British & Irish Lions 2013 – One Final Roar

The following article is going to be written purely from a rugby perspective. Nationalities and national bias are to be put to one side. There is no English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish, there are only British & Irish Lions and their supporters.

After four tours and eight tests, Brian O'Driscoll's Lions career is over

After four tours and eight tests, Brian O’Driscoll’s Lions career is over

The Third Test Selection:

British and Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales); Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Jamie Roberts (Wales), George North (Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales); Alex Corbisiero (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (captain, Wales), Geoff Parling (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales).

Replacements: Tom Youngs (England), Mako Vunipola (England), Dan Cole (England), Richie Gray (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales),

Conor Murray (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England), Manu Tuilagi (England).

Controversy:

Where do we start?

The above side is perhaps the most controversial Lions XV since the New Zealand tour in 2005. Accusations of bias abound.

Sir Clive Woodward got 2005 wrong and has been deemed overwhelmingly biased towards England in New Zealand. He picked eight, six and five (19) English starters in the tests. His captains were Irish and Welsh. Gatland has picked eight, seven and ten (25), with two Welsh captains. But with no O’Driscoll, he has picked the right skipper in Alun Wyn Jones.

World class centre Jamie Roberts returns

World class centre Jamie Roberts returns

A sporting legend, Brian O’Driscoll, has been unceremoniously sent packing from one of rugby’s grandest stages. His four tours and eight test appearances have been deemed surplus to requirements. This is a mistake. O’Driscoll is a test match animal and a supreme leader. With no O’Connell or Warburton, the Lions are crying out for a man of O’Driscoll’s experience.

Can the Lions bounce back?

Can the Lions bounce back?

Throughout the team, Gatland has substituted creativity for pure power. It is almost as if Jeremy Clarkson was consulted for his view on how to win the Lions first series since 1997: “Power, Power, Power.”

Tactics:

Gatland is a coach of great stature but his teams are predictable. From Waikato to London Wasps to Wales and now the Lions, he constructs sides to play “Warrenball.”

For the uninitiated, Warrenball is ultra aggressive, direct and confrontational. In diplomatic terms, it has the subtly of parking your tanks on your enemy’s lawn during peace negotiations. It can be highly effective but the Wallabies seem – hopefully Saturday proves this false – to have worked it out.

Warrenball:

The plan is thus. Off set-piece ball, Gatland blasts his inside centre back against the grain and into traffic. His mission is to suck in as many defenders as possible to create space out wide. If he can wrap up the blindside, fly-half and perhaps even the number 8, he has disrupted the opposition’s defensive system. The blindside is a flier who targets 10, allowing his midfield to fan out in defence.

A Gatland scrum-half must be physical and probe around the fringes. If the scrum-half snipes around the fringes he can catch the defence unawares. This is because they are already anticipating the second phase occurring in the midfield or in the far channel.

George North has been superb and will be a key player

George North has been superb and will be a key player

To be a success, the set-piece needs to be reliable and consistent. When executed slickly and at pace, it is hard to stop. However, it is predictable and can be stifled.

The Wallabies:

The Wallabies – of all international sides – are the best at living off scraps. Aussie sides punch above their weight. Every year they face slaughter from boulder-sized Springbok packs and All Black teams who compete with primeval intensity. And yet they survive.

This is my main contention with Warrenball. It does not work against Australia. The Aussie backrow is a trio of breakdown snafflers. Like their ancestors before them, these boys won’t hesitate to pilfer from the British & Irish.

They make the hit and then get low over the ball buying their defence crucial time. If the Lions miss their first clearout, then Warrenball becomes World War One rugby, relying on stagnant pick and go or tactical kicking. Pure power becomes pure attrition. Momentum is lost.

Simply put, this is why Wales have deservedly run riot across Europe but struggled south of the equator. The Six Nations is a land of 6.5s and not of outright 7s.

The set-piece has not been the land of milk and honey we all hoped for. Far from clubbing seals at scrum time, the Lions have in fact been wrestling for control. Dominance is far from guaranteed.

Alun Wyn Jones is an inexperienced captain but a world class player

Alun Wyn Jones is an inexperienced captain but a world class player

The changes:

Firstly, Alex Corbiseiro has come in for Mako Vunipola. This will significantly bolster the Lions scrum and reduce penalties. While impressive around the field, Corbiseiro is not quite as active as Vunipola. Incredibly, Vunipola was the Lions best carrier (7), best tackler (15) and won joint most turnovers (3) in Melbourne.

Richard Hibbard comes in for Tom Youngs. The Tigers hooker has done nothing wrong in the Lions shirt. Gatland has plumped for Hibbard’s added bulk at scrum time. Personally, I think this is wrong. Corbiseiro will make a major difference while Hibbard’s throwing is suspect. History shows the Lions lost the 2001 decider to a lineout turnover and were notably robbed of a crucial one last week, when Hibbard came on.

Sean O’Brien shades Justin Tipuric to replace Warburton. O’Brien’s job will be to obliterate whoever attempts to get over the Lions first phase ball. It is ideal for attacking but O’Brien is not as effective at slowing down or stealing Wallaby possession. To win this test, the Lions must make a meal of Wallaby possession. Make it a dog fight to force Genia and O’Connor into kicking.

Toby Faletau replaces Jamie Heaslip. While the Irishman has not disgraced himself, there is justification for this swap. Faletau has looked sharp and is the fresher of the two.

Mike Phillips returns in place of Ben Youngs. During the first test, Phillips was slow at the base of the breakdown and vastly below his normal high standards. Gatland likes to trumpet the phrase of picking on form. Frankly, this is friend not a form selection. By all means drop Youngs – who was quiet – but replace him with Conor Murray who made an impact off the bench.

Wallaby Skipper James Horwill has been cleared of stamping and will lead his men

Wallaby Skipper James Horwill has been cleared of stamping and will lead his men

The real sting in the tail is in the centres. Jamie Roberts is world class but has not played for three weeks. Manu Tuilagi has proved his fitness since his own injury. O’Driscoll has not been outstanding but has outperformed Davies. Sure, Davies played out of position but he missed the most tackles (3) in the team last week, including Ashley-Cooper for the decisive score. O’Driscoll made 100% of his tackles (14) to Davies 7 (3 missed). Gatland has wilted under pressure and picked his Welsh pairing. Personally, I would have reunited Roberts and O’Driscoll.

Plan B:

The main issue is Gatland does not have a Plan B. For all the talk of shocking the Wallabies with an all-court game and new plays, the second test was a slug fest.

Roberts will be crashed up again and again. Stop him on the gainline and the Lions juggernaut will grind to a halt. Cynics will say this is why Wales haven’t beaten Australia in recent years.

If the Wallabies boss the breakdown or get on top of Parling/Hibbard lineout, they will win.

The Lions Concept:

People can sugarcoat it all they like but the Lions are playing for their very lives.

If they win, they restore credibility to the famous shirt and remain the British & Irish Lions. Alas, the modern media and society’s fickle nature means – rightly or wrongly – defeat will label them laughably impotent and Welsh. Defeat in Sydney will leave the Lions at least 20 years between series victories. The chant four more years is sure to emerge from the gold clad hordes.

Alex Corbiseiro must help provide a stable scrum platform

Alex Corbiseiro must help provide a stable scrum platform

This is the gamble Gatland has taken by naming 10 Welshmen in his starting line-up. There are viable cases which can be made for each selection.

Regardless of those justifications, the perception from the beginning has been of Gatland having his favourites. From his media gaffes such as slating the England players, to the limitations of the regular season meaning the pre-tour camps consisted of 15 Welsh and 8 others. This is a problem administrators must resolve by 2017.

Moreover, the Wallabies are weaker opposition than faced on previous tours. They are mediocre compared to South Africa 2009 or New Zealand 2005. Their star player David Pocock is injured along with a couple of other frontline stars. Quade Cooper has not even made the squad.

This series was – and is – there for the taking.

Now let us all hope the Lions blast their way back and finally perform to their vast potential.

Now or Never: Saving the British & Irish Lions’ Credibility

Pulsating, thrilling, gripping, devastating, heart wrenching, savage, brutal, compelling, glorious and emotional.  Those are but a few of the words which can be applied to a British and Irish Lions Series. And boy did the first test live up to those descriptions. An opening series test win was long overdue.

The decisive moment of the 1st test and perhaps the whole series

The decisive moment of the 1st test and perhaps the whole series

First Test:

After taking a 1-0 lead and with the Wallabies possessing so many walking wounded, the Lions surely cannot let the chance of a 3-0 win go.

With more discipline and composure, the Lions should have routed the Wallabies. They were too naive in key periods.

For example, on 73 minutes, they had a scrum on the Australian 5m line. All they had to do was win their scrum and let Jamie Heaslip control the ball at the back. A powerful second drive would have inched them forward. A penalty or a penalty try could have followed. Game over. If it collapsed then time had been eaten up and possession retained.

Instead, the ball was turned over and Australia cleared. A bullet was dodged.

With 10 minutes left, the Aussie had a flanker and wing at centre with a scrum half on the wing. They even missed 14 points kicking for goal. It was a marvellous display of cussed bravery and commitment from the hosts. If anything, the Wallabies looked more dangerous with ball in hand than the Lions; even with their backline dropping like monsoon season rain.

The Lions won the opening test for the first time since 1997

The Lions won the opening test for the first time since 1997

George North was sensational as were Israel Folau and Will Genia. The world was treated to a superb encounter and one which the Lions will be relieved to win. If Kurtley Beale – recently out of rehab – had not slipped, it would have ended 24-23 to the hosts.

In the second test, the Lions must be ruthless. Yes, the referee was poor and somewhat deluded at the breakdown. Alas, this is nothing new. Northern and Southern Hemisphere breakdown interpretations vary. Man up and handle it. He might be wrong but his word is law. You will not change his mind.

The solution is simple. Smash over and beyond the ball removing any possibility of being penalised for diving in. Counter ruck Australian ball to slow Will Genia down. Make it a dog fight.

First Test Fallout:

Robbie Deans faces a tough week to pick a fit backline from the wreckage this test has left him with. Quade Cooper may well be summoned with at least four struggling with injuries.

So far so good

So far so good

A backline of Cooper at 10, O’Connor 12 with Folau on the wing and Beale at 15, would be mouth-watering.

However, Deans has drafted in Jesse Mogg (FB), Ben Tapuai (C) and veteran flanker George Smith.

Wallaby Captain, James Horwill, has been cited for an incident involving Alun Wyn Jones.

The British & Irish Lions Concept:

The Lions are iconic and have left paw prints throughout rugby’s collective history. No other sporting team crosses such sporting rivalries in such rarefied atmosphere as a test match.

Israel Folau enjoyed a stunning debut

Israel Folau enjoyed a stunning debut

From Jeremy Guscott’s late drop goal in 1997 to the guttural roars and accompanying mayhem of the ‘99’ call. To those of you unfamiliar with the ‘99’ call, it was a literal call to arms. Swivel left and right to find your nearest opponent and then slam him with a haymaker or seven. In simple terms, a ‘99’ led to a 999.

The first test win was wonderful but all is not well with the British and Irish Lions. Purely in sporting terms, the Lions are sick. This is not just a case of a thorn in their paw but of a more serious internal wounding.

Since WW2, the Lions have won 4/17 series. Their last triumph was the 2-1 win over the then world champion Springboks in 1997. A solitary two test match victories have followed in the nine played since. The low point was the “blackwash” inflicted in 2005.

There is no shame in being routed by the All Blacks. Many have suffered at their hands. The shame is in being utterly bulldozed without firing more than a shot or two. It undermined the Lions integrity.

If we remove all the commercialism and public relations spin, the Lions must win this series. Again, they must win.

We have seen the Wallabies are not mugs or rugby vagrants who can be easily sent packing. They are a reasonable side but have suffered from injuries before and during the first test. There will not be a better opportunity to halt the sequence of series defeats.

George North was a constant threat

George North was a constant threat

Some of their players are world class. Will Genia, James O’Connor, Israel Folau and Digby Ioane trip off the tongue. Kurtley Beale has his moments but has just spent a short stint in rehab. There is no David Pocock. Nor is there any Quade Cooper as yet.

Environment:

The atmosphere in Australia is far less intimidating than in New Zealand or South Africa. There is no altitude to handle and some of the provincial games have been casual romps. Aussie packs are not known for feasting on visitors while a bloodthirsty crowd screams for more. This is not the South African Highveld or a frost bitten Eden Park.

The pressure is huge because it is easily the most winnable of the three series. Australia pose less of an obstacle than South Africa or New Zealand.

Historically, the Aussies have been splattered beneath a rampaging Lions side. Intriguingly the Aussies have won one series, which happened to be their last attempt back in 2001.

The Lions need a series win to maintain their credibility as a competitive force. The tag of gallant losers who go down bravely, has to be eradicated. Professional sport demands results. Now they are 1-0 up, nothing less than victory will suffice.

Sure, Lions tours are romantic throwbacks but must be backed up with periodic victories. The class of 1997 are rugby royalty.  True legends.  Now it is time for this generation to join them.

Will Sam Warburton join Martin Johnson as a professional era Lions winning Captain?

Will Sam Warburton join Martin Johnson as a professional era Lions winning Captain?

Point of Interest:

Robert Sneddon led the first Lions tour in 1888. He skippered 22 men who averaged 5”9, 12st4lb and played 35 matches on tour. Travelling was a genuine excuse for fatigue because it took them 42 days to reach Australia. All 22 played were amateur.

Sam Warbuton leads the current party of 45 men (37 + 8 replacements so far) who average 6”2 and 16st3lb. The class of 2013 play 10 matches and earn £45,000 basic tour allowance. Bonuses will push this up to £67,000. The total cost of the tour is estimated at £14m.

Miscellaneous:

The England and Wales Cricket Team sent a jokey and entertaining good luck message to the Lions squad. I highly recommend it – http://bbc.in/14mLpPH

Lions Team to play Melbourne Rebels (Tuesday):

Lions team: Rob Kearney; Sean Maitland, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Simon Zebo; Owen Farrell, Conor Murray; Ryan Grant, Richard Hibbard, Dan Cole, Richie Gray, Geoff Parling (capt), Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau.

Replacements: Rory Best, Mako Vunipola, Matt Stevens, Ian Evans, Justin Tipuric, Ben Youngs, Billy Twelvetrees, Stuart Hogg

The Baa Baas in Hong Kong & Global Rugby Round-up

There has been a lot going on in the world of rugby. This week’s article is a summary of all the key developments including some behind the scenes information about the Baa Baas.

The Baa Baas match shirts for Hong Kong

The Baa Baas match shirts for Hong Kong

Global Rugby Round-up:

Barbarians v British & Irish Lions:Behind the Scenes

Sam Warburton has received a steroid injection after a bump on his knee during the Ireland training camp. Medics believe he should be fit in time for the first few tour matches in Australia.

Baa Baas adjusitng to Hong Kong's humidity

Baa Baas adjusitng to Hong Kong’s humidity

Paul O’Connell will captain the Lions in Warburton’s absence. The starting line-up contains 9 Welsh, 3 Scottish, 2 English and 1 Irish.

The Barbarians imposed a drinking ban upon themselves. It was a reaction to the somewhat limp showing at Twickenham last weekend. Contrary to what several newspapers have reported, it was a never a blanket ban. Players took a voluntary ban which targeted excessive drinking, such as pub crawls or pub golf. Some players enjoy a glass of wine at their clubs or a beer to relax, this was not prohibited. Throwing your head back and downing a bottle of wine while players roared encouragement, WAS banned.

Leonardo Ghiraldini, Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Andrea Lo Cicero, will make history as the first ever Italians to play against the Lions. Parisse skippers the side.

As befitting tradition, there are a number of uncapped players in the Baa Baas line-up. English and London Wasps pair, Sam Jones and Elliot Daly, are accompanied by Ulster’s uncapped Kiwi Jared Payne in the starting team.

Paul James & Duncan Jones drive a hard bargain

Paul James & Duncan Jones drive a hard bargain

The Baa Baas have enjoyed all of Hong Kong’s magnificent attractions. On Tuesday, a number of them went haggling in Hong Kong market. The Welsh boys James Hook, Paul James, Duncan Jones and Matthew Rees, drove a particularly hard bargain. In Duncan’s words: “We’re tighter than cramp.” This was followed by a Carlsberg drinks reception where 90% of the players drank coke. As you can imagine, Carlsberg were slightly shocked!

A beer each but no pub golf. The Carlsberg Reception

A beer each but no pub golf. The Carlsberg Reception

The entire squad spent Wednesday evening at the Happy Valley Racecourse. On Thursday, Rowan Varty took the team out on a Jaspas Junk into the bay. If you check twitter (@barbarian_fc) there are pictures. The boys soaked up the sunshine in-between swimming in the ocean.

On Friday, several players journeyed across the border into Shenzhen and China. Locals did not quite know what to make of the modern gladiators sat alongside them. The size difference was comical.

All training sessions took place at So Kon Po Recreation Ground, Causeway Bay from 10-11:30am to avoid the worst heat.

Tickets did not sell out for the Barbarians v British & Irish Lions. Prices were very steep with the cheapest costing £62 and most £100. Considering locals pay £100 for an entire day of 7s action, it seemed short sighted. Alas, in modern sport money and commercialism rule the day. Hong Kong was chosen as host because HSBC – the Lions main sponsor – are based there. As such, all prices were solely set by the Lions and their commercial partners.

Contract Renewals and Transfers:

Manu Tuilagi has signed a new long-term contract with Leicester Tigers after scoring in their 37-17 Premiership Final victory last week. Dylan Hartley – who’s red card for dissent cost him his Lions place – has decided against appealing. Consequently, his 11 week ban stands. Rory Best took Hartley’s Lions spot.

The Tigers have added a number of signings for next season, including Jamie Gibson and Ryan Lamb.

Parisse, Hamilton & Daly enjoying the Junk

Parisse, Hamilton & Daly enjoying the Junk

All Black star Hosea Gear has signed for Toulouse. Toulon confirmed Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell for next season, while rumours they are in talks with US flier Carlin Isles persist.

Stade Francais added Morne Steyn and Digby Ioane to their glittering squad for next season.

Talks between Bath Rugby and Gavin Henson continue.

Vern Cotter has been confirmed as Scotland’s new head coach. Cotter will work under Scott Johnson’s authority as Director of Rugby. The Kiwi will not start work until June 2014. Scotland will wait for his Clermont Auvergne contract to expire. This is a highly unusual method and may cost Scotland dear between now and June.

Miscellaneous:

The All Blacks are in negotiations to play a test in Japan en route to their European Tour. While important for developing Asian rugby, the move has been widely criticised. Only last week, Fiji’s offer of a test in Suva was rejected. Samoa and Tonga have long pleaded for a match. Cynics believe All Black coffers take precedence over the spirit of rugby.

X-Men actor Hugh Jackman played rugby as a teenager. The Aussie actor had a short fuse which the “organised violence” of rugby perfect suited. He believes it kept him out of trouble at school. Those claws must have come in handy at the breakdown….

Richie McCaw’s backpacking expedition has come to an end. The iconic Cantabrian has spent the last few weeks back in full-training. No specific date has been set for his return but it is expected imminently. His All Black colleague, Ali Williams, has announced his retirement from international rugby.

The Happy Valley Races

The Happy Valley Races

Newcastle Falcons defeated Bedford Blues 49-33 on aggregate to march back into the Premiership at first time of asking. It is a remarkable return for Dean ‘Deano’ Richards after his role in the Bloodgate scandal.

England’s tour of Argentina will be shown live on BBC 2 at 20:10 on 08/06 and 15/06.

Dean Mumm squeezing onto public transport

Dean Mumm squeezing onto public transport

The Baa Baas – Access All Areas

Have you ever wondered how an eclectic group of individuals becomes a sporting band of brothers? Or how bitter rivals become best friends?

This is the behind the scenes story of world rugby’s most unique club. An amateur club excelling in the professional era. This is Barbarians FC.

Welsh veteran Duncan Jones showing off the new shirt

Welsh veteran Duncan Jones showing off the new shirt

Logistics:

On a cloudy Wednesday morning, the tentacles of the Barbarians squad were drawn together from across the globe.

From Rome, Paris, Swansea, Hong Kong, Exeter, Biarritz, Newport, Cardiff, Gloucester, Bath, and London, the invited few packed their bags and set-out for the Grosvenor Hotel.

Their backgrounds are diverse but for the next two weeks, their futures are intertwined. Old enemies are now new allies.

The iconic warrior, Andrea Lo Cicero, packed his boots for the final time. A well-earned retirement beckons after the British & Irish Lions. Others such as the Wasps wunderkinds Sam Jones and Elliot Daly, were eagerly anticipating their first international rugby tour.

Throughout the morning, chauffeur driven cars were despatched to gather the British players, while the international element were picked up from London’s airports.

Meet & Greet:

Speed machine Ngwenya signing shirts

Speed machine Ngwenya signing shirts

In scenes reminiscent of the first day at secondary school – but with more beards, bulk and banter – the Baa Baas greeted each other. Caginess and suspicion were absent. Laughing, joking and friendliness prevailed.

James Hook modelling the match shirt for his Sky Sports shots

James Hook modelling the match shirt for his Sky Sports shots

Every player was oblivious of the bewildered stares of passersby. A UEFA delegation was sharing the hotel before the all-German Champions League Final on Saturday. The modestly proportioned John Terry – all 6”1 and 12 stone of him – is a footballing ‘bruiser.’ On a rugby pitch, he would be the referee. Dozens of officials ambled by, eyes glued on the cloud scraping lump of Scottish granite which is Jim Hamilton.

Greetings were intermingled with check-in. Players share a room. In the past, Richie McCaw and John Smit have bunked together while Bryan Habana and Shane Williams have done similar. The club does not release this information during a tour, so it will remain confidential for now.

The European players such as Imanol Harinordoquy, Dimitri Yachvili, Alessandro Zanni and Andrea Lo Cicero, spoke with impeccable English making their integration an easy process.

The age defying Baa Baas President, Micky Steele-Bodger, picked his way through the mass of players speaking to every individual as he went. There were no babies to kiss, but Micky does radiate an authority akin to Barrack Obama on the campaign trail.

Lunchtime:

All Blacks Casey Lualala and Nick Evans

All Blacks Casey Lualala and Nick Evans

All players, management and committee sat down for lunch in the restaurant. With no nutritionist in sight, the option was given to have fish and chips or steak. An overwhelming majority plumped for steak. Waitresses staggered to the tables beneath the weight of the mightiest steak you will ever see. Picture a Ford Escort made entirely of beef. You get the idea.

Poor old Schalk Brits fell victim to traffic so missed the beginning of lunch. It could have been worse, he could have been Takudzwa Ngwenya. Takudzwa missed the whole meal. He was marooned somewhere between Heathrow and central London. Another victim of the capital’s infamous gridlock.

Mike Tindall being interviewed by Sky Sports

Mike Tindall being interviewed by Sky Sports

At the risk of shattering Baa Baas mythology, there were no jugs of beer or shots of tequila lined up. Most drank water, a few had cokes.

Timing is key. Enjoyment, friendship and camaraderie are the overarching principles of the Barbarians. But with the Baa Baas shirt comes a responsibility. Players can – and do – go out in the run up to matches but it is entirely down to individual choice. You do whatever will allow simultaneous fun and world class performance.

Nobody gets strapped into the ‘dentist’ chair a la Paul Gascoigne and the England football team.

Team Meeting:

After the usual administration points, it was over to Team Manager Derek Quinnell. Derek embodies everything great about the Baa Baas. The Welshman is steeped in the club’s tradition. History remembers ‘that’ try in 1973, but forgets Derek gave the decisive pass to Gareth Edwards.

Scottish colossus Jim Hamilton

Scottish colossus Jim Hamilton

A video montage was shown to help the new Baa Baa generation re-connect with the club’s history. The link between the past, present and future is integral to the club’s identity.

The club’s main rules are enjoyment, team unity, being on time and performing. None are optional. Lateness is unprofessional. Missing a meeting because you’re drunk is not acceptable. By all means, go out and have a cracking night but be on time the next day.

Two European legends bonding in the team room (Imanol Harinordoquy & Andrea Lo Cicero)

Two European legends bonding in the team room (Imanol Harinordoquy & Andrea Lo Cicero)

Itineraries showed there is a grand total of five hours training in ten days. This may seem a recipe for drastically undercooking the squad. In reality, it is the opposite. Relaxation and bonding should refresh battle weary bodies.

When training, every player is to be zoned in and chomping at the bit. There will be no half-measures or half-hearted efforts. This being said, nor will there be any fitness sessions!

The team analyst gave each player a brief outline of England tactics. Team tactics sheets were also given out. In total, these two documents could not have come to more than eight or nine sides of A4, including pictures.

Contrast this to the 50 or more pages of a club playbook! Again, it was individual choice as to whether you took the England analysis sheet.

Dean Mumm, Marco Wentzel and Sam Jones

Dean Mumm, Marco Wentzel and Sam Jones

As coach Dai Young stressed, he and player-coach Mike Tindall, are merely there to guide training. Player input is the driving force. When in doubt, play what you see. Off the cuff rugby – and multi-dimensional attacking play – is the oxygen of Baa Baas rugby.

Every player was presented with a club tie by Micky. The tie is the Baa Baas equivalent of an international cap. It should be cherished and respected.

Kit and Media Relations:

Team sponsors, Rhino Teamwear, sorted each member of the party out with their tour kit. Needless to say, extra baggage allowance will be purchased to get it all to Hong Kong. There was easily enough kit to forego doing any laundry in Hong Kong. Simply rip open the cellophane and head to breakfast.

This year’s shirt is slim-fit. It is a break with tradition but the Lions match will be played in hot and humid conditions. A cotton shirt would quickly saturate and weigh players down. Your average prop may dislike the curve hugging modern shirt, but they more than anyone, will appreciate anything which aide’s forward propulsion.

Sky Sports, BBC Radio Wales, Total Rugby, The Times, Press Association and few others all sent representatives. Players changed into the match shirt for their official head shots with Getty Images.

Barbarians Coach Dai Young

Barbarians Coach Dai Young

James Hook and Mike Tindall were the busiest with media engagements. Hong Kong flier Rowan Varty – who will moonlight as unofficial tour guide – completed a number of interviews as the first ever Hong Kong player to be invited into the club. If you have seen him play, you will know he brings pace, footwork and intuitive back play.

Then, they did the customary camera stare/blue steel shot for Sky. The range of facial expressions displayed was remarkable. Some went for intimidation others for humour.

Around half-way though this, Mr Ngwenya finally managed to break free of London congestion. The obligatory question was asked. The answer? “I don’t know my 100m time. We never run a full one.”

The players had the rest of the afternoon at their leisure.

Miscellaneous:

BJ Botha did not receive a visa in time. James Johnston has replaced him.

Casey Lualala has been summoned to provide more depth at centre.

Francois Louw has not recovered from a hamstring injury. Jonathon Poff will deputise for the England match.

Kohn Fotuali’i and Joe Rokocoko will meet up with the squad in Hong Kong. Sergio Parisse and Leonardo Ghiraldini arrive from an Italy training camp on Saturday.

The players have imposed a sensible drinking ban ahead of the British & Irish Lions. Alcohol is not entirely banished but a beer or glass of wine is now the maximum.

Hong Kong's Rowan Varty

Hong Kong’s Rowan Varty

Paul James, James Johnston and Elliot Daly

Paul James, James Johnston and Elliot Daly

Barbarians FC – An Amateur Club in a Professional Era:

Professionalism has utterly transformed rugby. The iconic and notorious characteristics of amateurism have gone. Quaffing pints of aftershave and refueling on chip butties are out. In come protein shakes, body fat tests and electrolyte drinks.

Victor Matfied is one of a number of rugby legends to play for Baa Baas

Victor Matfield is one of a number of rugby legends to play for Baa Baas

The one constant has been  Barbarians FC. While the British & Irish Lions still tour and rightfully remain cherished, a modern tour is unrecognisable from those of the previous century. It is the Baa Baas who remain a bastion of the amateur ethos of enjoyment, socialising and effervescent attacking.

Who are the Barbarians?

To put it simply, the Baa Baas are global sport’s most unique and eccentric club. They were formed late one evening in a Bradford restaurant.

The Leuchters restaurant was hosting WP Carmichael, who believed the concepts of drawing players from all clubs, of every race and creed, to play the best teams and fill fallow periods of the season, was an idea worth pursuing. Carmichael founded the club and set out his vision.

Barbarians FC are all about rugby interaction, breaking down cross-club rivalries to foster the spirit of rugby. Their motto – “Rugby Football is a game for gentlemen in all classes, but for no bad sportsman in any class” – epitomised the club’s grandiose vision. Behaviour must be high on and off the field. Clearly, there is scope for enjoyment with Baa Baas socials passing into legend.

The name Barbarians is supposedly based on the club’s migrationary mindset, not a passion for pillaging villages. They have no formal home because they do not draw their players from one isolated region or separate nation. Overall, they have played in 25 different countries including Tunisia and Georgia.

The precise details of the name are unclear. Speculation points to the fact many people perceived rugby players as ‘Barbarians’, while others ruminate it was based on Arminius’ victory over Varius and his legions in Germany, two thousand years ago.

Sonny Bill Williams played against the Wallabies

Sonny Bill Williams played against the Wallabies

The original logo was of a skull and cross bones. It was replaced shortly after, with the current B.F.C monogram of intertwined letters.

Penarth is often cited as a place of resonance. Its hotel, the Penarth Esplanade, became important because the Baa Baas always stayed there during their Easter Tours. Staff were very ‘tolerant’ of the Barbarians’ activities!

What is different about them?

Reflecting the Baa Baas nomadic nature is the tradition of socks. Players are invited – not selected – to tour with the club and wear socks of their own choosing. This is not the Baa Baas being cheap, but is a deliberate policy of visual unity. It allows each player to choose their socks and show their rugby roots.

Invitation is different to selection. A committee meets to draw up a shortlist of players who fit the Baa Baas style of rugby and personal character. Squads are specifically tailored to uphold the club’s values.

The club is multi-national and cosmopolitan. In total, 27 nationalities have donned the famous black and white strip. Such diversity has been an important component of the Baa Baas desire to spread the game to a global audience, while helping the lower tier nations garner more experience and exposure.

Baa Baas tours are a serious endeavour when on the field. Off the field, the players maximise enjoyment. There is no ‘big brother’ monitoring or babysitting curfew hours. It is an adult tour and not a school trip.

Sergio Parisse will play again in 2013

Sergio Parisse will play again in 2013

Nutritionists do not exist in the land of the Baa Baas. Carbohydrates are an ally, not an enemy. Fat is pivotal in conquering hangovers. And it tastes good. Sugar makes you run faster. Atkins and Dukan are assumed to be a detective duo and not diet plans.

Modern players relish the opportunity to sample such a rarefied environment. Complete freedom before a test match is a novelty.

The club has a passion for expansive rugby. Adventure is everything. Style matters. Enjoyment, not results, drives the Baa Baas. They would happily lose 69-68, rather than squeeze a 6-3 victory. In recent memory, the Baa Baas have beaten Ireland 70-38, Scotland 74-31 and Bedford Blues 75-45. Ironically, their first ever match was a comparatively dour 9-4 victory over Hartlepool Rovers in 1890.

Tradition dictates the club inviting at least one uncapped player per tour. Current Scottish stars Tim Visser, Johnny Beattie, Jim Hamilton and Ryan Grant among others, all toured with the Baa Baas before making their international debuts.

Every player automatically receives lifetime membership of the club.

Results:

Even with their all or nothing attitude, the Baa Baas has a proud history. The club boasts victories over all the home nations and all four Rugby Championship powerhouses.

Bryan Habana scored a sparkling hat-trick in a 25-18 over All Blacks (2009)

Bryan Habana scored a sparkling hat-trick in a 25-18 over All Blacks (2009)

Most famous of all, is the stunning 23-11 defeat of the fearsome All Blacks in 1973. The Arms Park rose to acclaim ‘that’ try as the Baa Baas back play bewitched the Kiwis.

In recent years, South Africa and New Zealand have been put to the sword at Twickenham.

Notable Players:

Modern maestros from Richie McCaw and Schalk Burger to Bryan Habana and Matt Giteau, have donned the jersey.

In addition, rugby royalty like Gareth Edwards, Andy Irvine, David Duckham, Michael Lynagh, Jason Leonard, Zinzan Brooke, Francois Pienaar and Phillip Sella, have all worn the shirt with distinction.

Ireland’s Tony O’Reilly is the top try scorer scorching to 38 tries in 30 matches.

Barbarians 2013:

v England (Twickenham, 26/05/13) and British & Irish Lions (Hong Kong, 01/06/13)

*Denotes previous Baa Baa appearances.

The British & Irish Lions will present a physical challenge.

The British & Irish Lions will present a physical challenge.

Backs:

Jared Payne (Ulster)

Aged 27, 6ft1& 14st13lbs

Rowan Varty (DeA Tigers & Hong Kong 7s)

Aged 27, 5ft8 & 13st

Takudzwa Ngwenya (Biarritz Olympique & USA)

Aged 27, 5ft10 & 13st2lbs, 23 caps (45 points)

Joe Rokocoko (Bayonne & New Zealand) *

Aged 29, 6ft2 & 17st2lbs, 68 caps (235 points)

James Hook (Perpignan & Wales)

Aged 27, 6ft & 14st9lbs, 70 caps (346 points)

Nick Evans (Harlequins & New Zealand)

Aged 32, 6ft1, 14st2lbs, 16 caps (103 points)

Kahn Fotuali’i (Ospreys & Samoa)

Aged 30, 6ft, 15st2lbs, 9 caps (20 points)

Elliot Daly (London Wasps & England U20s)

Aged 21, 5ft10 & 14st11lbs

Dwayne Peel (Sale Sharks & Wales)

Aged 31, 5ft10 & 13st10lbs, 76 caps inc. 3 for B&I Lions (25 points)

Timoci Nagusa (Montpellier & Fiji)

Aged 25, 6ft2 & 16st, 11 caps (30 points)

 

Dimitri Yachvili (Biarritz Olympique & France)

Aged 32, 5ft11 & 12st8lbs, 59 caps (357 points)

Can the class of 2013 live up to their predecessor's achievements?

Can the class of 2013 live up to their predecessor’s achievements?

Forwards:

Duncan Jones (Ospreys & Wales) *

Aged 34, 6ft & 17st4lbs, 57 caps

B J Botha (Munster & South Africa) *

Aged 34, 6ft & 18st4lbs, 25 caps (5 points)

Paul James (Bath Rugby & Wales)

Aged 30, 6ft1 & 18st1lb, 45 caps

 

Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester & Italy)

Aged 31, 6ft2 & 18st10lbs, 95 caps (60 points)

Dean Mumm (Exeter Chiefs & Australia)

Aged29, 6ft5 & 17st10lbs, 33 caps (5 points)

Andrea Lo Cicero (Racing Metro & Italy)

Aged 36, 6ft1 & 18st3lbs, 103 caps (40 points)

Matthew Rees (Scarlets & Wales)

Aged 32, 6ft2 & 17st,  61 caps inc. 3 for B&I Lions (10 points)

 

Leonardo Ghiraldini (Benetton Treviso & Italy) *

Aged 28, 6ft1 & 15st7lbs, 53 caps (20 points)

 

Will the Baa Baas be celebrating in Hong Kong?

Will the Baa Baas be celebrating in Hong Kong?

Marco Wentzel (London Wasps & South Africa)

Aged 33, 6ft5 & 18st6lbs, 2 caps

Jim Hamilton (Gloucester Rugby & Scotland) *

Aged 30, 6ft8 & 19st7lbs, 46 caps (5 points)

Samu Manoa (Northampton Saints & USA)

Aged 28, 6ft6 & 19st4lbs, 1 cap

Francois Louw (Bath Rugby & South Africa) *

Aged 27, 6ft2 & 17st9lbs, 17 caps (15 points)

Duncan Jones (L) & Francois Louw (R) return for 2013

Duncan Jones (L) & Francois Louw (R) return for 2013

Sam Jones (London Wasps & England U20s)

Aged 21, 6ft3 & 16st5lbs

 

Alessandro Zanni (Benetton Treviso & Italy)

Aged 29, 6ft3 & 17st4lbs

Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais & Italy) *

Aged 29, 6ft5 & 17st2lbs, 95 caps (53 points)

Imanol Harinordoquy (Biarritz Olympique & France)

Aged 33, 6ft3 & 16st10lbs, 77 caps (65 points)

Schalk Brits (Saracens & South Africa)

Aged 31, 6ft & 15st10lbs, 5 caps

Mike Tindall will be Player/Coach

Mike Tindall will be Player/Coach

Coaches:

David Young (London Wasps & Wales)

Player/Assistant coach:

Mike Tindall (Gloucester Rugby & England) *

Aged 34, 6ft1 & 16st5lbs, 75 caps (74 points)

 

Next stop Twickenham: Battling it out for domestic supremacy

Harlequins are chasing back to back titles

Harlequins are chasing back to back titles

After 22 weeks of battling the elements and each other, the regular season has come to an end.

Some players will depart for tropical climates nursing weary bodies, but others will head to the gym and back onto the training field. From here on in, it is knock-out rugby. The pressure and stakes are being amped up.

The Play-offs:

As usual, the play-offs will be contested by the four powerhouses of Saracens, Leicester Tigers, Harlequins and Northampton Saints. These four have contested the play-offs for three years running.

Semi-Final 1 – Saracens v Northampton:

Saracens have topped the regular table for the first time in their history. Allianz Stadium is an impressive fortress and has imbued the Londoners with a new-found running game. The tries have flowed as Sarries have adjusted to the flawless artificial turf.

They remain unbeaten at their new home. Northampton face a mighty task. While not mission impossible, it’s at best, mission implausible.

With newly anointed British Lions Matt Stevens, Owen Farrell and the super-sized human that is Mako Vunipola, they are playing with supreme confidence. Vunipola was particularly rampant against Bath, mixing destructive trundles with delightful touches and deft offloads. The man mountain can create as well as destroy.

Saracens are undefeated at Allianz Park

Saracens are undefeated at Allianz Park

Northampton are a puzzling outfit. The Saints possess a hatful of internationals and a brutal forward pack. Even with their stable of bruisers, Northampton has not beaten any of the top three sides this season. Dylan Hartley will lead his men into a fourth Premiership semi-final hoping to avoid a fourth consecutive defeat. When coupled with a spellbinding Heineken Cup Final defeat to Leinster in 2011, Saints need to smash their psychological barrier and win some silverware.

On their day, they are capable of ambushing Saracens. But on current form, Saracens will contest the Aviva Premiership Final, chasing their second title in three seasons.

Semi-Final 2 – Leicester v Harlequins:

Leicester are through to a record equalling ninth straight Premiership semi-final. People talk of Manchester United as the barometer of domestic dominance. In rugby, Leicester are the only club which could claim to be of a similar calibre.

Harlequins won at Welford Road earlier in the season, so should travel with confidence. Any team possessing Nick Evans, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Mike Brown, should fear no-one. The Quins have struggled in recent weeks, but were impressive in overcoming Northampton at the weekend.

If Evans can spark their running game , then Harlequins are a formidable outfit. It is a big if because it relies on Quins blitzing the breakdown. When teams stifle Robshaw, counter-ruck regularly and swarm around the fringes, Quins struggle for a front-foot platform.

Stop Nick Evans and you stop Harlequins

Stop Nick Evans and you stop Harlequins

As for the Tigers, when the season moves towards its finale, they come alive. The Tigers bear their claws and start slashing teams to pieces. A shock defeat to Bath aside, in the last month or so, Leicester has been all-conquering.

Both London Irish and Northampton fell beneath the wheels of the Tigers juggernaut and were shredded. No other side in the country can match Leicester’s mental fortitude. When you have a coach such as Richard Cockerill – who could start a fight in an empty room – you know self-doubt and backward steps are not an option.

Do not write this match off as a battle of the conservative, but brutal Tigers, attempting to suffocate Quins’ mercurial backline.

Leicester has a highly capable backline possessing the ability to attack from all points of the compass. Focus on Leicester’s pack and you risk watching the likes of Matthew Tait and Manu Tuilagi, galloping past you for yet another try. With the likes of Julian Salvi, Steve Mafi and Tom Croft, Leicester are ideally placed to harass the breakdown.

If I had to pick a winner, I would plump for the Tigers. Quins have shown too many recent frailties.

Regular Season:

Under the old first past the post system, Saracens would be Premiership champions. Finishing top provides a home semi and is beneficial. It does not guarantee the title.

Can Manu blast Leicester into another final?

Can Manu blast Leicester into another final?

Since the inception of knockout Premiership rugby, seven of the twelve regular season winners have failed to win the play-offs.

Leicester, Bath and Gloucester, have all fallen afoul of this rule. Saracens beware.

The Rest:

At the other end, the condemned London Welsh went down fighting, heaping further misery on Worcester Warriors. Dean Ryan will have a tough job on his hands when he inherits the Warriors in July. Worcester has not won on the road since April 2009! In professional sport, such a record is embarrassingly inadequate. Even the notoriously isolationist North Korean football team, over the same period, has a better away record.

The Championship is more competitive than ever, with Bristol looking particularly strong for next season. London Welsh are not guaranteed to bounce back. Squad retention is integral.

Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester staged a pulsating clash with the Chiefs stealing victory in the dying seconds. It finished 40-39 with the lead changing hands by the minute. This was rugby at its most compelling.

Heineken Cup 2013/2014:

England – Saracens, Leicester, Harlequins, Northampton, Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester qualify for Heineken Cup 2013-2014.

France – Clermont Auvergne, Toulon, Toulouse, Castres, Montpellier and Racing Metro qualify from France. Stade Francais qualify if they win the Amlin Challenge Cup, if they lose 7th placed Perpignan will qualify.

Northampton Saints have secured a spot in Europe next season

Northampton Saints have secured a spot in Europe next season

Round-up:

The British & Irish Lions will open their tour against the Barbarians FC in Hong Kong. The invitational club have assembled an impressive squad:

J Hook, N Evans, S Parisse, L Ghiraldini, I Harinordoquy, M Tindall, K Fotuali’i, P James, D Peel, J Rokocko, T Ngwenya, D Yachvili, J Hamilton, R Varty, S Jones, M Wentzel, M Rees, A Zanni, F Louw, D Jones, M Castrogiovanni and S Manoa.

Saracens pair Joe Maddock and Carlos Nieto, have announced their retirement. Both men join Exeter Chief’s Richie Baxter and Chris Budgen, in heading for a life after rugby. All four have served with distinction throughout their careers.

Bath finally confirmed the signing of young fly-half George Ford from Leicester.  Thus ends a six month ‘will he or won’t he’ transfer saga. George joins his Dad, Mike, one of Bath’s first team coaches in the West Country.

Stuart Lancaster names his England side to tour Uruguay and Argentina on Wednesday. A number of inexperienced players are expected to be called up, including Joel Tomkins, Christian Wade, Will Fraser, Elliot Daly and Kyle Eastmond. There could be as many as 10 uncapped players as Lancaster starts to blood youngsters ahead of RWC 2015. Expect flair and potential. Others tipped to tour are Dave Attwood, Rob Webber, Joe Gray, Jonny May and Billy Vunipola.

RWC 2015 confirmed the tournament venues last week. The iconic Olympic Stadium will host 5 matches alongside 10 at Twickenham. Only two specialist club grounds – Sandy Park and Kingsholm will be used. As reflecting of the vitality of commercialism, the Millennium Stadium will host an eye boggling eight matches. Remember, the bid and branding is for RWC 2015 ENGLAND.

Italian superstar, Sergio Parisse, is one of the confirmed 2013 Barbarians

Italian superstar, Sergio Parisse, is one of the confirmed 2013 Barbarians

The Army marched to victory over the Navy, in front of 73,000 at Twickenham. Despite sailing into a 19 point lead in the opening 17 minutes, the Army hit back through a hat-trick from Bath’s Semesa Rokodugini, to sink their great rivals.

Scott Johnson has been confirmed as Scotland’s Director of Rugby. The search continues. Any appointment will need to be patient to gel with the maverick Australian. After describing New Zealand as a “poxy island in the Pacific”,  Johnson was asked to apologise. He did and said: “Sorry, two poxy islands in the Pacific.”

The 2013 British & Irish Lions Squad to tour Australia – Caps, Facts, Absentees & Figures

British Lions Squad 2013 for three test tour of Australia:  

The baton has been passed on to the 2013 touring party

The baton has been passed on to the 2013 touring party

Front Row – Matt Stevens (Saracens & England), Adam Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Gethin Jenkins (Toulon & Wales), Dan Cole (Leicester & England), Cian Healy (Leinster & Ireland), Mako Vunipola (Saracens & England), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys & Wales), Tom Youngs (Leicester & England), Dylan Hartley (Northampton & England)

Second Row – Paul O’Connell (Munster & Ireland), Geoff Parling (Leicester & England) Alun Wyn-Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Ian Evans (Ospreys & Wales) Richie Grey (Sale Sharks & Scotland)

Flanker– Tom Croft (Leicester & England), Sean O’Brien (Leinster & Ireland) Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues & Wales – CAPTAIN), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys & Wales), Dan Lydiate (Dragons & Wales)

No.8– Toby Faletau (Dragons & Wales) Jamie Heaslip (Leinster & Ireland)

Scrum-Half – Connor Murray (Munster & Ireland), Mike Phillips (Bayonne & Wales), Ben Youngs (Leicester & England)

Fly- Half– Jonny Sexton (Leinster & Ireland) Owen Farrell (Saracens & England)

Centre– Jonathan Davies (Scarlets & Wales), Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster & Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues & Wales) Manu Tuilagi (Leicester & England)

Wing– Tommy Bowe (Ulster & Ireland) Sean Maitland (Glasgow & Scotland), George North (Scarlets & Wales), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues & Wales)

Full-Back– Stuart Hogg (Glasgow & Scotland), Rob Kearney (Leinster & Ireland), Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues & Wales)

Total = 15 Wales, 10 England, 9 Ireland and 3 Scotland.

Warren Gatland will become the second New Zealander (after Graham Henry) to coach the British Lions

Warren Gatland will become the second New Zealander (after Graham Henry) to coach the British Lions

Club Breakdown:

6 = Leicester Tigers/Leinster

5 =  Ospreys

4 = Cardiff Blues

3 = Saracens

2 = Newport-Gwent Dragons, Glasgow Warriors, Llanelli Scarlets, Munster

1 = Toulon, Northampton Saints, Sale Sharks, Bayonne, Ulster

Coaches:

Warren Gatland (Wales), Andy Farrell (England), Neil Jenkins (Wales), Graham Rowntree (England) and Rob Howley (Wales).

Notable Absentees:

Rory Best, Chris Robshaw, Kelly Brown, Jonny Wilkinson, James Hook, Dan Biggar, Stephen Ferris (Injured), Luke Charteris (Injured), Danny Care, Rhys Priestland (Injured), Ryan Jones, Greg Laidlaw, Simon Zebo.

*James Hook is set to line-up for the Barbarians against the British Lions in Hong Kong. Depending upon injuries, Hook could play for and against the Lions this summer.

Facts & Trivia:

Three national captains missed 2009 South Africa Tour. This year Chris Robshaw (England) and Kelly Brown (Scotland) missed the plane. Ryan Jones (Wales) and Rory Best (Ireland) have been national captains in recent years, neither was selected.

Brian O’Driscoll makes his fourth consecutive British Lions tour and is the only party member who toured Australia in 2-1 defeat in 2001. Jonny Wilkinson could theoretically join him if there are injuries.

The squad contains three British & Irish Lions Captains – Sam Warburton (2013), Paul O’Connell (2009) and Brian O’Driscoll (2005).

Warren Gatland is second foreign coach to lead the Lions. Coincidentally, the last man was another Kiwi and former Wales coach, Graham Henry, who coached last Australia Series in 2001.

Thirteen players – Matt Stevens, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Paul O’Connell, Adam Wyn-Jones, Tom Croft, Jamie Heaslip, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny and Mike Phillips, have toured previously.

For the second tour in a row, the Lions have only picked two fly-halves. Utility man James Hook has not made the cut leaving the third ten –in an injury crisis- as Stuart Hogg. A risky strategy.

The squad bolters were – Sean Maitland, Matt Stevens, Mako Vunipola and Dylan Hartley.

Two of the squad play for ‘overseas’ clubs – Mike Phillips and Gethin Jenkins.

Mako Vunipola, Sean Maitland and Tom Youngs, all made their international debuts this season.

On a Lions tour, the sum is greater than the parts

On a Lions tour, the sum is greater than the parts

Into the home stretch: The business end of the season – British Lions & Heineken Cup

British & Irish Lions:

Speculation has pointed to Sam Warburton as the prime candidate to skipper the Lions. If he is named at 11am tomorrow, then in my opinion, this is a mistake.

Warren Gatland will become the second New Zealander (after Graham Henry) to coach the British Lions

Warren Gatland will become the second New Zealander (after Graham Henry) to coach the British Lions

I rate Warburton highly as a player but am not fully convinced of his captaincy abilities. He is still young and transformed his form in the Six Nations, when relieved of the armband. It was labelled a ‘burden’ and a ‘distraction’ by the Welsh coaching staff. There is no bigger burden than captaining the British & Irish Lions.

Warburton can change the course of a match singlehandedly when fully functioning. Let him play and let him zero in on monopolising the breakdown, free from any external burdens. Liam Gill, George Smith and Michael Hooper need to be stopped at source. This is where the series will be won or lost.

Who should lead?

Lions captains are a rare breed. They must be inspirational, defiant, cussed, composed and experienced. Step up Paul O’Connell.

Yes, Martin Johnson was relatively inexperienced in 1997 but he is a unique character.

Selection Clues:

Graham Rowntree, Neil Jenkins and Rob Howley were all at the Leinster v Biarritz match. O’Driscoll, Healy, Kearney and Heaslip look set to tour. Ian Madigan and Billy Twelvetrees have been tipped as bolters for midfield berths.

Who will done the famous jersey and attempt to avenge the 2-1 series defeat in 2001

Who will done the famous jersey and attempt to avenge the 2-1 series defeat in 2001

Warren Gatland and Andy Farrell were at Munster’s match. O’Connell, Zebo, Earls, Murray and D Ryan were all under the microscope.

All three attended Saracens v Toulon. What money on Jonny Wilkinson or Andrew Sheridan still making the plane? Both are physical, experienced and potent.

The squad is announced on Tuesday 30 April at 11am, live on Sky Sports News. The players are not notified in advance, only the captain is contacted.

My guess is 15 Welsh, 10 Irish, 8 English and 4 Scottish. These are me anticipating Gatland’s selection, not what or who I would pick. All hints point to Chris Robshaw missing out to Dan Lydiate, and Connor Murray pipping Danny Care to third scrum-half spot.

My best guess for players who could be bolters – Billy Twelvetrees, Ian Madigan, Sean Maitland, Billy Vunipola, Dan Biggar.

If I had to guess one, it would be Billy Twelvetrees.

Heineken Cup:

Is there a more compelling competition in the world than the Heineken Cup? No other rugby competition can match it for atmosphere, tribal rivalries, drama and earth shattering collisions. It never fails to disappoint.

The Heineken Cup is now on par with test rugby. Of the 60 players who started last weekend, 53 had test match caps. Munster started with 11 test players, Clermont with 14, Saracens with 13 and Toulon had a full-house. Remarkably, Clermont’s line-up boasted 406 caps. England had 290 v Wales in Cardiff.  A random fact, only Clermont did not possess at least one Springbok in their starting line-up. Club rugby is truly global.

The Heineken Cup was compulsive viewing yet again

The Heineken Cup was compulsive viewing yet again

The matches:

Last weekend’s semi-finals were typically combustible. Munster v Clermont was a furious match played out in a bear pit atmosphere in Montpellier. It was Ancient Rome’s Coliseum minus the chariots and hungry tigers. Twickenham was empty due to high and inflexible ERC ticket prices, but the match was compelling.

Saracens v Toulon:

Saracens and Toulon was cagy but contained huge physicality. For all their talk of bulking up, Saracens still came off second best in many collisions. They have improved and posses the longterm ingredients to become an all star outfit.

Jonny Wilkinson:

Jonny Wilkinson was in remarkable form.  Standing flat, using footwork and firing passes he is once more asking questions of defences. His kicking remains inimitable.

On form, he justifies a Lions place. Gatland says he will not pick anybody who cannot take on the Barbarians in Hong Kong. He also says he will only pick two fly halves. This is fine in theory. What happens when one gets injured? Two fly halves is the absolute minimum with a utility back, such as James Hook or Greg Laidlaw, then pivotal.

Toulon will almost certainly be in the French Top 14 Final that weekend. But, if anyone has the nous, intelligence and ability to slot in and rapidly learn plays, then it is Wilkinson. Besides, in theory ‘Gatland’s Law’ would rule out Gethin Jenkins. It won’t.

Like for like, Wilkinson is better than Farrell. Sexton is the standout talent at 10.

Jonny Wilkinson could make a third British Lions tour

Jonny Wilkinson could make a third British Lions tour

One astonishing statistic was Toulon’s victory, was Wilkinson notching his 37th win at Twickenham from 43 matches.

How it was won:

The Londoners were combative and brave but lacked the cutting edge to break Toulon down. Owen Farrell was solid, kicking impressively. Others such as Mako Vunipola and Brad Barrett had deft inputs. Alas, across the field, Saracens were outmuscled.

Men such as Jackson Wray and Steve Borthwick are talented players, but lack the teak tough physiques of a Bakkies Botha or Dannie Roussow. Roussow in particular is terrifyingly dimensioned.

At the scrum, Saracens went too high and were pumped. Andrew Sheridan and Carl Hayman are muscular lighthouses who need to be dragged low in the scrum. Successfully out scrummaging them up high, is mission impossible.

Pick Sheridan and watch the tears flow down under. Superman has kryptonite. The Wallabies have Sheridan. Physicality wins matches. He will give his backline a perfect platform to probe the Wallaby defence.

Clermont v Munster:

Clermont for all their skills and credit crunch defying finances, were pushed remarkably close by a truly gallant Munster effort.  

The Irish province continue to defy belief. They are prodigious in the Heineken Cup. Some say fervent passion in the ‘soil of Munster’ binds them together, while others point to the production line of talented red shirts stepping up into the nation’s green shirts. Either way, Munster went closer than anyone could have predicted. Ronan O’Gara was at the forefront further cementing his legendary reputation in Limerick.

Munster have won two Heineken Cups, been runners up twice and reac

Simon Zebo did not take a backward step

Simon Zebo did not take a backward step

hed six semi-finals.

Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Felix Jones were a mightily impressive back three combination. Physically, they were dwarfed by Clermont’s phenomenal and experienced outside backs. However, the three Irishman produced a magnificent display. Zebo in particular showed he was not intimidated and continually squared up to bewilderingly monstrous specimens who reside in the Clermont pack. It may have looked like a re-enactment of David v Goliath, but Zebo showed he was not to be bullied. The promising young talent became a man.

Nathan Hines:

Nathan Hines deserves a mention in despatches. Like Simon Shaw, Hines is a veteran second row who seems to have been around as long as fire or the wheel. But he is still going because his form is undiminished. Hines was exceptional. He clattered into the contact, won his lineout ball, strained every sinew at the scrum and harassed the Munster players. The titanic creatures which are Paul O’Connell and Donnacha Ryan, were tossed around nonchalantly as Hines went about his business. If I was not mistaken, Hines was whistling and smiling as he did so.

The Scotsman is a marvellous cheat. Be it holding people down after a breakdown, grappling with defenders off the ball, pulling shirts back to slow the defence or physically barging people on the fringes, Hines is masterful. Yes, it is not in the idealistic spirit of rugby but it is mightily effective. All good teams push the boundaries. It is what can make the difference between good and great.  On form, Hines should be a British Lion.

Nathan Hines in full flow for Clermont Auvergne

Nathan Hines in full flow for Clermont Auvergne

News in Brief:

The Championship play-off draw is Bedford v Nottingham and Newcastle v Leeds Carnegie. The matches are played over two legs.

Richard Cockerill described Stephen Donald’s kicking, in his post-match press conference after the Bath match, as: “So crap it’s good! I can’t be the only one surely? It wobbles about so much it is hard to deal with. ”

Wade (Wasps), Qera (Gloucester), Salvi (Leicester), Borthwick (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester) and Care (Quins) have been shortlisted for Aviva Premiership Player of the Year.

Jones (London Welsh), Young (Wasps & Barbarians), Cockerill (Leicester) and McCall have been nominated as Director of Rugby of the Year award.

The Barbarians squad is named Thursday May 2nd for test matches in Hong Kong v British & Irish Lions and England at Twickenham.

Italian superstar, Sergio Parisse, is one of the confirmed 2013 Barbarians

Italian superstar, Sergio Parisse, is one of the confirmed 2013 Barbarians

Lessons from History – World Rugby’s Best & Worst Ever Nations

Philosophy has described history as being “past politics” and a simple chronicling of all previous human interaction. Today’s events are tomorrow’s history.

If this theory was devolved into a sporting context, then current results will be reflected on in the years to come, as defining or characteristic of the present day.

Like it or not, international rugby teams are the current keepers – or defenders – of their nation’s rugby history.

Steve Hansen's All Blacks are rugby's best historic power

Steve Hansen’s All Blacks are rugby’s best historic power

Momentous victories such as England’s over the All Blacks last season, are to be cherished, but cannot eradicate the Kiwi’s traditional monopoly. One sunny day does not herald a heatwave.

So, how do the current generations of international teams compare to their illustrious – or ponderous – history? Who has replaced a samurai attacking game with a butter-knife?

If you’re Scottish, it’s about to get a wee bit gloomy. Irish fans will need a Guinness or two, to wash down the news that they are officially the ‘worst’ of the major nations.

Compiled below, is the entire rugby history of the so-called ‘Big 10’ of the Six Nation and Rugby Championship powers.

The Results:

*A win percentage of 70% or above, is considered exceptional, 60% or above is outstanding, 50% is average, 40% is somewhat remedial, 30% is catastrophic.

1. New Zealand

Played = 513 W386 L107 D20 = W75.2%

For= 13,364 Against= 6,502 Average= 26-13

Fact – Graham Henry stood down with a prodigious record. Henry stormed to 88 wins in 103 tests, at an average of 85.4%. The All Blacks have won a record 11 Tri Nations/Rugby Championships.

The All Blacks remain the benchmark of success

The All Blacks remain the benchmark of success

2. South Africa

Played = 419 W262 L136 D21 = W63%

For= 9,435 Against= 6,463 Average= 23-15

Fact – The Springboks have played less matches than the established powers because of their apartheid era exile. Along with New Zealand and Australia, they have won two Rugby World Cup titles (1995 and 2007).  They have won 3 of the 17 Tri Nations/Rugby Championships they have contested.

The Springboks have been successful since returning to international competition

The Springboks have been successful since returning to international competition

3. Argentina

Played= 332 W186 L129 D7 = W58%

For= 9,978 Against= 6,369 Average = 31-20

Fact- Argentina only joined the Rugby Championship last season. A large proportion of their matches have been played against fellow South America outfits, hence their impressive attacking record. This includes a 152-0 defeat of Paraguay. In rugby terms, it was the equivalent of clubbing seals. The Argentine rugby emblem is a jaguar, but a South African journalist wrongly identified it as a puma. The nickname has stuck ever since.

4. France

Played= 696 W388 L276 D32 = W58%

For= 12,836 Against= 10,114 Average = 18-15

Fact – Yes, they are known for being consistently erratic, veering from beauty to the beast in the space of a week. However, Les Bleus have had enough gumption to secure three World Cup Finals (1987, 1999, 2011) and 17 Six Nations titles (9 Grand Slams).

5. England

Played= 673 W359 L264 D50 W53%

For= 11,096 Against= 8,479 Average = 17-13

Fact – The only Northern Hemisphere outfit to have won a World Cup (2003) and reached two finals (1991 and 2007), but glorious periods have been accompanied by baffling droughts. Lowlights include a 76-0 thrashing at the hands of the Wallabies in 1998. They share the title of best defence with New Zealand (13 points per game)

England have appeared in three World Cup Finals, winning in 2003

England have appeared in three World Cup Finals, winning in 2003

6. Australia

Played= 531 W281 L234 D16 W53%

For= 11,153 Against= 8,702 Average = 21-16

Fact- The first team to win two World Cups (1991 and 1999), but possess a soft underbelly of inadequate scrummaging. Three words normally terrify men – “ I Love You” – but for Aussie men it is two – “Andrew Sheridan.”

7. Wales

Played= 656 W337 L291 D28 W51%

For= 10,961 Against= 9,722 Average = 17-15

Fact – Enjoying their best period since the glory years of the 1970s, winning four Six Nation titles in eight years (3 Grand Slams). Appeared in several World Cup Semi-Finals, providing two of last four British & Irish Lions’ coaches.   Current All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen, oversaw a record 11 straight defeats before beating Romania in 2003.

8. Italy

Played = 376 W165 L201 D10 W44%

For= 6,814 Against= 8,048 Average = 18-21

Fact –The Azzurri have beaten every Six Nations team except England. Defending champions Scotland, were stunned in a 34-20 defeat when Italy made their Six Nations debut in 2000.

The Pumas have replicated Italy and joined the top tier of world rugby

The Pumas have replicated Italy and joined the top tier of world rugby

9. Scotland

Played = 633 W265 L335 D33 W42%

For=8,541 Against=9,289 Average = 13-15

Fact – Reached the Semi-Finals of the 1991 World Cup before finishing fourth. The Scots defeated England 1-0 in the first ever rugby international match in 1871 and won the last ever Five Nations Championship. Finished with the Five/Six Nations Wooden Spoon 32 times.

10. Ireland

Played= 628 W263 L335 D30 W42%

For= 8,675 Against= 8,915 Average= 13-14

Fact – Ireland have the dubious honour of winning the most – 36 – Wooden Spoons. Their record defeat came last year, as they were drubbed 60-0 by New Zealand. They have reached five World Cup Quarter Finals and notched 11 Five/Six Nations titles. Provided the last two British & Irish Lions Captains.

Conclusion:

History is a useful indicator of trends but is by no means the only determining factor of the present day. Ireland are vastly better now than ever before, while Australia are sixth but have won two World Cups.

One crumb of comfort is the fact New Zealand are performing well above their ‘usual’ win rate of 75%. Steve Hansen’s men are bulldozing their way across the globe winning 86% of their matches.

Recent Irish sides have been vastly superior to their historic record

Recent Irish sides have been vastly superior to their historic record

The British Foreign Legion: British & Irish Rugby Abroad

Lee Byrne toured with the 2009 Lions and is in sparkling form for Clermont

Lee Byrne toured with the 2009 Lions and is in sparkling form for Clermont

British & Irish Lions tours are always magnificent spectacles, blending rugby tradition with the rampant athleticism of the modern era.

Warren Gatland and his brains trust of esteemed coaches, have been casting an eye over the contenders for months.

While pundits scour the British Isles for men worthy of donning the famous red jersey, there are a significant number of ex-pats plying their trade on foreign shores. British ex-pats do not just wear football shirts, drink beer and blister in the midday Iberian heat.

These are not callow or spotty youngsters, but are professionals of proven ability. Some are glittering examples of hardened test match veterans.

But, could the va va voom of rugby’s foreign legion, compete with the va va boom of the British & Irish Lions?

England does not select from south of the English Channel, nor are the Lions likely to select more than a handful. This is the alternative British & Irish Lions squad.

The Squad:

I freely admit this is not the most balanced 33 man squad. Some positions are overflowing with talent, while others have less depth than the average X-Factor audition.

To ease a considerable selection headache, I have shuffled some players into their second favoured position. Wing and Full Back will be interchangeable. It may not work but this is the beauty of hypothetical selection.

Nathan Hines has earned a tough reputation in France

Nathan Hines has earned a tough reputation in France

Hooker is the biggest concern. The British Foreign Legion is one sin-bin away from calamity. They can circle the wagons all they like, but one remotely adequate shove – which even the balsa wood battlers of the Wallaby front row could produce – and it is curtains.

I am not seriously suggesting every one of these players should tour Australia. A large amount of these players are past their prime and/or have never been of the required calibre.

It is a mere representation of the biggest export of British muscle since the D-Day landings.

Props:

Andrew Sheridan (Toulon) Gethin Jenkins (Toulon) Ben Broster (Biarritz) Pat Barnard (Brive – English Qualified)

Hookers:

Huw Bennett (Lyon)

Locks:

Luke Charteris (Perpignan) Nathan Hines (Clermont Auvergne) Nick Kennedy (Toulon) Simon Shaw (Toulon)

Flankers:

Steffan Armitage (Toulon) Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan) Magnus Lund (Biarritz)

Number 8:

Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier) Luke Narraway (Perpignan) Gareth Delve (Melbourne Rebels)

Scrum Half:

Mike Phillips (Bayonne) Mike Blair (Brive)

Fly Half:

Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon) Olly Barkley (Racing Metro) Dave Walder (Mitsubishi Dynaboars)

Centre:

James Hook (Perpignan) Shontayne Hape (Montepellier) Jamie Noon (Brive) Riki Flutey (Ricoh Black Rams) Jamie Robinson (Agen)

Wing:

Shane Williams (Mitsubishi Dynaboars) Max Evans (Castres – also centre) Paul Sackey (Stade Francais) Aled Brew (Biarritz) Marcel Garvey (Castres)

Full Back:

Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne) Delon Armitage (Toulon) Iain Balshaw (Biarritz)

Jonny Wilkinson is a legend at Toulon

Jonny Wilkinson is a legend at Toulon

Test Match XV:

Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Huw Bennett (Wales), Andrew Sheridan (England)

Nathan Hines (Scotland), Luke Charteris (Wales)

Alasdair Strokosch (Scotland) Steffan Armitage (England)

Johnnie Beattie (Scotland)

Mike Phillips (Wales)

Jonny Wilkinson (England)

James Hook (Wales) Max Evans (Scotland)

Delon Armitage (England) Shane Williams (Wales)

Lee Byrne (Wales)

On paper, this is a powerful pack with a surprising amount of cutting edge out wide. A handful of the above squad could – perhaps should – be selected for the British & Irish Lions proper.

Warren Gatland can definitely afford the full Sky, ESPN and Eurosport television package, so let’s hope he has been watching this lot from the comfort of his sitting room. Unlike BBC’s The Voice, this is one talent competition where appearance and visuals are everything.

Delon Armitage in action for Toulon

Delon Armitage in action for Toulon

While Jenkins is returning next season, more world class talent looks set to leave Britain and Ireland.

Jonny Sexton, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate, are confirmed departures. Stephen Ferris is rumoured to be packing for Japan.

The one point worth highlighting is the lack of Irish players plying their trade away from the Emerald Isle.

Every member of the current Irish squad plays in Ireland. Tommy Bowe has returned home to Ulster from the Ospreys and Geordan Murphy has retired. Next season there could be two in Ferris and Sexton.

Global Rugby Round-up:

Jerome Fillol has been banned for 14 weeks for spitting at Peter Stringer. The veteran Stade Francais scrum-half showed enough ‘remorse’ to escape a longer ban. In my opinion, they should have thrown the book at him, literally and metaphorically. Such behaviour would be frowned upon in the animal kingdom, let alone in rugby.

Sale Sharks shocked Gloucester with a powerful display on Friday night. Their victory has pushed London Welsh through the trapdoor and back to Championship rugby. It has been a miracle the unofficial fifth Welsh region have lasted this long. Playing with courage and commitment, they defied early season predictions of a gruesome premiership death, before the tinsel had been packed away.

Harlequins are investigating their fans after many fans sold their seats to visiting Munster fans. The Twickenham Stoop was awash with a disproportionate number of Munster supporters. Tensions between club and fan are high.

Ryan Crotty tackled a rogue pitch invader

Ryan Crotty tackled a rogue pitch invader

A number of French internationals from the 1970/80s, have confessed to doping. Former international and coach, John Baptiste-Elissalde, said: “Amphetamines were widely taken. I personally took them twice.” The stain of pharmaceutical cheating has worryingly washed up on rugby’s shores.

The normally calm, composed and reserved Richard Cockerill, has slammed European officials for not banning Bakkies Botha. Cockerill was livid Marcos Ayerza suffered a broken collar-bone, halting a typically rampaging charge from the cavernous Springbok. It was the angriest anti-EU rant since UKIP’s party conference.

Richie McCaw has decided to miss the entire Super 15 season. The original plan had been to partake in the last round or two for the Crusaders. McCaw’s preference is to turn out in mid-July/August for his local Christchurch club side. Top premier club rugby matches in New Zealand, are of a similar standard to the Championship or Aviva Premiership ‘A’ League in England.

Wallabies coach, Robbie Deans, has taken a brave step and excluded Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper from his early-season squad for the Lions tour. In a U-turn most politicians would be proud of, Deans then said he could add the mercurial duo at a later date. Frankly, it seems Deans does not know whether he is coming or going. Probably be going. Definitely going if the Lions win.

The Welsh Rugby Union and the four regions continue to air their laundry in public. George North’s transfer to Northampton Saints sparked the war of words, which has shown little signing of abating. Neither side has looked particularly sophisticated, as they have bickered like two eight year-olds in a playground.

Stephen Ferris is not re-signing with Ulster and the Irish Rugby Union. Ulster has given up hope of retaining the impressive international. Ferris is rumoured to be considering an offer in Japan, with France as his second preference.

Western Force stunned the formidable Crusaders in Perth, winning 16-14. The match was overshadowed by multiple pitch invasions involving a total of six men. Crusaders player Ryan Crotty dump tackled one invader, while scrum coach Dave Hewett manhandled another. The first interruption came as the Crusaders had won a pivotal turnover and were racing upfield with a 5 v 2 overlap. Play was halted and the chance was gone.

David Strettle's Saracens held a minutes silence for Margaret Thatcher

David Strettle’s Saracens held a minutes silence for Margaret Thatcher

Exeter Chiefs and Saracens held a minutes silence for Margaret Thatcher before their Aviva Premiership matches.

England Watch:

Dave Attwood was outstanding yet again for Bath v Harlequins. He plays like a young Simon Shaw, allying bristling physicality with a lung-bursting workrate. England desperately need a physical enforcer. Attwood is the best candidate. An absolute must for the Argentina tour this summer.

The powerful Dave Attwood

The powerful Dave Attwood

Other young or uncapped players who must tour:

Henry Thomas (Sale), Will Fraser (Saracens) Kyle Eastmond (Bath) Jonny May (Gloucester) Matt Kvesic (Worcester) Christian Wade (London Wasps)

Yes, they are young and unproven but this is the whole point. Youth needs a chance and should be pitched into the heat of test rugby alongside some experienced heads.

I am not advocating empty the nation’s nurseries of ‘big’ kids and sacrificing them a la Matthew Tait or Anthony Allen, but manufacturing a development pathway for Premiership’s brightest talents. The days of Aztec-like sacrifices of rugby’s young ‘lambs’ must end. One-test wonders must be consigned to history.

Time, progressive experience and development go hand in hand. Shock horror, a coach may have to play a hands on role in improving a player’s weaknesses and maximising their strengths.

%d bloggers like this: