Warrenball just isn’t going to work against opposition this good
Omitting both Ringrose and Carbery will haunt Gatland when All Blacks’ pace and guile rout Lions
IHAD the pleasure of listening to Senator George Mitchell at a bash in the National Gallery in Dublin on Wednesday night. One of the points he focused on was expectation. He used the analogy of the wedding night of Elizabeth Taylor and her sixth husband. The groom would almost assuredly know what to do; the difficulty would be in making it interesting or exciting. The Lions travel to New Zealand in 27 days; at least try and make it interesting Wazza!
It is easy to be pessimistic. You look at the history and you look at the odds that are stacked against the Lions and you say yes, 3-0 to the home side. Depending on what strength the Super Rugby franchises are allowed to pick, the Lions could easily lose six games on this tour and maybe more because the ‘weaker’ provincial sides like the Otago Highlanders and Auckland Blues might not have too many All Blacks to take out of their rosters. They will also be playing the Lions’ weaker mid-week teams. That is going to be difficult.
You hear players and coaches say ahead of games against the likes of Treviso, “there are no easy games in Stadio Monigo”. The problem with asinine statements like that is that when you go on a tour where there are genuinely no easy games, it sounds meaningless. A Tuesday night in Dunedin’s House of Pain against a side that really wants to kill you, that is as hard as it gets … that is until you meet the Crusaders … before you meet the Maoris … before the Test series.
Lazy sod that I am, I am going to write my Lions review now and take most of July off because we will be scratching our heads just like we did in 1983, 1993 and 2005. We have picked a pretty decent squad which is representative of what has taken place over the last three or four years. We will try hard and we will think out some of the angles, but the truth is we only have a small number of players who can play like New Zealand’s players. There aren’t enough of them and we haven’t bothered to pick any of them.
Last week the Cape Stormers, who are South Africa’s best and in-form Super Rugby franchise, went to New Zealand to play the Canterbury Crusaders. The Stormers had a really strong team out, with huge men like Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit in their pack. A very clever side, offensively replete and defensively sure, they are in all company a serious proposition.
The Crusaders put 57 points on them in a breath-taking display of passing that was so pure that the comprehensive nature of that defeat didn’t actually cause the visitors much physical pain. They simply couldn’t catch them.
The Stormers were in town for pain, big hits, application and endeavour and plenty of contact. I would guess quite a few of them would have applauded the Crusaders’ brio if they hadn’t been so ashamed of the way they were outplayed. The Stormers didn’t miss that many tackles and their professionalism ensured that they tried to the end.
God help us they could just as easily have been wearing red jerseys. The Stormers play ‘Warrenball’. They play exactly like the Lions will play.
On the same weekend, the Wellington Hurricanes played the Brumbies, who are Australia’s most competitive franchise. The Brumbies, who at that stage had the best defensive record in the whole competition, had 56 points put on them. Beauden Barrett was the impresario on the night. Both New Zealand teams scored eight tries against their hapless opponents. We know it’s only Super Rugby but how would Saracens with six Lions or Leinster with five Lions do against these sides?
We watch these matches from afar on our screens and we should know at this stage that ten-minute highlight reels can give an inaccurate depiction of how a game really went. You can’t pick up trends or weaknesses or how a team built up to a try or how they consistently applied pressure.
So I have been watching the full 80 minutes of these games and they are scary. Scary because in the Stormers game the South Africans gave a reasonably good account of themselves and yet there was nothing they could do.
The excellence of the New Zealand players’ passing is a wonder to behold. Timing and fluency is one thing we have learned to expect from them — sympathy of the pass; soft hands delivering; soft hands receiving. And they can all pass accurately at full speed.
One feature that was consistent was the speculative cut-out pass, and by cut-out I mean 30 metres. Then it dawned on me that they are only speculative if there is a degree of risk that they won’t make it to the intended receiver. It became clear that all of these passes were so precise that there was practically no ball on the floor or spilled. When you become so well versed and so precise, you can pretty much try anything.
Then I started asking questions. Who are these small, light, quick backs with dazzling hands and electra-glide pace? I had never heard of George Bridge or Vince Aso either.
Dan Carter’s performance against the 2005 Lions still lingers in the memory. The imperious nature of Beauden Barrett’s current displays prompt me to think that he will supersede Carter’s majesty. Barrett’s prime characteristic is his audacity. He sees plays that no northern hemisphere player can imagine and, my friends, this is what we will all be talking about on the Monday after the third Test.
Small, light, lithe, quick backs who can pass better than anything we can do. Their footwork and their pace will be too much.
Look at the recent Champions Cup semi-finals and look at who stood out. Garry Ringrose and his quick feet and his change of gears; Joey Carbery and his immaculate passing and his ability to see a gap and the extra half-metre more of pace than the Scott Speddings of this world who was his immediate opponent; the lithe but quicksilver David Strettle, who caused trouble with his pace and speed of mind — small but really dangerous; the diminutive Nick Abendanon, quick, skilful and a real handful; Andrew Conway, one of the quickest backs in Ireland, a really dangerous attacker and deadly finisher reduced to chasing very poorly executed box-kicks.
Leinster at least play a passing game and know how to mine the potential of their speedy backs.
Look at what Wazza has picked in his mid-field — Ben Te’o was a disgraceful selection. A basher with an off-load: is that a one-trick or two-trick pony? Jonathan Davies played for Wales in all three Tests last summer in New Zealand and just wasn’t a factor — a slow pony. Jonathan Joseph? A show pony!
Who knows what Wazza will go with in his midfield or what type of game he will ask them to play, but big and physical isn’t going to work.
New Zealand have players of wit and width who are going to mesmerise us and our unfortunate and much-hyped composite team. Our ten-year-olds might learn from this summer, but only if we keep out of gyms and teach them or get some Kiwis to teach them how to pass properly.
It’s alright to be Goliath but always act like David.
New Zealand have small, light, lithe, quick backs who pass better than anything we can do
Garry Ringrose stood out last weekend with his quick feet, but has been left out of the Lions squad