A half look at the Lions’ backline
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Discussions about the Springboks tend to start and often finish with forward power, lineouts and scrums. Not surprisingly given the presence of household names such as Botha, Matfield, Beast Mtatawira, Burger, and prop, John Smit, leading the team.
But behind the pack lie the talents of arguably the world’s best 9, de Preez, and the supreme drop goaler Morne Steyn. A lot of commentators have them as the likely half-back pairing for the test matches against the British & Irish Lions.
So who have the Lions got in their armoury at scrum-half and out-half, if the ball ever manages to emerge from the two packs clashing ? Here’s the six candidates who are going to be pushing for a space in Geech’s mind.
9. Mike Blair, Mike Phillips and Harry Ellis
The Scotland captain, Blair, nominated for Player of the Year, nearly didn’t make it on tour. Only for Tomas O’Leary getting injured, he wouldn’t be getting a chance to start against the HighVeld XV on Saturday.
Nonetheless, Blair is a tricky half-back and after a poor start to his season with Edinburgh came through well in leading his team to finish second in the Magners League. He has an eye for a gap, and has the ability to make sniping breaks similar to Ellis in his games for Leicester and England.
Blair has a fast pass out of scrum, similar to Munster’s Stringer (who still has one of the flattest passes in the game). And both Blair and Ellis are not afflicted too much with the one-step/two-step that is beginning to bedevil the No 9 spot internationally.
Ellis has had an unfortunate season with Leicester, largely because his chance to shine was usurped by the now-departed Julien Dupuy. He’s tenacious, a fierce tackler, and reminds me somewhat of Matt Dawson. He can get frustrated when things start to go wrong, and haranguing the ref is a part of his game that lands him in trouble occasionally.
Phillips, partly because of his almost inappropriate height for the position (he’s over 6ft) invariably brings a step or two into his passing game, and consequently takes a beat or two out of the backline’s movement. On the plus side, his height and size and relative speed means that if he gets a break, he always makes yards and it sometimes takes more than one player to stop him.
Despite his late arrival, Blair may display some of his top form from last season and take the test spot with Phillips on the bench.
10. Ronan O’Gara, Stephen Jones, James Hook
As another late arrival providing cover for Leigh Halfpenny, (plus the injury to Tom Shanklin), and his prowess with the boot, James Hook snuck into camp on practically the last day before the Lions headed off to SA.
He operates as a 10 for his club, but can also fill in at 15 and 12. Regarded as a more cultured runner than either O’Gara or Jones, Hook remains – in my view – the unfinished player – still waiting to deliver the potential his fans believe he has in abundance. And he has relative youth on his side to still do it.
Hook is a powerful kicker of the ball from ground. He doesn’t tend to kick out of hand as much or as effectively. If long-range kicks are called for – most likely in the midweek matches – and with the benefit of the higher altitude, Hook will fit the bill nicely.
He is not likely to displace the two front runners for the Test spot, since his Welsh team-mate Jones invariably fills the 10 slot at international level.
Jones has an appetite for taking the ball into the tackle and standing up to it – better than O’Gara does, and certainly has a better reputation for it.
He brings his backline with him, and gets his passes away. He’s a very good place-kicker but his positional kicking in play is not as accurate and often finds his kicks returned with interest, or brought back up the field by more adventurous opposition. He’s had his share of tries too for club and country. He has a good rapport with O’Gara, despite their regular opposition in Magners and in the 6 Nations, and it was significant that the two players were the only ones to swap shirts in the Grand Slam finale match in March.
One of them is likely to be on the bench, supporting the other in the test matches, or covering the last 25 minutes of a match if a change is required.
Of the three, O’Gara has the most career longevity and experience. He’s the 6 Nations top points scorer, has won two European titles with Munster, and has been part of the Ireland set-up for nearly ten years, and he did score that last minute drop-goal to win the Grand Slam for Ireland despite having been beaten up for the first half of the match by the Welsh back-row.
Deservedly or not, he has a poor reputation as a tackler and being able to stand up to tackles. No doubt the Boks will be eyeing him up if he’s selected for the test team, or indeed in any of the midweek matches. However, O’Gara has been here many times before and has the ability to absorb the blows and tackles and still deliver at the highest level.
He can have real bad off-days too, and his signature ‘red-face’ is regularly a sign that the wheels are going to come off, the opposition is getting to him, kicks will invariably land over the line instead of inside it, place kicks will go wide of the posts, and his backline starts to suffer badly as his tackling and passing go awry.
When he’s on form, and gets good back row protection, he can control games perfectly with his positional kicking.
He is good on close-up play and has got over the try-line at critical points in matches. In the last year or so, he’s brought a more sophisticated element to his game in his running, and kicking out of hand – the pinpoint perfect kick that went over the entire Welsh backline and over Shane Williams head straight into the arms of the onrushing Bowe to score a try was a class act in the final match.
He’s also learnt to score impromptu drop goals, as well as planned ones – something that will be useful in the high veldt matches, and to potentially counter Steyn’s matching-winning ability with the Bulls this season.
Still too early to call the test position – this one’s going to have to wait until a few of the midweek matches have been played.
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