By Andy McGeady | Lions Tour
As Andy Irvine, Lions tour manager, read the last of the 37 names in the original Lions squad the quick-witted will have noticed that there were just two fly-halves on the list; Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and England’s Owen Farrell.
At this time the Jonny Wilkinson hype was in full swing during Toulon’s Heineken Cup run against English opposition and it was taken more or less as a given that The Great Wilko would somehow conspire to join the tour upon completion of the French rugby season.
How that joining was to be arranged?
Perhaps Paul O’Connell would channel his inner Michael Caine from Escape to Victory and invite some unlucky squad member to place their forearm between a couple of slats. Enter Wilko, as Hatch. Job done, and all for the cost of a bit of plaster of paris and a few screams heard only by alleged spies. Or local wedding planners, perhaps.
When some of the more persistent media members pressed the issue the Lions coaching team made curious noises about Stuart Hogg, 20 years young and the junior member of the squad, being the “emergency” fly half.
Emergency. As in, use hammer to break glass.
Without including a true utility player in the squad it was always going to be a strain to include just two number tens to cover two matches a week for over a month. With Wilkinson’s groin operation taking him out of consideration as a replacement it seems that Jonathan Sexton’s tetchy right hamstring has now broken that emergency glass.
Stuart Hogg will get his chance to be the emergency fly-half against the New South Wales / Queensland Combined Country XV. And he’ll also be the place kicker. It’s a position he hasn’t played since school but then for a lad born in 1992 school is a relatively short time ago.
It’s only fair to talk of the opposition. Briefly.
NSW/Queensland Combined Country are 90/1 to win.
The Lions’ handicap is -76 points; to put that in some perspective, the handicap for the Western Force match at kickoff was -44.
This is a classic midweek tour match where the objectives are to get a bit of a workout, spread good cheer and not get anyone injured.
It will not be a close game.
But it’s still worth watching to see how young master Hogg does. Firstly, how he brings his backs into play and secondly, his form off the kicking tee.
The kicking of the Lions has been lauded, rightly, since they landed in Australia. In commentary during the Western Force match Sky’s Stuart Barnes spoke of “this bloke with the incredible goal-kicking temperament”; a fabulous 11 from 11 effort by Leigh Halfpenny backed that up, neatly followed up by Owen Farrell’s 6 from 6 last weekend.
So if they’re all such perfect kickers, there’s nothing to it – just roll one of them out there, right?
Well they’re good, yes, but not completely perfect. How do they compare with their peers?
Over the 2012/13 season Leigh Halfpenny has been the most accurate of the three front line kickers in the squad, kicking 78.4% of all attempts. This is a fraction ahead of Jonathan Sexton’s 77.6% with Owen Farrell trailing with 74.1%.
The success rate for a place kick being converted in Europe’s professional leagues this season was 72%. Placing a reasonable but entirely arbitrary standard of 40 attempts on goal, both Halfpenny and Sexton sit in the top ten Lions-eligible kickers in Europe for 2012/13*:
- 1. 87% Ian Madigan (73 of 84)
- 2. 83% Stephen Jones (48 of 58)
- 3. 82% Ronan O’Gara (63 of 77)
- 4. 80% Gareth Steenson (112 of 140)
- 5. 79% Jonny Wilkinson (165 of 208)
- 6. 79% Greig Laidlaw (88 of 112)
- 7. 78% Leigh Halfpenny (76 of 97)
- 8. 78% Jonathan Sexton (97 of 125)
- 9. 77% Charlie Hodgson (87 of 113)
- 10. 77% Andy Goode (86 of 112)
(*kicking stats do not include Lions tour matches)
The above tells a story, but not the whole story. Not all kicks are made the same. For example, Leigh Halfpenny’s longest successful kick this season was over ten metres longer than Madigan’s. Sexton, Halfpenny and Farrell all have the leg to take efforts from the half way line if not beyond, a great weapon to have in a close game.
But to return to the exploits of young master Hogg, why were his kicking stats not included in the table above? Well it seems that the older boys wouldn’t let him have a go at the posts for club or country as he fell comfortably below the 40 attempt threshold having taken just six place kicks all season.
Yes, six. All season.
If that 76 point spread is accurate, Bil the Lions mascot might be watching his minder take double that number of attempts on Wednesday. Assuming that the travelling gentlemen from the Northern Hemisphere don’t take any penalty attempts on goal against NSW/Queensland Combined Country the Lions will need 78 points to beat the handicap. That’s 12 tries at a minimum, with Hogg getting 9 of 12 conversions.
In emergency, break glass.
Credit: All kicking stats courtesy of Opta