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Australia to make light work of Tom Croft and the Lions in second Test

by Sean Goff | June 28, 2013
Sean O' Brien

YOU’RE NOT GETTING IT: O’Brien as a penalty risk is overblown (pic: Inpho)

 Andy McGeady | British and Irish Lions | Second Test

In Warren Gatland’s selection of the second test he has signalled his intention to get more warrior into his back row by the promotion of Dan Lydiate to the starting XV and Sean O’Brien to the bench.

Hard nosed it might initially seem but in his retention as lock cover the misty memory of Tom Croft’s try against the Waratahs obviously still lingers in the Gatland mind. After all, when a man has seen Croft break from the pack and stretch away from the cover like a rugby-playing Nijinsky, the dream of that moment will always remain alive. On Saturday, however, Nijinsky became Shergar. Missing.

The ‘Sean O’Brien as a penalty risk’ narrative is overblown when one considers that his six penalties conceded on tour is only one more than Croft. In fact when playing time is taken into account they’re almost exactly even – 1.9 penalties conceded per 80 minutes for Croft with 1.8 per 80 for the supposedly rampantly criminal O’Brien. Dan Lydiate has been a good boy on tour, conceding a full penalty less per 80 than his two colleagues.

Turnover terrier

Something missed out in the penalty conversation is O’Brien’s ability to generate turnover ball. Both in the 2012/13 season and on tour he’s been the most effective of the three in generating turnovers (by a factor of 50%). In a game where stolen ball can result in dis-organised defensive structures resulting in a good attacking platform – this  can be hugely valuable.

And on to the mystery of Tom Croft, or whoever the gentleman answering to that name on the Lions tour really is. Because this particular Lions tourist has borne little or no relation to the player of the 2012/13 season.

Tom Croft

PEDIGREE: Is Tom Croft a Nijinsky? Or Shergar? Or both?   (pic: Inpho)

The Tom Croft of the Northern Hemisphere is a glamorous fighter pilot with scarf billowing in the wind, not a muddy infantryman in the trenches.

He doesn’t carry as much as other back rows but makes huge yardage from those carries; his try from the half way line in the Aviva Premiership semi-final against Harlequins is an example of the damage he can do when he hangs out on the wing and gets space to stretch those long, thoroughbred limbs.

This season’s Tom Croft isn’t a tackling demon, making just eight tackle attempts per 80 minutes at a very mediocre 79% success rate.

This is Tom Croft of the 2012/13 season (Aviva Premiership, Heineken Cup, Six Nations):

  • Carries/80: 5.4
  • Metres/Carry: 6.0m
  • Tackle Attempts per 80: 8.0
  • Tackle Success Rate: 79%

This is Tom Croft on the Lions tour 2013:

  • Carries/80: 7.8 (+44%)
  • Metres/Carry: 4.1m (-32%)
  • Tackle Attempts per 80: 13.0 (+63%)
  • Tackle Success Rate: 91% (+15%)

Taken as a whole, the measures above are those of a very different player. One on the surface bearing far more resemblance to a down-and-dirty lock doing grunt work around the fringes – than the slashing wide boy that he’s mostly been in his career.

If Tom Croft had just one more 40m run so far on tour his metres-per-carry would be at… 6.05m. But he hasn’t, so it isn’t. That’s the danger of small sample size, but when such similar differences are found across the board it becomes hard to deny.

Bolier Room Bruiser

It’s all very well trying to do the work of a boiler room bruiser in the tight but when you’re in the region of a stone-and-a-half lighter than a Geoff Parling, two stone lighter than an Alun Wyn Jones or Ian Evans and three stones lighter than a Richie Gray those carries, hits and clear outs can’t have the same impact.

Tom Croft, anonymous in the first test, has been named on the bench for the second contest in Melbourne and will be covering second row. In a scrum that’s already been depowered with the loss of Alex Corbisiero, an early injury to either Alun Wyn Jones or Geoff Parling requiring the introduction of Tom Croft at lock – could be hugely disruptive.

The Lions have a three-point handicap and are favourites to take both the win and the series in Melbourne. History might view this as being unlikely, being that the last time the Lions won the first two tests in a series was all the way back in 1974.

Whether its reliance on historical stats, the notions of an eternal sporting romantic or simply the hopelessly compromised view of someone with air tickets to Australia next week, this column says Australia will beat the handicap as well as the Lions and push the series to a spectacular winner-take-all finale in Sydney.


Credit: all player stats courtesy of Opta.

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