Should Wales dominate the Lions?
March 21, 2013
Is Wales flanker Justin Tipuric bound for higher honours with the British & Irish Lions later this year? © Getty Images
The streets of central Cardiff looking like some modern-dress version of a Hogarth engraving was nothing new, but there was no doubting the extra edge of euphoria last Saturday night after the victory over England.
Beating the old enemy by 27 points is nothing to be sniffed at, still less a second consecutive championship for the first time since 1979. It was worthy of one of the better jokes circulating on the web - a 'Welcome to Wales' sign with a subtitle asking visitors to be quiet, because 'the nation has a hangover'.
Hangovers, though, are not always ideal for clear thinking or perspective. To start with, that record win. It was vastly more than anyone expected and has the virtue, as a 9 or 12 point margin would not, of making 'what if ?' games irrelevant - as of course, does the identical margin by which Wales trailed to Ireland before recovering. You've not come remotely close to a Grand Slam if you've lost, or trailed, by 27 points.
But it also reflects changes in scoring patterns and values. It was not remotely the greatest hammering inflicted on England. Two-nil in tries is put into context by the sequence achieved by Wales in home matches between 1899 and 1907 - 6-1, 3-0, 5-1, 7-0, 6-0 - the 8-2 achieved in 1922 and 5-0s in 1969, 1973 and 1979. Those were hammerings. This was a clear, and clearcut, victory, but never 'easy' as the crowd began chanting after Wales's second try.
Winning the championship, particularly after that abysmal start and the sequence of southern hemisphere defeats which preceded it, is an immense achievement. Rob Howley, now clearly heir apparent to Warren Gatland, his coaching team and the players kept their nerve and cohesion when it would have been easy to lose them.
They built momentum which peaked under the stimulus of a great occasion. England were shut down, pretty much confined to their own half. Steve Walsh, never my favourite referee either, did England no favours but nor did he make 27, or even 20, points difference. That was done by Welsh discipline, composure, defensive solidity and above all well-directed power.
Within that were some exceptional individual displays. Leigh Halfpenny, as is now usual. Adam Jones, asserting himself at the expense of Joe Marler. Mike Phillips, making one wonder whether a less-talented identical twin had been playing for the previous year.
Sam Warburton, completing a campaign in which he and Ryan Jones have both provided a model for how team players should be and achieved the minor miracle of ensuring that Dan Lydiate was not badly missed. And the astonishing Jason Tipuric. Rarely are cause and effect more clearly linked than the complete reversal of Welsh fortunes from the moment, 43 minutes into the Ireland game with the Irish 30-3 ahead, he came on as a replacement for Aaron Shingler.
One effect is that Wales should provide the largest Lions contingent. Their players have proved themselves over two consecutive championship campaigns, beating their nearest rival, England, both times. They have, as Stuart Lancaster pointed out, immense experience and, generally a factor in marginal selections, are the players best known to the Lions coach.
This does not mean, as one exuberant texter to BBC Wales argued, that the Wales team team should be chosen en bloc for the Tests. This makes no more sense than when England fans were making parallel suggestions 10 to 15 years ago.
There are several answers to this. One is simply 'Brian O'Driscoll'. The second is theoretical, pointing to the implausibility of the best talent from four nations being wholly concentrated in one. The third is historical, noting that while successful Lions team may have a national core (Wales in 1971 and 1974, England in 1989 and 1997), they also draw across the full range. Consider the importance of Mike Gibson in 1971, Gordon Brown in 1974, Robert Jones in 1989 and Scott Gibbs in 1997.
But the clincher is Wales's recent record against the southern hemisphere, Australia above all. Six consecutive narrow defeats can hardly be dismissed as coincidence. One element is clearly psychological. Wales, with good reason, believe in their ability to beat European opponents in tight games but lack that confidence against southern teams. But it is also clearly grounded in the way Wales play. Consider the best moment of the England match, that dummy and pass by Jason Tipuric to set up Alex Cuthbert's second try. Could any of the Welsh backs, Halfpenny apart, have done that ?
When the best ball player in your team is the open-side flanker it tells you two things. One is that he is pretty exceptional. But it is none too flattering about the skills or creativity of your midfield backs.
Then think back to the victories over France and Scotland. They were deserved, but dreadful to watch. They were admittedly played in conditions in which a Fijian sevens team might have considered sticking it up the jumper or kicking for position.
But these were also conditions which suited Wales's strengths and limitations. This of course goes rather against Welsh traditions, although not entirely. The phrase 'Triple Crown rugby' was used for decades after to describe any play in the tightly-controlled style of the John Gwilliam-led sides which won Grand Slams in 1950 and 1952. But even these teams were capable of brilliance like the giant scissors move between Cliff Morgan and Ken Jones which carved England apart at Twickenham in 1952.
This Welsh team has more than an echo of a more recent power, the England teams of the early 1990s led by Will Carling and coached by Geoff Cooke. (We're clearly in a time of national shapeshifting, with England inheriting Ireland's habit of winning four matches and missing prizes) Carling-era England simply overpowered European opposition, winning 20 matches out of 24 including three Grand Slams, between 1990 and 1995. But when they came up against southern hemisphere opponents who could not be bullied, they lacked imagination and variety and so fell short.
It was not until Clive Woodward became coach in the later 1990s that England developed a more varied game. European opponents were no longer simply beaten to a pulp, so England were more vulnerable, leading to that sequence of final day defeats between 1999 and 2001. But Woodward's England became one of the few European teams of any era to make a habit of beating southern hemisphere opponents. And we know where that led eventually.
Which is not to say that picking a scrum-half with quick hands and a ball-playing number 12 would automatically lead to Sam Warburton lifting the trophy at Twickenham in 2015. But it would increase the (slim) likelihood of that happening and also make Wales a great deal more interesting to watch in the meantime. And it might not do the Lions any harm either.
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