Much has been made of the fact that the Welsh team have supplied the head coach, two of the other four coaches, the captain and fifteen players for the 2013 British & Irish Lions. Many think that means the Lions will play like Wales with other players added to the team having to adopt a Welsh style of play.
There is also a view that the ‘Welsh’ style of play is conservative, direct in attack and is built around crashing the ball up into the teeth of the defence before kicking for field position. As I’ll show you over the next couple of weeks this is not really the case with Wales and won’t be the case with the Lions.
The 2009 Lions that toured South Africa were also very ‘Welsh’ – four of the six coaches were from the Welsh team and there were twelve Welsh players in the squad at the start of the tour. With four of the coaches from 2009 returning together with twelve players I expect that the experience the returning coaches and players gained on that 2009 tour will play a bigger role in shaping the 2013 Lions than the fact that there is a large contingent from the Welsh team involved again.
As you’ll see over the course of this series I expect that eleven of the twelve players returning from 2009 will be in the Lions 23 man squad for the first test in Brisbane, barring injury in the lead up matches of course. Warren Gatland will want as much experience as he can get in his team just as Robbie Deans has gone for experience in his initial squad.
I expect that 10 of the 23 will be Welsh so whilst there will be a strong Welsh element we can also learn a lot about how the 2013 Lions will play and their mix of selections from what happened on the 2009 tour. Whilst the Lions went down 2-1 in that series, the first two tests won by South Africa could easily have gone the other way and the Lions played some really good rugby.
In this five part series over the next two weeks I’ll work through my expected Lions selections for the first test, what that means for the Lions playing style, the Lions threats and how the Wallabies might counter those. Hopefully this gives you an idea of who the Lions are and what to expect from them. I’ll also give you my predictions of the first test teams for both the Lions and the Wallabies.
Lions Front Row And Scrum
The Lions will see the scrum as a real opportunity to dominate the Wallabies. The Welsh scrum got the better of the Wallaby scrum last year and the Lions scrum will be stronger again than Wales were. The Lions know from their 2009 experience how critical this area can be in shaping the outcome of a game.
In the first test of the 2009 tour the Lions started with Gethin Jenkins (Wales) at loosehead with the English pair of Lee Mears at hooker and Phil Vickery at tighthead. The Lions scrum was completely dominated with Vickery in particular being slaughtered by Beast Mtawarira. Having a small hooker in Mears didn’t help.
With South Africa in control of the scrum they had a mountain of possession and controlled the first half. Early in the second half the Lions brought the Welsh pair of Adam Jones and Matthew Rees on to replace Vickery and Mears with immediate effect – the Lions actually started to dominate the scrums which established a platform for the rest of the team and it was truly a match of two halves with the Lions playing really well in the second half.
In the second test that all Welsh front row of Jenkins, Rees and Jones started the match and again set a great platform which the Lions capitalised on. In fact it was only when Jenkins and Jones went off injured that the Boks got back into the match. Jamie Roberts (Wales) and Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland) went off around the same time but more on that next week.
The leading candidates for tighthead on this tour will be Jones and Dan Cole (England) – Cole offers a lot more than Jones around the field but I think the experience and scrummaging expertise of Jones will get him the nod with Cole on the bench – the Lions coaches will not forget the impact Jones made on the 2009 tour or the fact that he always seems to trouble Benn Robinson whereas Robinson handles Cole reasonably well. If you focus on Jones being 33, his non-athletic appearance, his lack of speed and contribution around the field, you’re focussing on the wrong things – he will be picked for his scrummaging, not contributions around the field – a very different approach to what we see with the Wallabies.
I think the choice for hooker will be between Richard Hibbard (Wales) and Dylan Hartley (England). The third hooker in the squad, Tom Youngs (England), is small and relatively inexperienced as a scrummager – he has only played nine tests. I was amazed that Rory Best (Ireland) was not included in the touring party but his exclusion is good news for the Wallabies.
Hibbard made his debut for Wales in 2006 but has only earned 23 caps since then, with only nine starts – he cemented the Wesh starting spot in 2013 with some solid performances. Hartley is the most experienced hooker in the squad having played 47 tests, 28 of which were starts but his form hasn’t been great and he was surpassed by Youngs this year as the starting hooker for England.
Hibbard is the better scrummager whilst I think Hartley is the better lineout thrower. I expect Hibbard’s combination with Jones and his strength around the field will count for him and that he will start with Hartley on the bench. We didn’t get to see much of Hibbard when Wales played the Wallabies in 2012 so don’t judge him purely on his performance off the bench in the second test last year.
At loosehead I think the choice will be between Jenkins and Cian Healy (Ireland). The coaches may be tempted to go with the all Welsh front row of Jenkins, Hibbard and Jones to start but I think they will eventually go with Healy at loosehead because he has a good track record of dominating Wallaby tightheads when playing for Ireland. He contributes a lot around the field, has been in good form and will be a real threat to the Wallabies.
So, my tips for the Lions front row are:
1. Cian Healy
2. Richard Hibbard
3. Adam Jones
16. Dylan Hartley
17. Gethin Jenkins
18. Dan Cole
Watch the video below to see some examples of what we can expect from the Lions front row, which will help establish what the Wallabies need to do to counter the threat from the Lions, which I’ll cover on page 2.