Wales were like tigers against England last weekend, ripping into the grand slam pretensions of their fiercest rivals, but it will take more to make them Lions.
The intoxicated reaction in Wales post-match was that the starting line-up against England would be more than enough for Australia in the three-Test series later this year; England, Ireland and Scotland could make up the midweek side.
A more sober analysis would have reflected on the six meetings between the Six Nations champions and Australia in the previous 18 months: Wallabies 6 Wales 0. Most of the matches were decided by one score, but if Wales have what it takes to close out tight encounters in Europe, they lack the craft to crack the top three teams in the world.
They have not beaten Australia, New Zealand or South Africa since the end of 2008. Their coach, Warren Gatland, may be in charge of the Lions, but he will be swayed as much by that record as the emphatic way Wales finished a largely limp Six Nations.
When he was appointed by the Lions last September, Gatland said he would place more store in how the home unions performed in their November internationals than their displays in the Six Nations. He would suffer a double dose of disappointment with more to curse than cherish, but England’s defeat of New Zealand and the ebullient way Ireland ravaged Argentina offered some attacking pointers.
Unfortunately for Gatland, England’s attack wilted, reverting to the rut that is the Aviva Premiership, enchained by slow possession. They complained a few days after the defeat to Wales that the referee Steve Walsh had not allowed a contest for possession at the breakdown, but they should have stuck at querying his handling of the scrum.
Since when is the breakdown a contest for possession in the Premiership? Why have England struggled to find a genuine open-side flanker since Neil Back retired? Most of their club sides regard one as a luxury because the league game is relatively slow and, anyway, there were six forced turnovers at the breakdown last Saturday, not including Wales’s first try when the England second row Geoff Parling got rid of the ball in panic.
Walsh was harsh on players who went off their feet and those who fell on the wrong side and good on him. If the Lions are lazy at the breakdown, Australia will feast and it is an area where Wales set the example.
Behind the scrum is another matter. Leigh Halfpenny emerged as one of the players of the Six Nations despite being a well kept secret in attack. Wales do not operate a second-five (James Hook has not started a match for them since the 2011 World Cup) and the straight-line running of their three-quarters, no matter how hard, will hardly win the series for the Lions against a defence used to being tested by New Zealand.
For all Wales’s physicality and power, finesse is not one of their strengths. The Lions will need to be Wales with knobs on, but who has the flair Gatland needs? England scored one try in the final four matches, confining the adventurous Billy Twelvetrees to the bench, Ireland managed two and Scotland mustered one in their last three games.
A key position for Gatland is 12. Roberts filled the position in 2009, converted from 13 by the then head coach Ian McGeechan, who had done the same to Scott Gibbs in 1993, when he ousted Will Carling from the Test team in New Zealand.
The Lions may have been routed by New Zealand in 2005, but they had Will Greenwood and Gavin Henson in competition at inside-centre. Greenwood had been on the previous two tours, with Mike Catt and Rob Henderson in 2001 and with Gibbs in South Africa four years before that.
Gatland will have to make his own options. Roberts worked well in partnership with Brian O’Driscoll, who coaxed out the Welshman’s footballing instincts, and perhaps the Lions can do something similar with Manu Tuilagi, in the manner of New Zealand and Ma’a Nonu.
Tuilagi has the skills to make it work, even if they largely remain latent at Leicester where the gainline, not width, is king. The Lions have footballing options at 10 and 13 in Jonathan Sexton and O’Driscoll and they have finishers in the back three through the likes of Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Tommy Bowe (if fit) and Tim Visser (George North seems to have lost some of his pace).
The Lions attack coach is Rob Howley, Wales’s interim head coach in the Six Nations, but not too much should be read into that. McGeechan’s Scotland and club teams were never as bold as his Lions, recognising that the whole point of the concept was to bring together the cream of players from four countries and use the ingredients to make something new and better.
So what if Wales slam dunked England. The Lions will need more.
Where do you see the Lions’ attacking threat coming from? Comments below…