By Paul Williams
A very different win to Hong Kong
THE BRITISH and Irish Lions secured an all-too easy win against the Western Force – scoring nine tries in a 69 -17 drubbing. They dominated all of the core areas of the game – securing 57% of possession and 56% territory. The Lions had a satisfactory scrummage and a functioning lineout – running at 88.9% and 75% respectively. However, the win against the Force was very different to the victory against the Barbarians. This was less about set-piece and all about ball carrying. The Lion’s strike runners made colossal yardage in Perth. Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Tommy Bowe, George North and Mako Vunipola owned the gainline – it’s also worth mentioning that all of the Lions’ ball carriers benefitted from the exacting handling of Jonathan Sexton.
Heaslip and O’Brien made significant gains in the wider channels – particularly when running a line on Sexton’s shoulders. Tommy Bowe and George North powered through the central channels, especially from first phase ball where both regularly chose to turn in off their wings, and Mako Vunipola made a significant contribution as Cian Healy’s replacement. As with the victory in Hong Kong this result needs to be taken in perspective. The Western Force selected a massively weakened squad. Their team selection was straight from the book of ‘Rugby Homeopathy’ – diluted to an unrecognisable state and largely ineffective.
A new backrow. A new approach.
The Lions backrow were highly effective against the Western Force – particularly Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien. Heaslip was the Lion’s top ball carrier, he beat the most defenders and made the most clean breaks – he was also the team’s top tackler with 13. Sean O’Brien also made a major impression on the opposition’s defensive line. O’Brien made a series of powerful, upright carries through the central channels and executed a valuable array of simple passes – a positive of his upright running style is that his hands and body angle are often shaped to pass.
The performance of ‘Tuesday’s’ backrow presents Gatland with a difficult decision. The back-rows that featured against the Barbarians and the Western force were equally effective, but very different in execution. Tom Croft, Heaslip and O’Brien are an out and out ball carrying unit, with less emphasis on ground work. Whereas Toby Faletau, Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric arguably offered a balance between groundwork, defence and carrying – but less as all-out ball carriers. Picking the Lions’ test backrow will be Gatland’s most difficult decision.
Halfpenny, the Lions test kicker
Leigh Halfpenny’s kicking display in Perth was truly remarkable – 100% with 11 from 11. Halfpenny’s kicking stats may lead you to believe that he poked a series of simple 25 yards kicks from in front of the posts – he didn’t. Whilst five of his kicks were situated roughly in front of the posts, he faced another six very much from the touchlines – three from the left and three from right.
What makes his display even more impressive was the execution of the kicks. There were no sweeping slices or raking hooks that started outside the posts and drifted back in – they were all straight ball flights from the moment the ball left his boot. Some of the Lions’ impressive performances in Perth need to be judged against the quality of the opponents – Halfpenny’s doesn’t. Goal kicking is a one man show, unaffected by the quality of the opposition – at the moment Leigh halfpenny is running that show.
Set piece stable but nothing more
Nothing will have concerned Warren Gatland about the Lions performance in Perth. But the set piece won’t have pleased him either – particularly the scrum. Whilst the scrum was competent, it was nothing more. You would have expected a front row of Dan Cole, Rory Best and Cian Healy to create more than merely stability in the scrum – particularly against a weakened Western Force front row.
Another mild area of concern would have been the occasional miscommunication at the base of the scrum. A fast, clean No 8/No 9 pickup is a valuable weapon in the opposition’s 22, particularly on the blindside where it can create a momentary overlap. Whilst the Lion’s scrum in Perth won’t exactly be keeping Warren Gatland awake at night, it won’t be keeping Robbie Deans awake either.
Western Force made a big mistake.
Many have suggested that the Western Force’s decision to select a weakened team has undermined the Lions. In reality the Force have undermined no-one but themselves. Until this week most casual rugby fans in the UK wouldn’t have heard of the Western Force, let alone seen them play – the Western Force struggle to get noticed in their own country.
This was their chance to show the world who they are and an opportunity to expose their brand to a wider market. Instead they chose to rest the majority of their players for Sunday’s game against the Waratahs – in a competition, which let’s not forget, they lie bottom of their conference, third from bottom in the overall table, won’t qualify for the playoffs and from a competition they can’t be relegated. The next opportunity to play the Lions comes around in twelve years’ time. Talk about missed opportunity…