Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Lions Selector: My 37

Backs: Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg, George North, Tim Visser, Alex Cuthbert, Christian Wade, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Billy Twelvetrees, Matt Scott, Brian O'Driscoll, James Hook, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Sexton, Ben Youngs, Mike Phillips, Greig Laidlaw.

Forwards: Richard Hibbard, Rory Best, Ken Owens, Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Cian Healey, Dan Cole, Ryan Grant, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O'Connell, Joe Launchbury, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Sean O'Brien, Toby Faletau, Jamie Heaslip, Tom Croft, Steffon Armitage.

Captain: Paul O'Connell

I don't believe the Lions squad will look like this, but this would be mine.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Lions Selector: Backrow

Many believe that the back row is where the Lions strength lies. There are more canditates for the three positions than seats on the plane, nevermind kits in the bag. The Number 8 position, however, isn't as strong as many would have you believe.
Toby Faletau is the in form Number 8 at the moment. The Tongan born Welshman has been impressive for country and region. Strong, fast and defensively sound, Faletau has rarely put a foot wrong either among Wales' successful players or as an ace amid the Dragons faultering pack.

Elsewhere, quality out and out "eights" are few and far between, Jamie Heaslip is Faletau's closest rival for a starting place. Heaslip's form was inconsistent to say the least and some predicting it may have been enough to see the Leinsterman fall away from test contention, but a well timed braced of tries and a man of the match performance against Biarritz has put him firmly back in contention.
England's Ben Morgan may be in with a chance but injury has damaged his chances. There is no doubting Morgan's talent or his ability to gain yards, but any chance to show form has been limited. Johnnie Beattie has suffered similarly, but shone in the Six Nations, maybe even enough to set foot on the plane.

There are a few versatile back rowers who will be putting their hands up. Tom Wood, Tom Croft, Ryan Jones and the Australian based Gareth Delve all care more about the numbers on the board than the ones on their backs. All four will push their bodies to the edge to run that extra yard, make that extra tackle, play that extra minute. In such an arduous tour, versatility can be a priceless attribute.

However, the options on the flanks are bulging. Two international captains available for selection at openside in Warburton and Robshaw and it seemed like a straight wrestle between the pair for who would be the most magnificent 7 come test time, until Justin Tipuric threw his scrum cap into ring when he proved he was more than capable of making the step up to international level in some style. In the process he all bar ended Kelly Brown's chances of travelling.
Peter O'Mahoney's athletism or Sean O'Brien's bullocking runs will put them into contention, but where will Dan Lydiate stand? Along time on the sidelines with a broken ankle and with little time to prove his quality, but Gatland knows "Chopper" well enough and with the squad likely to be built on defence there are few better than a fully fit Lydiate. Can Gatland justify his selection?

Another man not to be ruled out is Steffon Armitage; over looked by Stuart Lancaster but continuing to go from strength-to-strength in the Top 14, fans of French rugby would know this wouldn't a decision for too far left field.

Lions Selector: Scrum Half

For some the 9 spot is nailed on, Mike Phillips found his form in the Six Nations and has a reputation for being a big game player with the aggression of a fighting dog. That's it case closed, case packed and case in the luggage compartment of a big bird to Australia.
It really isn't that simple at scrum half though. Phillips will be on the plane, but his a sure fire, nailed on, cast iron starter for that first test? Phillips had a mare in Australia with Wales. Will Genia's pace and thought were far too much for Wales' handsomest scrum half and at times it looked like Wile E. Coyote chasing road runner.

The Lions have a roadrunner of their own in England's Ben Youngs, a man faster than Mako Vunipola chasing an ice cream van. There have been a few question marks over Youngs' consistency, but he is a talented scrum half who enjoys the international scene. Some think team mate Danny Care may sneak into the squad, but he looks far from the finished international.
Conor Murray will happily put his hand up for selection, his biggest problem being he often looks like a second rate Mike Phillips. Not quite as strong, not quite as abrasive, not quite as inspiring.

Scotland's Greig Laidlaw could also make the tour. He has proven himself on the international stage, is the best kicker of the 9s available, doubles up as an outside half (and place kicker) if needed and has beaten the the Wallabies on their own patch before.

Ultimately, the final decision on the the scrum half could depend on the man outside him and the man opposite him. Will it be a the fighting dog or the road runner?
The Animals - Roadrunner

Lions Selector: Outside Half

If David Cameron thought life at Number 10 was hard he should try being an international outside half. Now a four year term is rare, in fact, 12 months is a life time for a 10 at the top.
12 months ago it looked sewn up, Sexton and Priestland would battle it out for the starting 10 jersey. However, inconsistent form and time off with injuries has left Sexton’s place under scrutiny and Priestland’s doomed.

Sexton is likely to tour though, but Irish team mate Ian Madigan perhaps burnt too quickly and not quite brightly enough.

Dan Biggar’s year has gone quite the opposite to that of his Scarlets' rival. Impressive for the Ospreys, Biggar filled a Priestland shaped for Wales and grew into the role with each passing game to become another impressive product of the fabled “Outside Half Factory.” Wales’ other option James Hook has had little opportunity at international level, but continues to impress in France. That form couple with Hook’s versatility maybe enough to see him tour.
Scotland will put forth Paddy Jackson and Greig Laidlaw. Jackson is too green, too inexperienced, but Laidlaw may make it with his ability to fill either stand off role.

All the while, it’s a feisty battle of England’s best fly halves that has given the most entertaining contest so far. With Toby Flood drifting out of contention it falls on the shoulders of Owen Farrell and Johnny Wilkinson. Farrell appeared to have cemented himself as the best the red rose had to offer, but never write off Johnny Wilkinson. Wilko has rolled back the years this and it all culminated in the Heineken Cup semi final this weekend.

Wilkinson controlled, guided, lead and impressed whilst Farrell faltered on the big stage.

The starting outside half may also be dependant on would starts at 9, but the final decision will fall on Warren Gatland, Andy Farrell and Rob Howley to pick their perfect 10.

Perfect 10 - Beautiful South

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

George North: Who wins?

Last week George North finally completed is switch to Northampton Saints in one of rugby's worst kept secrets. The switch became the epicentre of the player drain debate that has threatened to envelop Welsh rugby and pitted regions against the WRU. So, who will benefit from the deal? Lets take a look what the switch means to those involved.
George North
First, the man himself, Gogzilla. North has proven himself as Wales' number one winger. On the international stage he is virtually irreplaceable and it would be a massive shock he wasn't a Lion test player this summer. Things are no different with the Scarlets, but North's international involvement means he played just 12 games for his region last season. The schedule will be more gruelling in the Aviva Premiership.
However, the reward for that work may also be higher. Much has been made of the money Welsh players can earn outside the principality, but that's surely not the only alluring factor. Top sportsmen are bred to win, it's their mentality, it's their job and, without doubt, the Premiership is a more prestigious league. The English clubs are also closer to getting their hands on the Heineken Cup than Welsh regions by a distance measurable only in lightyears. As it stands, if players want some meaningful silverware, they have to leave Wales.
Without 'Gatland's rule' being implemented this is surely a great deal for the talented and ambitious North.

Northampton Saints
Put simply, it's a great move for them as North is such a quality player. Strong, agile, quick and technically gifted, North is one of the most potent threats in North Hemisphere rugby and still just 20 years old.
The only flaw in the Saints transfer activity will be that they may have needed to concentrate on creativity a little further in field to get things started.

A mixed bag for the West Walians. North is a big loss and one of the regions truly great players. The Scarlets back division is not lacking in talent, but North is the pick of the bunch.
That said, the Scarlets are hardly rolling in cash at the moment and a quarter of a million to realise North early is a huge amount of mouldy old dough. Add that to the gap left in the pay structure left by North's departure and it could mean some much needed reinforcements. It may be shrewd move on the Scarlets part, with North due to travel to Australia, take part in the Autumn Internationals and compete at the Six Nations, you have to wonder how many game North would have played before his contract expired.

Not good I'm afraid as the player drain continues. Since the toothless threat of non Welsh based players being looked on less favourably for international duty, it seems that half of Wales and their sheep have jumped ship. The perils of a tougher game schedule could lead to tired and injured stars come international time and little chance of release for outside the designated IRB window.
It's also terrible for promoting the regions as products, which the WRU is already failing at, not to mention the development of the game. For Wales to keep up, it must invest in youth, get youngsters interested in the game. The best and easiest way I by giving the idols to aspire to, icons to become. When these idols leave, who do the young players look up to? The George North's of tomorrow need the George North's of today.
The only flickering, glimmer of light in the pitch black for the WRU is that by playing better, stronger teams on a regular basis, players becoming better, stronger players. The Aviva is certainly stronger.

This move may be the lynch pin of the future of regional rugby in Wales. It has has served to highlight the ever widening canyon between the regions and the WRU. However, lets not forget the career of a good and talented young man that hinges on the success of this transfer. George North has made a bold decision to cross the Severn and ply is trade on the other side of the bridge. It's a decision I think, he has made correctly.

The Bridge - Elton John

Lions Selector: Centres

In International rugby there is little room for sentiment. It is a fast, strong, unforgiving world where weakness, no matter how small, is identified and exploited. Never is this more evident than on a Lions tour; a gruelling test of skill, fitness and mentality that only the great will experience and the elite relish.
There is no doubt that, over the years, Brian O’Driscoll has been one of the elite. He is a man steel resolve and in both body and brain he is a natural rugby player. However, it is becoming evident that the body of the great BOD is not what it once was. A career of total commitment has taken it’s toll and with that in mind the question remains; Does O'Driscoll stay at home? If he doesn't, no Irish centres make my squad but experience goes along way with the Lions and it maybe enough for O'Driscoll.
Samoan sledgehammer Manu Tuilagi would miss out on my trip to Oz. Though, I imagine, Gatland will welcome him into the fold, being a fan of crash and bash inside centres. Instead I opt for the more subtle skills of Billy Twelvetrees from England. The aggressive defence of Brad Barritt maybe enough to warrant his place too, despite the detractors questioning ability with the ball in hand.

Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are sure fire squad members and possible test starters. I'd be very surprised if Gatland didn't start with Dr. Roberts, whilst Jon "Foxy" Davies was the only Northern Hemisphere player to break into the World team of the year. Davies' passing ability has faced much scrutiny of late, but there is little doubt of his running with angles a protractor couldn't match. But, what of James Hook? The versatility of the French based Welshman could see him into the 37 strong pride as a utility back, though making the test XV is unlikely.
Scotland's depth in this area is equal to that of a puddle in summer. However, Edinburgh centre Matt Scott is a 12 time international, bright, young thing and a Lions call up as a midweek player would be a warranted experience for the former outside half, but it's the inclusion of one of the greatest players of his generation that we wait on with bated breath.

My Generation - The Who

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lions Selector: Wings

Our Lions selector continues. Last time we looked at the contenders for the fullback position. This time we continue to look at the back line by casting an eye over the wings hoping to get a call from Warren Gatland.
Scotland's back three are impressive with ball in hand to say the least. Stuart Hogg has garnered much praise at fullback and a switch to the wing would be well within the Scotsman's ability. More likely would be New Zealand born Sean Maitland and Flying Dutchman Tim Visser. Maitland may not have had chance to prove himself in the blue of Scotland yet, but he has proven himself in the Southern Hemisphere whilst at the Crusaders. Visser has proven himself at international level including a brace of tries against world champions the All Blacks. Visser is very strong and lightening fast and would be a handful for any team to stop.
Again, as with fullback, England lack potency in the wing. Chris Ashton would have been the closest to pulling on the red of the British and Irish Lions, However, a poor Six Nations may have all but dashed Ashton's hopes. Over the course of the tournament Ashton carried for just 99 metres. Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt runs 100m in 9.67 seconds, Ashton had six weeks and still managed fell a metre short. Compare that to the Welsh duo of Alex Cuthbert and George North, who carried for almost 300 metres each, and Scotland’s Stuart Hogg who carried almost 90 metres in one try scoring break against Italy. Add to that some glaringly obvious defensive frailties after he was embarrassed by Wesley Fofana and only Mike Brown saved his blushes after North himself beat him with easy. Could Christian Wade be an outside choice to make the trip though despite being overlooked by England?

Ireland’s inexperience out wide may rule out any appearance of an Irish flyer in the Lions midst, save for a phenomenal return from the physio bench from Subway’s finest, Tommy Bowe. Simon Zebo thrust himself firmly into contention, ball juggling footwork et al, before injury cruelly dragged him away. Don't rule out Craig Gilroy board a plane bound for Australia yet. The young Irishman would relish the opportunity and may shine on the big stage.
Finally, back to that Welsh pair mentioned earlier. The man who may be Northampton's newest flyer, George North, is almost a certainty for one wing birth in summer, but could Gogzilla's national teammate balance up the other side? Alex Cuthbert entered the Six Nations with a huge question mark over his head with regard to his defence and position, but he grew stronger with every game of the tournament and ended with a a performance that silenced the doubters against England and helped land the title. Couple that with notable carry and try stats, not just for Wales but also a stuttering Blues team, and the reality is Cuthbert is quickly becoming a star of international quality.

Which players will make the starting XV will almost certainly go down to who performs best on tour. My starting wingers would be George North and Tim Visser. It is a closer run thing between Visser and Cuthbert, but Visser gives a little national balance to the team.

But that's just my thoughts and my words on a wing.
David Bowie - Word on a Wing

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lions Selector: Fullback

The question that plagues rugby clubs up a down the nation, when ale flows and drunks talk the inevitable question rears its head; “Who would make your Lions XV?”

Now the time has come to meaningfully ask this question again, with Warren Gatland’s selection being the most important.

Here at Ruck ‘n’ Roll we are going to take a look at some of the decisions the Kiwi will have to make.

We start at fullback and with the player of the Six Nations, as Leigh Halfpenny’s place is surely nailed on. The diminutive fullback with a PhD in reliability silenced any doubters with assured performances. Kicking (both from hand and tee) was excellent and under the high ball no hands are safer.

It is Halfpenny's heart, however, that opens the chasm between him and his nearest rival for the number 15 jersey. The Blues fullback could teach the 'king of the beasts' a thing or two about bravery, with a never back down, never give up attitude that should draw admiration from even the most casual of rugby followers.

England offer no real alternative to the boy from Gorseinon. Alex Goode seems to have claimed the white 15 shirt of England despite Ben Foden's return. However, though dependable, Goode is rarely outstanding and seems to lack a sense of attacking creativity. That said, the stats show that Goode was this years top carrier for the Six Nations, so is it just a that his reputation precedes him?

Ireland's offering Rob Kearney may have entered the Six Nations as the man with a Lions starting place and his plane ticket almost booked, but he leaves it with his boarding pass in jeopardy and his passport possibly staying in his sock drawer.

Stuart Hogg seems the only man capable of wrestling that 15 jersey away from Halfpenny's assuring hands. His attacking skills have been electric as, at the ripe old age of just 20, he already starts delivering on the promises his talent has shown before. There may be plenty more Lions tour chances ahead for Hogg, but have no doubt he will want to travel to Australia and do so with a starting spot in mind. Should he get it, it certainly wouldn't be a case of a token spot for a braveheart of Scotland.

Surely though, it should be Leigh Halfpenny's lion heart that deserves to beat under a Lions shirt.