8 Jul 2013

International rugby : the lion roars, finally

The British (and Irish) Lions Rugby Union tour of a southern hemisphere country takes place every 4 years and constitutes the only occasion for the four nations that make up the British Isles (England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) to play rugby together against a common opponent. Usually they are opposed to one another, and annually so in the (now) 6 nations tournament, which has seen the successive addditions to the elite European rugby-playing nations' club of France (1910 to 1931 and then again after the second world war) and finally of Italy in 2000, since the British Isles countries first started playing rugby against each other in 1882.



It is perhaps one of rugby's most striking and endearing features that enemies on the field of what is, after all, a fairly violent combat sport, can become friends off the field, and even join forces to defeat a common opponent. The Lions is the name given to this shared team that only exists every 4 years, and so is necessarily short of the shared reflexes and experience that is one of the ingredients of a successful rugby team. We should remember that, however much individual brilliance is necessary and admirable on  a rugby field, it is above all a very collective sport, in which discipline, solidarity and anticipation of what another player is about to do are all-important.




The 2013 Lions team have just defeated Australia, in Australia and in a three match series, narrowly winning their first test match 23-21, narrowly losing the second one 15-16, and comprehensively winning the third and decisive game, played in Sydney on July 6th in front of a crowd of some 83,000 spectators, by a resounding 41-16. As many commentators have underlined, this is the first Lions series victory since the team of that time, under the captaincy of Martin Johnson, defeated South Africa (2 games to 1) in 1997.

Mike Philips, the Welsh scrum-half, congratulates Alex Corbisiero, the English prop forward, on the latter's try in the opening minutes of the 3rd test. So the Welsh don't always deem the English to be their worst enemies after all!

So what are, or have been in this instance, the key factors in making this tour a sporting success for the Lions? One has to start with the cohesion somehow found between the top players who, for the most part, had little or no experience of playing together before this tour and its fairly short period of preparation. Which preparation was truncated even further by a cascade of injuries to key playrs during the intital phases, and causing changes in captaincies as well as in key positions. But in fact this handicap factor was intelligently reduced by the head coach, the New-Zealander Warren Gatland, by his selection of a majority of Welsh players (10 out of 15 for the opening team in the final game) in his squad. Why so many Welsh players ? Two reasons: one, the Welsh have regularly been the best European team over the past few years, and, two, Gatland has been their coach so they know each other well. Naturally this has annoyed commentators from the other three countries involved, but it has to be said that he has proved his point by the results, and particularly the very convincing domination handed out by the Lions team in the 3rd game.


Warren Gatland (foreground), the British Lions coach is congratulated by Robbie Deans, the coach of the Australian team, after the last game in the series.  It should be noted that both coaches are from New Zealand, rugby's undisputed top nation. Also that Robbie Deans has already been fired by the Australian rugby board, paying the price for this defeat.


Amongst the handicaps that were overcome by this mixed team has been a string of injuries to key players. Paul O'connell, the Irish lock forward in the first test, Warburton the Welsh flanker and captain in the second test, and so on. Jamie Roberts, the powerhouse Welsh centre back who missed the first 2 tests, and so on. And the coach added his own share of controversial surprises, particularly that of dropping Brian O'Driscoll, the Irish star player, for the third and decisive game, preferring the Welsh pair of Davies and Roberts in the centre slots of the backs. 

The two Welsh captains, Sam Warburton (left) and Alun Wynn Jones, with the trophy after Saturday's game


Other explanatory factors? Well the old adage that says "no scrum no win" was totally validated in this third test match. The Wallabies were comprehensively dominated in this key sector of the game, the French referee awarding penalty after penalty to the Lions on account of the Australians' repeated failures to resist in the scrums. And at least one of the 4 tries scored by the British team resulted directly from a scrum. Given that southern hemisphere nations tend to place less emphasis on this aspect of the game, and hence their referees to be less attentive to the rules that govern it, one could imagine that the first two tests, which were refereed by men from New Zealand and South Africa, could have had a somewhat different configuration had they been refereed by the Frenchman, Romain Poite, but of course that is pure speculation. So my choice for the star players could well be shared by all the Lions' scrum members.

One picture cannot tell the tale of an 80 minute-long battle, but this collapsed scrum is a symbol of the Wallabies' defeat in the third test.

In a collective game such as rugby, I am always reticent to single out individual players, but several stood out, for their spectacular and decisive actions at key moments in the games, or for their regularity in their respective positions and roles. And my man of the series would have to be the diminutive (it is untrue to say that all rugby players are now giants) Welsh full-back, Leigh Halfpenny. With his extremely precise goal kicking from all parts of the field (I believe that he finished the tour with a success rate in the region of 90%), he scored 49 points in the three tests and 21 alone in the final one. One could add "no kick, no win" to the scrum adage. The Australians lost the first test essentially because their best goal kicker was injured in the opening minutes of the game, and one of the reasons for their narrow victory in the second game was his return. But Halfpenny was also decisive in his field play, making two of the Lions's tries in the third test. He proved his worth equally by good positioning, defeating opponents ball in hand, and making the right pass at the right moment. 


Lions' full-back Leigh Halfpenny kicks for goal, with impressive statistics of a 90% success rate on the tour


For Australia, the revelation of the series has to be the very tall, strong and surprisingly  nimble winger, Israel Folau, who went over twice in the first test (see first photo below). He was regularly impressive ball in hand, despite the moment when his vis-à-vis, the equally huge Welsh winger, George North, picked the big man up and carried him a few yards on his shoulder following a tackle (second photo below). 




Given that North also scored key tries (1st and 3rd tests), he also figures as one of the "stars" of the Lions team, regularly focusing much attention on the part of defenders and hence creating gaps for his colleagues, even when he himself was unable to break through the usually hermetic Australian defense.


North scoring his try in the first test. He flew over with another one that was rightly  not allowed for a foot in touch just before



 Daniel Craig with the Irish fly-half Jonathan Sexton after the final victory. So James Bond did it again? And where was Moneypenny?

What else? Well, apart from some excellent rugby and two very tense games that could have gone either way, we saw movie stars enjoing the final game and an amazing 30 to 40 thousand Lions supporters making the long trip down under at huge cost to themselves and making the whole thing look like a giant party (which it surely wasn't on the field!)


It can  look likewarfare on the field, but rugby fans, unlike many of their soccer counterparts, have a good time together (and long may this spirit reign!). The beer bills must have been remarkable too.