By Paul Williams
THE 2013 British and Irish Lions made a very efficient start to their tour with an eight try, 59-8 victory. The Lions dominated every aspect of the game. They secured 67% of the possession and a devastating 72% of the territory – if they had secured any more territory in Hong Kong it may have constituted an ‘invasion’ under UN protocols. The glut of possession meant that the Lions strike runners broke the line at will – Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts, in particular, made five clean breaks and beat eight defenders between them – more than the Barbarians squad combined. The Lions also completed 93% of their tackles – an impressive stat when you consider that the Lions defensive line has never played together before. Of course all of these positives need to be taken in context. The Baabaas once again fell short of the standards expected from this phoney-Test match – having 25 defenders beaten in 80 minutes is a concern at any level. The Barbarians’ ethos for the professional era may need a rethink.
The basic platforms look solid, already
The Lions performance wasn’t perfect. It was never going to be. At best the players have known each other 21 days. Issues with ball retention, handling errors and passing accuracy are to be expected at this early stage. The real positives came in the set piece. The Lions scrum was impressive. The first half combination of Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard and Mako Vunipola demolished the Baabaas – overall the Lions scrum yielded five penalties and two free-kicks. The Lions lineout ran at a very respectable 85%, missing just two from thirteen – the use of Dan Lydiate at the tail in particular providing ultra-fast ball. It’s worth noting Gatland’s use of a six at the tail of the lineout – he usually prefers to lift a lighter open-side. Many have stated that the Lions learned nothing of value in Hong Kong. However, learning that your group of 37 strangers have already knitted together a solid set piece is highly valuable.
Senior Lions led the way
There were some impressive debutante performances in Hong Kong. Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau, Stuart Hogg, Jon Davies and Richie Gray all enhanced their reputations. Faletau and Tipuric broke the mould of Lions back-rows of the recent past who have tended towards force rather than finesse. However, whilst the new boys played well, two 2009 veterans excelled – Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts played at the level required by the Lions. Robert’s powerful ‘inners’ through the 12 channel caused havoc and his marshalling of the defensive line and kick chase was authoritative. Mike Phillips was back to his unplayable best. His carrying in the narrow channels and his ‘arc’ through the midfield caused the Barbarians massive problems – again, reminiscent of 2009. It’s worth highlighting that Phillips’ pass didn’t come under scrutiny in Hong Kong. Handling was tricky for everyone and thus the speed of his pass wasn’t an issue. That won’t be the case against the Wallabies.
Too early to lambast Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell’s performance was below that required by the Lions. His passing accuracy was poor, his loss of composure with Schalk Brits was unsettling and his cheering of the subsequent yellow card was not becoming of a British and Irish Lion. However, the playing conditions in Hong Kong were dreadful. Whilst it is true that the ‘conditions are the same for everyone’ – they affect outside-halves more than anyone else. Other than the scrum-half, the ten completes more passes than any other player. They are responsible for the majority of tactical kicking, goal kicking and launching all of the backs moves. Any adverse conditions magnify their mistakes tenfold. I’m not suggesting that Farrell will start the Test matches; but let’s not crucify him after what is tantamount to a quick knock about in Hong Kong.
Too hot for rugby
The commercial reasons for playing in Hong Kong were understandable – playing rugby in 37 degree heat and 84% humidity was not. The humidity’s impact on handling was disastrous. We saw spiral passes dropping two feet short of the receiver and even if the sweat soaked ball made it to the target, it was difficult to catch and then readjust for the following pass. I’m amazed the coaches didn’t encourage their players to align closer and throw end-on-end passes rather than spiral ball flights – much easier to handle. The humidity also had an impact on the scrum. Binding on a modern jersey is a lottery at the best of times. Add 2mm of sweat to the shirt and binding onto an international tight head is like trying to take hold of an elephant seal that’s just been for a swim – in olive oil. Hong Kong is great for sevens. Maybe they should stick to the shorter format.