This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with all the international action, the touring Lions and a word on artificial pitches…
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with all the international action and a word on artificial pitches…
Just one week ago, the Lions had been mildly destabilized by a couple of unfortunate injuries. Now they look ravaged. The tour will roll relentlessly on for now, but in the wake of it there will surely be another colourful debate over the sheer amount of rugby these fellows have to play.
When Shane Williams' name cropped up on the teamlists we were as surprised as any, but in retrospect this may be a masterstroke. After all, with more and more players walking gingerly around the sidelines and many of the squad replacements still in their Test nappies, Williams will bring some sorely-needed experience and leadership to those whose leaders are physically falling apart around them. Don't be surprised if there are a couple more old heads called on in the next couple of weeks.
The Test team is now looking set (even Gatland said those starting on Tuesday were unlikely to start the first Test), with experience certainly ruling. Tom Croft's resurgence has become critical to the side as well as making him an early candidate for player of the tour. Jamie Heaslip appears to have won the tightest of battles with Toby Faletau. Sam Warburton has survived his slightly less than stellar form. Alun-Wyn Jones and Paul O'Connell is a combination unchanged from four years ago, while behind the pack Mike Phillips and Brian O'Driscoll are leading the line.
And injuries or not, the Lions are playing some damned good rugby. Saturday's blitz of the Waratahs was the performance of a team quite clear on what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. You can bemoan the weakness of the opposition all you like, but there was a significant gulf in class which showed the Lions were not going to be dragged down a notch by that.
This tour remains the best chance by far the Lions have had of coming away with a Test series victory for the first time since 1997. The kickers are kicking, the game-plan is working, the squad seems happy despite the misfortune. Saturday is going to be fantastic!
Meanwhile in Wales…
There are losses with weaker teams which are tolerable, there are losses with weaker teams which should not be. Sadly, the defeat by Japan at the weekend falls into the latter category for Wales.
There have been all sorts of public recriminations of the Welsh passionate sort, including a superb one from JJ Williams who said “It's … arrogance to take such a weak side out there,” and backed that up about five minutes of the same interview later with: “…we want a bit more than that because it's only Japan, after all.”
Ultimately though, the nail was hit on the head with Williams pointing to the omissions of older heads from the touring party – James Hook, Ryan Jones, Matthew Rees are obvious names – as a good part of the reason Wales came up short.
Fact is, young players going through the ranks need to be mixing with such old heads for the fortnight away, to be able to learn not only from their peers, but also how to deal with tour pressures, homesickness, little arguments, things like that. The coaches will set up a regime, but it's the old heads in the team who act as filters in that regime, who understand best how to be taken and coached on tour.
Saturday's Welsh performance bore the hallmarks of a team well-regimented but fearful of mistakes, of trying to take or create opportunities, without anybody on the pitch displaying the experience to say 'sod the gameplan, let's see what else works for a couple of moments.' The failure to take the older heads was a missed opportunity.
Other Test match reviews:
New Zealand: Better. Two of the finest counter-attacking tries you could wish for
France: Significantly worse. Tired too.
South Africa: We wondered if the win last week against a tired and uninspired Italy was a false dawn. So it may have proved. So much talent wasted in that team by the uninspiring gameplan. It will not bring home the Rugby Championship.
Scotland: 12 first-team players missing and they still could have won. Excellent display.
Samoa: Much better.
Italy: Need a holiday.
England: Come forth the new generation
Argentina: Worryingly weak, regardless of who is missing and who not.
Tonga: Better when they concentrate on rugby
USA: Need a win soon – being gallant losers can only be acceptable so long.
Ireland: Less than perfect, but an improvement on last week.
Canada: Valiant yet outclassed, but a good blend of youth and the flashes of talent over the past couple of weeks bode well for that to come.
Cardiff have become the second team after Saracens to give the green light to artificial pitches this week, giving the very viable reason that at the Arms Park the drainage is awful. As a result, you have any number of games turning into a mudslog.
When we think of the number of arenas around that could be improved like this… you can probably add Leicester, Gloucester, definitely Bath, a couple of the other Welsh regions… in fact, most of the rugby-only grounds around could have their playability prospects significantly improved with a surface that never mulches up.
We might have been against this before, but having experienced both in America and New Zealand – where several high schools are now reaping the benefits of dry tracks on wet days – how good the best artificial turfs are in terms of real feel and that lack of feeling skinned after one tumble, we are now on the fence.
The weather and pitch have always been such factors in rugby, such huge influences on tactics. It does seem a shame to take that aspect away, somehow it flaws the integrity slightly.
But we will get to see better games of rugby. It's not the wind or the rain that have been turned off either, so the challenges still remain. We're excited to see how this goes…
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson