Should Lions coach Warren Gatland fall off another high ladder tomorrow, the British police would wonder if it were an accident or attempted suicide. The current state of British and Irish rugby is enough to drive any Lions coach to despair.
Scotland can’t beat Tonga; Wales were hammered by Samoa; England have only managed to beat Fiji in their previous six tests and (ignoring that largely irrelevant game) have mustered two tries in 240 minutes of rugby, one from a charge down and one from a quick tap; Ireland lost five matches in a row before they beat an Argentina team who played like they had been out on the sauce.
One small piece of comfort for Gatland is that the body of Robbie Deans might break his fall, as the Australia coach is just as likely to jump. The Wallabies scraped home against Italy at the weekend, were annihilated by France in Paris and have contrived to lose to Scotland and Samoa in recent times. The Dullabies and England are expected both to make the shortlist for the IRB’s new award, the world’s most boring team.
On which subject, is there anyone out there who can explain to me how Owen Farrell joined Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Frederic Michalak on the list for IRB player of the year. Where was Conrad Smith or Michael Hooper or Leigh Halfpenny or Kieran Read? I thought it must be a misprint to begin with. Then I saw that John Eales was chairman and realised it was part of a devious Aussie plot to confuse the Lions selection.
Not that it could be much more confused than it is at the moment. Currently the Lions are without an obvious captain, hooker, tighthead prop, second row, blindside flanker, number eight, fly-half, inside centre and outside centre.
The only area of comparative strength lies in the back three where the likes Halfpenny, Tommy Bowe, Stuart Hogg, George North, Manu Tuilagi (if put on the wing where he belongs), Rob Kearney, Craig Gilroy, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton offer a semblance of competitive quality. At a stretch you might argue that the performances of Sam Warburton and Chris Henry at the weekend has upped the current market value of opensides.
But the greatest anti-depressant for Gatland must be the emergence of Conor Murray. It is very hard for the Lions to win a test series without a decent number nine. The ’71 and ’74 teams had the great Gareth Edwards, the ’89 team were driven by Robert Jones and in ’97 the underrated Matt Dawson made one of the key plays of the series.
Murray’s performance against Argentina suggested that he may become an important man in Gatland’s side. He is a strong lad and a decent defender, who often plays as a close-in sweeper, stepping forward to block the holes that oft appear in Ireland’s defence.
But particularly impressive at the weekend was Murray’s switches of direction with his pass and arcing flat runs to hold the opposition defence. Jonathan Sexton frequently stands far too deep at fly-half, but Murray is at last providing Ireland with some sort of sustained threat near the gain line.
Don’t jump just yet, Warren.