Or if you have 2 dynamic carriers, (2 from SO”B then either Heaslip or Faletau, I mean) is it best to accomodate a tackle monster like Lydiate at 6 for balance? What I’m asking is: who is your preferred starting back row for next Saturday?
    Again, brilliant blog, please keep it up.

  5. Pingback: Tackling AND carrying? Nah, no-one can do that. | Whiff of Cordite

  6. Did Parling not just scrummage on the TH side because of POC’s broken right arm? If your right arm is gone it’s a lot easier to scrummage on LH side as left arm (bound on the prop) can still provide you balance. It’s not ideal as the bind on the second row is looser but’s it’s preferable to scrummaging on the TH side. I reckon this is also a key reason for Vunipola getting done in the last few scrums.

    • I’d say it’s the other way around, if my right forearm had gone I’d rather scrummage on RHS and use shoulder/back/hip with tight bind on LHS second row. If POC couldn’t get adequate grip on Parling with right hand then I would expect the scrum to splinter and go backwards.

      • Well if you lose your “prop binding arm” let’s call it, you’re completely off balance. Your optimal driving position in second row is more or less horizontal so the bind on the prop is essential, otherwise you’re at best not properly supporting your prop, at worst hitting the deck/bending your back. On binding with your other lock, some schools of thought (e.g. Roly Meates) actually favour a looser bind as the 8 can push more effectively and power is more evenly distributed across the across the front row

  7. As your stats above show, on a per/min-on-pitch basis, SO’B is the best allround tackle-breaker, passer & off-loader.

    According to my sums, Toby comes off best here….Am I missing something?

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