The Lions auditions have begun
British and Irish Lions team coach Ian McGeechan attends a training session in Johannesburg, Tuesday, May 26, 2009. The Lions are in the country for a three-test tour. AP Photo
Around the beginning of February every year, in a land far, far away, a rugby tournament kicks off that most Australian rugby fans don’t really care about. Some may have never heard of it.
This tournament is called the Six Nations championship.
The factors that contribute to its anonymity in Australia are varied.
However the two most common complaints centre around the obvious, but still valid point, that the games are all played somewhere between midnight and stupid o’clock Australian time, and the potentially ignorant but still mainstream view that all rugby teams based north of the equator play boring, unadventurous rugby that is about as spectator friendly as lawn bowls.
The Christmas-like excitement surrounding the looming beginning of the Super Rugby season may also be another detractor, as the average appetite of the Australian rugby fan is only so big.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to argue that The Six Nations usually progresses largely unnoticed by us Aussie folk.
You notice I said usually goes unnoticed? That’s because this year things are a bit different.
This year there will be significantly more rugby fans dragging themselves out of bed at 3:30am and cracking a Red Bull before settling in to watch the northern hemisphere giants do battle.
This year the name of the debutant in the English back row who had a blinder last week will be known by more than rugby journalists and a few die hard fans.
This year, the Lions are coming.
In a Lions’ tour year, there is a common theme to the (mostly) friendly Saturday afternoon pub banter as the focus of the entire rugby following public concentrates on one question.
The seasoned rugby pundits have already begun spruiking their chosen ones and many litres of the amber liquid will be spilled by the less educated among us in the coming months in over excited attempts to convince Johnno that your line-up is better than his.
Which brings me to the increased hype around The Six Nations. In a Lions year there is a new ingredient in the old recipe of achieving a potential grand slam and success over an old rival. The lure of that red jersey effectively turns the annual tournament into an five-stage audition process.
Players’ hopes of touring can be made or broken as a result of their performances in their nations’ colours during the northern hemisphere’s premier international tournament and the first two games on Saturday were perfectly organised, as if by a higher power, to pit the home nations against each other.
So who were the winners and losers of the first round of auditions?
A number of hopefuls were on show in the first game of the weekend when the Irish travelled to Cardiff to meet the Welsh.
After comments about his age and injury disrupting his participation in the November Tests, the mercurial Brian O’Driscoll proved he is still just that with an amazing display that saw him win the man-of-the-match award.
His composure and skill to set up Simon Zebo for his first five pointer in the emerald green was first class and he backed that up by bagging himself a try (from a pick and drive no less) and making several try saving tackles.
His name had been prematurely erased from the starting XV by some due to his age, recent injury status and the emergence of England’s Manu Tuilagi and the Welshman Jonathan Davies as potential candidates to wear the 13.
After O’Driscoll’s stellar performance and Davies shocker in the same game that saw him throw several passes behind his teammates straight into touch, the seemingly ageless centre should make the cut.
The other big statement was made by Welsh number eight Toby Faletau.
Most of the crystal ball gazing by the ex international players and the like saw either Ireland’s captain Jamie Heaslip, or England’s Ben Morgan wearing the Lions number eight jersey come Test time.
But the All Blacks have shown in recent years how effective a big, yet mobile number eight can be when running out wide and Kerian Read has scored countless tries in the corner since these tactics have been employed.
Faletau has a similar skill set and showed his worth by eating up good metres in the wide channels time and time again. Don’t be surprised to see him at the top of Warren Gatland’s wish list come June.
In a time where there is an abundance of quality finishers in the home nations ranks, George North had all but secured his Lions jersey based on his size, speed and recent performances and he did nothing to harm his chances on Saturday, despite not seeing much ball.
Alex Cuthbert was also solid on the other wing for the Dragons, scoring a try off a great running line, but he has almost insurmountable competition for the other wing spot with Tommy Bowe, Chris Ashton and Tim Visser the main contenders.
Later that evening at Twickenham the first real contender for the all-important fly half jersey, which seemingly belongs to Ireland’s Jonny Sexton, was uncovered in the form of Owen Farrell.
While he is mainly known for his kicking game he controlled the game superbly with ball in hand against the Scots, and illustrated that point superbly with a pin point cut-out pass to gift Geoff Parling a try.
Chris Robshaw consolidated his serotype as a hard working, no-fuss loose forward who leads from the front and he is surely slightly ahead of contemporary Sam Warburton in the polls when it comes to the openside flank.
So in a mixed weekend where some players have staked their claim, and others have seen their stocks fall, only one thing is for certain.
The number of Welsh players in the Lions squad will be significantly less than most thought after the World Cup if they cannot manage to avoid their ninth-straight defeat in Paris this weekend.