Jonny Gray and Alun Wyn Jones enhanced their British and Irish Lions prospects with all-action outings last weekend
As hypothetical selections swirl around the internet and coach Warren Gatland is rolled out by sponsors to deliver soundbites, one thing about next summer’s British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand is already absolutely certain. The plane tickets fought over most fiercely will be those requiring maximum legroom.
Gatland is not so much spoiled, but smothered for choice at lock. And this weekend only served to underline as much. With vaunted Saracens second-rows George Kruis and Maro Itoje injured, England’s defeat of South Africa was propelled by fine performances from Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes. Against an overpowered Canada, Ireland rookie Ultan Dillane emphasised the muscular dynamism he could offer.
But perhaps the most complete displays arrived in Edinburgh and Cardiff. Scotland’s Jonny Gray and Wales talisman Alun Wyn Jones were superb against Australia and Argentina respectively. Sitting at opposite ends of the experience scale – Gray is 22 and without a Lions tour to date, while 31 year-old Jones shone on the 2009 and 2013 trips – they epitomised the quality at Gatland’s disposal.
The modern lock is expecting to excel in all areas, from intelligent link-play in attacking structures to primeval defensive grunt. Mapping the involvements of Gray and Jones, using the key below, it is clear that both men cover all bases.
T – tackle C – carry P – pass O – offload LT – lineout taken LS – lineout stolen LL – lineout lift IT – intended target of a lost lineout DJ – defensive jump at a lineout AB – attacking breakdown DB – defensive breakdown UC – unsuccessful clear-out SB – slows down opposition ball TO – turnover forced PC – penalty conceded TC – turnover conceded MT – missed tackle RW – restart win AM – attacking maul DM – defensive maul S – scrum
Jonny Gray, first half vs Australia
Apart from sheer volume of work – 12 attacking breakdowns, 11 tackles and some unheralded lineout lifting among a vast array of contributions– what stands out here is Gray’s discipline and accuracy. Despite tireless ruck involvements, he did not concede a penalty. He missed no tackles. Although David Pocock and Michael Hooper featured in the Australia side, only one of Gray’s clean-outs – arriving after two teammates with Pocock clasped on to the ball – was unsuccessful. But the yellow box highlights an example of his delicate skills:
Standing at first-receiver, he lures Stephen Moore out of the defensive line and transfers the point of contact by tipping a deft pass to carrier Ross Ford. Gray then follows the ball and hits the ensuing ruck to generate quick ball for scrum-half Greig Laidlaw. A handful of phases later, Scotland score to go 17-10 ahead.
Jonny Gray, second half vs Australia
Gray’s appetite for industry did not relent in the second period and an immense engine did not let him down. A 10-metre shunt brought a close-range try and the young Glasgow Warrior was the epicentre of Scotland’s ultimately futile defensive effort. The yellow square represents a stand that ended when Australia behemoth Will Skelton grew frustrated and shoulder-charged Gray to concede a penalty – a back-handed compliment. Finally, it is worth noting that the red labels denote involvements during the final play with the tourists leading 23-22 past the 80-minute mark. Gray made the first carry after Scotland were awarded a free-kick and featured in 11 of 19 phases. He battled until the very end.
Alun Wyn Jones, first half vs Argentina
A stop-start 40 minutes, including a nightmarish sequence of scrum re-sets close to the Argentina line on the stroke of half-time, meant Jones registered fewer involvements. However, he undoubtedly lifted his team. Clearly, the intangible impact of his presence alone – a day before the funeral of his father Tim – on Wales’ emotional intensity cannot be gauged by a chart. But Jones’ leadership showed up in big moments, such as a charge over the halfway line with an offload to Gethin Jenkins that ignited the home crowd. The yellow box signifies another pivotal intervention early on. Making a tackle, Jones released before competing on the floor and eventually forcing a penalty that Leigh Halfpenny kicked to make it 3-3. Put simply, Wales seem far more assured with their decorated second-row in tow.
Alun Wyn Jones, second half vs Argentina
Though Argentina were lacklustre, Wales could never quite shake them off in a chaotic second half. Despite conceding one penalty following an off-the-ball tangle with Nicolas Sanchez, Jones was a pillar of reliability at the lineout. His muscular defence also helped stave off the Pumas. The yellow square marks two tackles in which Jones held the carriers above the floor to stall the attack’s momentum. Both occurred within seconds of each other. First, Jones combines with Justin Tipuric to shackle replacement prop Santiago Garcia Botta…
…next, keynote carrier Facundo Isa fails to make headway:
Argentina, 21-17 behind with 13 minutes left, were sapped of impetus and conceded a turnover from a choke tackle soon afterwards. The ‘DM TO’ label on his second-half map indicates that Jones added his weight to the maul in question.
Names in the hat
Whatever the party line, Steve Hansen nudging Jerome Kaino into the second-row for New Zealand’s defeat to Ireland hinted at insecurity. Although Scott Barrett arrived from the bench to demonstrate his freakish talent, the All Blacks are leaning heavily on the exceptional axis of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock at the moment. With both missing in Chicago, the All Blacks appeared ever so slightly vulnerable.
The Lions will certainly not be lacking in the engine room. Jonny’s brother Richie Gray toured in2013 and also enjoyed a titanic game against Australia. Iain Henderson would bring bristling aggression and Devin Toner might be an outside bet. We know about England’s stable and the Welsh contingent, Luke Charteris among them, are familiar to the boss. Gatland has more than enough suitors to tailor a formidable combination.