Lions Watch: What did we learn from the weekend?

Not to entrust the line-out to Ireland

With the stats pointing to Ireland having won 12 out of their 14 line-outs, those who didn’t watch the game would be forgiven for thinking that the men in green had relative dominance on their own throw and that Rory Best throwing was integral to Ireland’s improved second-half performance. Wrong. Best has been widely applauded for his recent captaincy of Ireland, particularly in the historic win over the All Blacks last year, but his throwing ability has often been called into question in contrast to his strong scrummaging and work in the loose. He is too easy to read at times whilst throwing in, and this points to a wider lethargy regarding Ireland’s work at the line-out, with Alex Dunbar’s try its most damning result. It is understandable that a team at the beginning of the tournament won’t be fully up to match speed, but that not a single Irish forward either read the call or could react quickly enough in its aftermath demonstrates worrying complacency that Warren Gatland could do without. Let us be under no illusions, the All Blacks have two of the world’s best line-out jumpers in Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock and won’t give second chances.

Not to leave the Scots in charge of the Scrum

Despite producing a brilliant performance to overhaul Ireland at Murrayfield on Saturday, Vern Cotter will be concerned about his team’s lack of control at the scrum, particularly in the first half where Scotland’s tries came from expansive open-field moves or innovative solutions at the line-out. Against New Zealand in the summer, not having the platform to play off the back of a scrum will have a devastating impact upon the Lions’ chances of success, because the All Blacks will not succumb so easily to attacking pressure with ball in hand, and having used the Alex Dunbar tactic to effect in years past, will not be so lax from set plays. Concerns also exist over the personnel employed by Scotland for this purpose; the Gray brothers, all aggression in the tackle and endeavour looked decidedly second-best when packing down whilst the loss of W.P. Nel to injury was sorely felt. Against France next week, the Scotland scrum will once again be tested, and they will not get the luxury of easy tries again if they are overcome by the French vanguard.

The importance of substitutions

A point most clearly demonstrated by Eddie Jones with England who used his substitutes to great effect as England wrested victory from France’s grasp at Twickenham on Saturday. Losing 12-16 into the final quarter of the match, Jones altered the balance of his team by replacing six players in a 15 minute spell, with Danny Care, Jack Nowell and Ben Teo’o looking particularly impressive. Indeed, all three of these players had a role in Teo’o’s match winning try with Nowell making the initial break and Care marshalling England’s misfiring backs. It was not simply who Jones brought on, but also the time at which he did so that made a difference. With Captain Dylan Hartley off the pace, Jones had no compunction in replacing him with Jamie George on 54 minutes, a move that secured England’s line-out. As Haskell, Mullan et al. were brought on between the 60th and 70th minute mark, the French defense, intrepid, but bound by large bodies, began to tire and it was at that stage that England’s experience began to tell. Gatland would do well to take note of a team who played within themselves, but never lost their composure and achieved victory in the ugliest sense possible.

80 Minute performances

None of the games this weekend heralded a complete 80-minute performance from any of the competing teams, with Scotland, having had a barnstorming opening 40 being particularly guilty in letting a 21-8 lead slip, only to recover to win 27-22. Neither England or Ireland played anywhere near their potential over the full 80 and Wales didn’t have to, Conor O’Shea’s vaunted Italy side succumbing to old habits as the game went on. In England’s favour, Eddie Jones’ team never threw in the towel and we never far enough out of touch to give the French confidence of winning, although a performance like that in red shirts will be savagely punished by Steve Hansen’s men. For Ireland, especially, next week’s game in Rome has to be a statement from Joe Schmidt’s men. Even with the Grand Slam gone, the Emerald Isle will be expectant of a bonus-point victory over the Azzurri. On a personal note, Scotland’s Stuart Hogg and the Welsh back-row came closest to 80 minute performances this week, as illustrated by their inclusion in many media outlet’s teams of the week.

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