Henry chooses risk management

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One game in and I'm not sure any of us are any the wiser. The fixture against Western Australia proved very little. Indeed, with such a short tour, consisting of only seven matches outside the three Tests, the acceptance of the men from Perth as opponents was misconceived. If promotional work in areas where rugby union is not particularly popular is necessary ­ and it does form a rich part of the Lions' heritage ­ then the number of matches should have been 12 or 13.

A crowd approaching 20,000 was admirable but it meant that many of the Test aspirants went through their paces in what amounted to little more than a semi-opposed team run.

In such inauspicious circumstances it was reassuring to see Dan Luger so spirited and sharp after his recent injury worries, while the senior forwards Keith Wood and Scott Quinnell looked to be in fine fettle. However, the experiment which consisted of playing Brian O'Driscoll at full-back seemed ill-advised. Western Australia were never going to get enough ball to test him positionally, and the pressure on the back-line bore absolutely no relation to the defensive pattern that the Wallabies and the major provinces will employ. Hence we saw a talented centre feeling his way in a new position during the course of a quasi-practice game.

I fail to see exactly what there was to gain from this unexpected ploy except to make it crystal clear to Jason Robinson that he is not being considered in this club position of full-back, where he has been so effective for Sale.

Technically, the Lions will be concerned about some poor restart receptions and some understandably loose passing at times. Tactically, I don't think we saw anything of much note; in which regard it was interesting to hear from Austin Healey that nearly all of the training sessions so far have been open to the public. As such, he doesn't believe they have yet been practising the Test-match game plan.

This seems likely, particularly since NEC Harlequins Lions ­ Messrs Wood, Leonard, Luger and Greenwood ­ have all made it clear to me that the training so far has been brutal and overwhelmingly contact-based in nature. Two long rugby sessions a day have been the norm for the last 10 days as Graham Henry and his coaches have sought to establish camaraderie, communicate new systems and examine closely the way each man responds to an unusually fierce training regime.

With such a premium on creating a real sense of identity, unity and purpose, this approach makes sense. From now on I am sure the emphasis will change and more time will be spent on patterns of play and game planning.

Certainly the team went in against Western Australia without having tapered down in their training. They are well aware that they will not be able to take such chances once the real stuff begins.

The one area which the first game highlighted was that there appeared to be a real commitment on the part of the Lions to playing the ball out of the tackle area. Rather than simply creating the target for a clear-out or ruck by going to ground early, most Lions were looking to play the ball before they hit the turf, or even from the floor itself. This suggests they are looking to risk the higher number of turnovers that such an approach always generates in order to keep changing the point of attack.

It is a bold style of play which Graham Henry has often favoured. Another point of interest is that Will Greenwood was played at inside- centre, his club as opposed to his international position. This may simply have been to accommodate Mark Taylor, but with three other specialist inside-centres in the party I doubt it. Why create a log jam unless you are seriously considering trying him in the same position again? Selectorially, nobody, other than perhaps Ben Cohen, did their chances much harm.

Overall, the opener served only to highlight once again ­ if any such emphasis was needed ­ the huge gap between the amateur and professional sides of rugby union. It does very little good to anyone when such mismatches take place on a major tour, and I'm sure that many of the party feel that the real work starts this week.

Last Friday, the Lions did all that could be reasonably expected of them, but it wasn't a challenge that stretched them in any way. Once they hit the eastern seaboard, Perth will seem a very long way away.

Comments