By Paul Williams
The first win of note on Australian soil
WHILST THE British and Irish Lions have now recorded three victories on their 2013 tour, Saturday’s win against the Queensland Reds was the first of any real significance – it felt like a genuine ‘warm-up’, not a ‘tepid-up’. It was a true contest in all areas of the field and provided the Lions with exactly the sort of intensity that is required in the build-up to the test matches. There was no schoolboy like domination of the possession and territory – the Lions secured 53% of the territory and just 46% of the possession. The Lions had their wide defence stretched by a mesmerising passing display from Quade Cooper – which in part forced the Lions to miss 18 tackles from 150.
The Lions were also outscored by two tries to one and required a 100% goal kicking performance from Owen Farrell in order to win – but win they did. It is also worth noting that we should be wary of comparing player’s performances from this game to those in the first two. A noteworthy performance against a depleted Western Force is very different to a standout performance against the Reds.
George North masterclass
Southern hemisphere supporters are used to watching quality ‘oversized’ wingers – they were very much a southern hemisphere creation. However, even they couldn’t fail to be impressed with George North’s performance in Brisbane. It was a masterclass in modern wing play. North led the ‘defenders beaten’ and ‘clean break’ stats for both teams, with three DB’s and five CB’s, and carried the ball an unfeasible 118 metres. Carrying the ball for 118 metres is an incredible number in 60 minutes, especially when at least a quarter of that distance was achieved with two or three Australians hanging from his ankles.
But whilst the plaudits will obviously be reserved for his memorable 50 metre break in the 36th minute, it was his deft offloading and accurate passing that set him apart on Saturday – and continue to set him apart from your average ‘oversize’ winger whose lack of ball skills are often papered over by their size and pace. The debate over the majority of the test team will rage for a few weeks yet – the debate over who will play on the left wing is now over.
Defence still yet to gel
It is unrealistic to expect the Lions defensive line to be running at 100% after just three games. The entire squad has only played together three times and they haven’t yet fielded the same team – and against the Reds it showed. The Lions had a tackle completion of 88% and whilst this isn’t alarmingly low, it would ideally be nearer 92%. The main issues didn’t arise in the narrow channels, Lydiate, Gray and Warburton, covered this area admirably – Lydiate made 13 tackles and provided a defensive display that will have pleased Farrell and Gatland.
The biggest area of concern was in the wider channels where Lions defenders regularly stepped out of the line or didn’t ‘number up’ correctly in the blitz. A major contributory factor for the Lions defensive issues was Quade Cooper’s passing – blitzing against Northern Hemisphere backlines is one thing, blitzing against an offensive line led by an outside half who can throw accurate 20 yard passes over the top of your blitz defensive is quite another.
Vunipola proving there is life after Healy and Jenkins
Mako Vunipola yet again delivered a very assured performance. He was a key component in a stable scrum and his carrying in the narrow channels was once again effective – worth remembering that the Reds front row was test standard and contained three Wallabies. Of course, many will still point to his perceived weakness at the set piece and that would be a major concern if the Lions were touring South Africa or New Zealand – but they aren’t, they’re in Australia.
And whilst the Wallaby scrum is no longer the weakness that it was five seasons ago, it is by no means one of their strengths either. Vunipola’s performances have been increasingly important in light of the injuries to Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins, but even if they hadn’t been injured, Vunipola would still be a worthy contender for a test shirt.
Hats off to the Queensland Reds
The Queensland Reds should be congratulated on many levels. Firstly for selecting the strongest side possible. Secondly, for attracting nearly 51,000 spectators. And thirdly, for playing some truly memorable rugby. The Reds display against the Lions was tremendous and would have provided many Northern Hemisphere rugby supporters with their first taste of Super Rugby – the Western Force’s display wasn’t representative of Super Rugby.
Controlled by the mesmerising passing game of QC, the Reds executed running patterns that were as beautiful to watch as they were effective. 50,136 people turned up to watch this game; I can only presume that Robbie Deans wasn’t one of them, as he has since officially omitted Cooper from his Wallaby squad. Big mistake, Mr Deans. Big mistake…