By Andy McGeady | Lions Tour
In the final weekend game before the test series it’s Waratahs time as the Lions roadshow hits Sydney. Mako Vunipola has once again been picked at loose head prop with Alex Corbisiero, last Tuesday’s starter against Combined Country, on the bench. It’s a 24-point spread with the Lions once again virtually unbackable but the game will be fascinating viewing as it’s a final chance for some to impress Warren Gatland before the tests.
Against weak tour opposition – a disinterested Barbarians side, a depleted Western Force outfit and a Reds front row that, although it contained three Wallabies, was not at current test standard – thus far Vunipola has survived in the scrum. Can he do so against Robbie Deans’ first choice Australian front three?
The loss of Cian Healy to injury was a huge deal, one that could have further repercussions than simply which square-shadowed, pie-eating individual replaces him in holding up a Lions scrum. This season the amount of work that Healy got through in the loose was hugely impressive.
Top carriers in the Lions squad per 80 minutes*:
- 13.3 Sean O’Brien
- 12.9 Toby Faletau
- 11.7 Jamie Heaslip
- 11.6 Cian Healy
- 9.9 Alun Wyn Jones
(* based on 2012/13 stats from Rabo Pro 12, Aviva Premiership, ERC competitions and Six Nations)
That’s a considerable jump down from Healy to Jones, in fact the gap between them was the same as the gap between Healy and first-place O’Brien.
Healy’s 8.2 tackle attempts per 80 weren’t too shabby either, comparing very favourably with the other props in the squad who were led by Mako Vunipola’s 10.6.
Vunipola has taken advantage of the unfortunate injuries to both Healy and Gethin Jenkins, tearing up trees in his 162 minutes of play so far on tour.
- The 22-year-old has been rampaging around the fields of Hong Kong and Australia making 14 carries and 11 tackles per 80.
- He hasn’t missed a tackle attempt yet and those carries have averaged 1.9m apiece, only very slightly below his season average (2.1m).
There’s only one little problem; of all props in the original squad and even of the replacements called up – Alex Corbisiero and Ryan Grant – it’s fair to say that so far in his young career Vunipola has a well-earned reputation as the weakest scrummager of the lot.
As the saying goes you can only play the opposition in front of you and there’s no doubt that Vunipola has played it well. The Australian test front row will not be one of rugby history’s most fearsome units and if Warren Gatland reckons that Vunipola can do enough to avoid conceding too much ground at scrum time then he’s doing more than enough damage around the paddock to warrant test selection and, importantly, replace Healy’s production.
But, and it’s a big but, if Gatland decides he doesn’t trust that scrummaging then the Lions have more difficult decisions. Alex Corbisiero missed the Six Nations through injury but in his two starts in the Autumn Internationals he made just a single carry and 10 tackles in 119 minutes of play. Ryan Grant made 12.5 tackles per 80 in the Six Nations and averaged 8.6 over the season, certainly enough to keep that side of his account in credit. Unfortunately, he made less than half the number of carries of Healy.
Rugby is not a zero-sum game but when one considers the man-crush the Lions coach has on Dan Lydiate, a man who will tackle like a demented Duracell bunny but who is not a primary ball-carrier, the Lions might run into trouble with too many destroyers and not enough men to stick the ball up the jumper and rumble forward effectively when needed.
Why Alun Wyn Jones makes sense
So back to Alun Wyn Jones, he of the lofty fifth place on the top carrier list. If Paul O’Connell is seemingly a mortal lock for test selection then there are still arguments to made for each of the other four contenders. Jones is neither the freakishly sized athlete that is Richie Gray nor the lineout operator that is Geoff Parling, but he takes on a hell of a lot of ball.
The big Osprey’s 9.9 carries per 80mins is not only the most of all locks in the squad, it’s almost twice that of his fellow giraffes – Gray, Parling, O’Connell and Ian Evans – who averaged just 5.3 carries per 80 between them this season. His offloading too is an asset; the only Lions forwards more likely to complete an offload were Sam Warburton and Tom Croft.
Perhaps Gatland is perfectly happy with big Mako taking on the Wallabies from the off, or perhaps his starting place against the Waratahs is another chance to prove that he really can be more than a hugely effective impact substitute at the highest level. But if Gatland is determined to pick Lydiate to face Australia and his faith in Vunipola is not as resolute as the Saracens man would like, the selection of Jones to pack down at lock beside Paul O’Connell in the test side might make a whole pile of sense.
Either way, keep an eye on that scrum on Saturday morning. If Vunipola has a bad run it might have more impact on test selection than simply dropping another fat man into that number one shirt.
Credit: all carry and tackle stats are courtesy of Opta. Pictures: Inpho.ie
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