Since I last wrote about the B&I Lions, there have been three matches. The Lions won all three, making them undefeated going into the test series. But, as with the previous matches barring the Golden Lions, I felt that they were capable of more. The game against the Natal Sharks was won convincingly, 39-9, but I still felt that some spark was missing. This was even more evident in the next two games, in which the scoreboard didn’t look so convincing.
A last minute long range penalty kick from James Hook was all that saved the Lions from an embarrassing result against the Western Province, winning 26-23.
These two matches were followed by a bruising encounter with the Southern Kings. O’Gara in particular spoke out against the cheap shots the Kings were throwing, complaining about having lumps kicked out them. But the Lions persevered, against a team that has only been training for a week, winning the match 20-8. So that made six wins out of six for the tourists.
Yesterday saw the announcement of the British & Irish Lions squad for the first test match against South Africa. In many places there were no surprises.
15. Byrne (Wal), 14. Bowe (Ire), 13. O’Driscoll (Ire), 12. Roberts (Wal), 11. Monye (Eng), 10. Jones (Wal), 9. Phillips (Wal), 1. Jenkins (Wal), 2. Mears (Eng), 3. Vickery (Eng), 4. A W Jones (Wal), 5. O’Connell (Ire, capt), 6. Croft (Eng), 7. Wallace (Ire), 8. Heaslip (Ire).
Replacements: 16. Rees (Wal), 17. A Jones (Wal), 18. O’Callaghan (Ire), 19. Williams (Wal), 20. Ellis (Eng), 21. O’Gara (Ire), 22. Kearney (Ire).
In my last post, which was 3 games ago, I made a stab at predicting the test team. I didn’t really state my choice for out-half, but it would have been O’Gara. Monye pips Fitzgerald at left wing. Vickery was chosen over Adam Jones. Ferris went home injured, so that only left Croft. So I picked 12 out of 14, forgetting about injuries – not bad for 10 days and three games ago.
The Jones versus O’Gara debate continues to rage in the media, and with myself. There are significant differences between the two players. Firstly, Jones’ weakness at place kicking was highlighted in the Western Province match. The last kick that won the game was taken by James Hook, even though Jones was still on the pitch, because it was about 45 m from the posts, which is beyond Jones’ range. O’Gara had a similar long range kick against the Southern Kings, from about 45 m, and admittedly he hit the post, but having watched Munster for many years, I’ve seen him hit kicks like that before.
Secondly, O’Gara is a better distributor of the ball, and is widely regarded as the best passing out-half. But a plus in the Jones column would be his ball carrying and strength. When he makes a break, or attempts to, there is little doubt in your mind that the ball will come back on the Lions side of the ruck. Not so with Ronan O’Gara. The same goes for tackling. O’Gara has been a target for ball carrying back row forwards, because he has a reputation for not being the worlds greatest tackler. But despite this, he is still regarded by many as the world’s number one out-half.
And it is this ball carrying ability and strength in the tackle that I think has edged him into the starting XV. The physicality of Saturday’s game will be immense, and strong players will be needed. The downside could be that the likes of O’Driscoll will not get the quality ball they need to make an impact out wide.
The choice of Monye out wide is again down to size and strength. Fitzgerald showed some great attacking ability in the runs he made against the Southern Kings. Ugo Monye displays less rugby intelligence is his decision making but has power and strength in spades.
Phil Vickery has been picked at tight head prop. He has scrummaged well, but I felt that Jones had done more work in the loose to warrant a starting place. Vickery is also highly experienced as well as a good leader, as he captained the Lions against Western Province. Both teams will be out to dominate the scrums early on, but once the physical side of the set piece dies down a little in the second half the loose play will be more and more important which is why I would not expect Vickery to play the full game.
The other point that was made about the team is the choice of O’Callaghan as the second row substitute. He hasn’t really impressed on the pitch, with Simon Shaw being my own choice for the bench. But O’Callaghan was picked as captain against the Southern Kings which, coupled the fact that he is on the bench, leads you to believe that he has done some significant work in training to impress the coaching staff. The only other reason I can think that he has been picked ahead of Shaw is age.
My own prediction is a South Africa win. An interview with Frankie Sheehan I heard made the point that the Lions are such underdogs for Saturday that they could well win the match. But I feel that it is such a huge task for the 22 players to gel in such a short space of time, that the odds are against them. Also, the South Africans have the advantage that they have seen how each of the Lions has been playing and so can make easier tactical decisions and target areas of the game much easier too. Conversely, the last game for South Africa was against Namibia, three weeks ago and that was a second string Boks team. I am hoping to be proved wrong, but my gut is saying South Africa.
The squad has continued to suffer from injury, as is the norm for Lions tours. But it is particularly unfortunate that the Irish players seem to be the ones being sent home. Lets recap – O’Leary, Flannery and Ferris have all returned to Ireland. Added to this list are Shanklin, Halfpenny and Murray. But in steps a much loved Irishman to fill one of the gaps.
John Hayes was called up to the squad yesterday, to replace injured Scottish prop Euan Murray. Hayes is expected to be picked for next tuesday’s game against the Emerging Springboks, but I doubt he will actually feature in the test matches. Saturday’s match is on Sky Sports, as usual, with kick off at 2 pm.