Lions Watch Round 4: What did we learn from the penultimate weekend?

Irish lineout fails again

This is an area I commented on in a previous post, but as it doesn’t seem to have been resolved by Joe Schmidt and his staff, and had a major impact upon Friday night’s game against Wales, it’s worth another look. There is no question that Ireland have a strong pack of forwards; I still believe that O’Brien, Heaslip and Stander have a very good chance of making Gatland’s squad. But neither of those three are specialist line-out forwards in the way that Joe Launchbury or Maro Itoje are and they can do other things too. What Ireland suffers from is a lack of variety at the line-out with Rory Best being too easy to read and losing confidence once a couple have gone astray. In total, Ireland lost three of thirteen lineouts during the game compared to Wales’ 100% success rate. It is only since Paul O’Connell retired and England came to prominence with world-class second row options that it has become clear how crucial the second-row position is to a team as a whole. Ireland currently lack world-class operators in that area and will be vulnerable until it is rectified.

Scots defensive frailties 

For a team who have performed to a far higher standard in this Six Nations than in any other in living memory, Scotland should launch in inquest into how they were demolished quite so comprehensively at Twickenham on Saturday. Having beaten Ireland and Wales in this championship, Scotland have proved they can defend on their day, Alex Dunbar having gained many plaudits along with Hamish Watson, John Barclay and the Gray brothers. But yesterday, it all fell apart in spectacular style. Yes, Scotland were extremely unfortunate with injuries, losing Stuart Hogg and Mark Bennett early on, but all players are taught how to tackle, regardless of whether they are playing in their correct position or not. However, it wasn’t merely, or even largely, tackle technique that led to Scotland’s downfall, but their lack of defensive organisation. There simply appeared to be no leaders in the Scottish defensive line with Dunbar and Russell (twice) failing with try-saving tackles. It didn’t help that Scotland were unable to slow England’s ball to anything less than a stampede but that they didn’t adjust in game suggests that fundamental flaws exist within their defensive system.

England should have the largest contingent

Warren Gatland is the Wales coach, and it would not be a surprise to see a healthy Welsh contingent in the Lions squad when it is announced, on the back of his intimate knowledge of those players. However, Welsh performances, like those of Ireland and Scotland have been hit and miss in this tournament and in previous international windows. During this time, England have proved themselves to be the best Northern Hemisphere team by some distance, having an unbeaten record stretching back to 2015 and having beaten all Six Nations teams, save Ireland, at least twice since then. Players for the tour should not be selected on nationality, but it is clear for all the plaudits attached to the Scottish attack, the Irish pack and the Welsh half-backs that England should provide the bulk of those making the long journey to the other side of the world. Many of those players who were on the edge of selection before the tournament began, but were likely to be overlooked – Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Jonathan Joseph, Joe Marler, George Ford et al. have all proved themselves worthy.

Wingers who can’t defend

This is a big issue for Gatland, particularly considering that New Zealand have world class wingers in Nehe Milner-Skudder, Israel Dagg and Julian Savea, with the latter particularly lethal due to his uncompromising physique and speed. For wingers who cannot defend, New Zealand is the last place on earth to be playing, as the Kiwis treat attacking dynamism as a core principal within their playing philosophy. Ireland’s wing pairing of Simon Zebo and Keith Earls thus did their chances of going on tour no good whatsoever in allowing George North to claim a brace on Friday evening, with the latter looking particularly suspect with the Welsh in possession. For all that was made of his performance two weekends previously, North redeemed himself on this occasion showing both attacking and defensive intent and effectively securing his place on the plane. Another likely to be disappointed with his defensive effort was England’s Jack Nowell who failed with try-saving tackles for both of Huw Jones’ tries.

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