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Liam Dunseath: A Response

The preamble to the first Test between the British and Irish Lions and the defending World Champions the All Blacks has degenerated into an A&E crisis for the Lions with their ever faithful media doing their best to camouflage the unavailability of some key players. Stuart Hogg has gone home after being reverse clotheslined by Connor Murray, and Owen Farrell has a quadriceps strain. Courtney Laws came off second best while trying to head Waisake Naholo’s shoulder clear, and Leigh Halfpenny also had an HIA after an unscheduled meeting with Lima Sopoaga.

With the writing on the wall being in black ink, rather than red, it’s not surprising that the referees are becoming the focal point. Both camps though are equally guilty of this, in a manifestation of the North/South divide of the globe, and with it, international rugby philosophies. This series is more than a clash between two teams. It is a clash between cultures; one that loves to run, and the other that loves to smash into things.

The men that police the game are also of a similar bent. Some who appreciate the technical aspect of the game and insist on them to the point of boring pedantry, and those that appreciate that some breaches of the law are less ‘material’, than others.

There’s a video doing the rounds compiled by a Northern Hemisphere analyst named Liam Dunseath, where he credits referee Angus Gardner with the Highlanders’ win against the Lions midweek team. Apparently the referee’s mistakes cost the Lions the win.

With the greatest respect to Mr. Dunseath, who has coached sevens at international level (the Iranian team, no less) and was a member of Eddie Jones’ back room staff, it is possible to see the mistakes in a different light. Dunseath makes some valid points, and in order to counter those points it’s also important to consider a viewpoint that is not clouded with mist the same colour as the Lions’ jersey and their wearers’ faces after losing to a veritable Highlanders ‘B’ team.

With several of the Otago franchises’ players off on All Blacks and All Black Maori duty, the side that turned up on Tuesday was hastily put together and not expected to trouble the might Lions who put away the Crusaders a few days before. Gatland picked, from his treasure trove of riches, a team that was more than capable of beating any Club side. Yet, despite the best efforts of those international stars, Mr. Dunseath would have us believe it was Angus Gardner who changed the game.

He analyses several instances in his video.  While agreeing with the basis of his observations, it is also necessary to provide context and alternative view. Hearing the other side of any situation, is a good habit. And while the Southern Hemisphere rugby players are certainly a cut above, the position is inverted, when comparing journalists from opposite ends of the world.

1.  Lawes Offside – the first grouse Mr. Dunseath has is that Courtney laws is never offside. There is also a graphic at the top of the rugbypass.com column which is aimed at proving this. However, what the straight line drawn in the graphic shows, is not that Lawes was not offside, but that the Lions were never ON side. The line that is drawn in the graphic goes straight through the ball which is the half back’s hands. That, Mr. Dunseath, is not the offside line. None of the Lions, Lawes included, are behind the last foot on your own evidence. Lawes did not advance incrementally, he flew up from a standing start which shows he started well in front of the hindmost foot. The entire defensive line was offside which is why Gardner moved the penalty to where the ruck was, and did not award it where Lawes actually took off from. Please have a fresh look at it. I was inclined to agree with you, till you drew the line. In the grass. The place the scrum half picks the ball up from is not where the offside line begins.

2. Ainley Obstruction – There is a ruck 5m out from the Lions’ line. The half back passes it back about 7 or 8 metres to Waisake Naholo who runs in almost untouched. The Highlanders’ second row Alex Ainley is standing at first receiver well wide of the break down but almost directly in front of Naholo. This is not an offence as he is behind the ball. Naholo takes the pass well behind Ainley who moves towards, and admittedly does get in the way of Robbie Henshaw the would-be defender. Mr. Dunseath would have us believe that this is dead-cert obstruction. He has a case. However, the referee consults the TMO and rules that Henshaw probably wouldn’t have got there in time. It’s Naholo, he probably wouldn’t, given the amount of space the winger had. Also Henshaw chose a  line going inside Ainley rather than outside. So even if Ainley had stood still he wouldn’t have got a good enough shoulder on Naholo who would certainly have gone outside him. It was poor defending and duly punished. The man most to blame is probably Jared Payne who lost his defensive alignment with the rushing Henshaw inside him. What’s important is that Gardner noticed it, checked it, and made a call. The fact that his opinion is different is fine, given that it is certainly not an unreasonable decision. The try would probably have been scored. Referees are not on the park to bail out poor defensive decisions by applying technicalities.

3. Rhys Webb Pass – Dunseath argues that Ainley’s lazy running forced this error from the Lions’ Welsh scrum half. From the footage, it is not clear if the breakdown from which Rory Best clears the ball is a ruck or just a tackle. If it is the latter there is no offside line. Since there are no bodies contesting the three Lions flopping over the ball, it is difficult to tell from this video whether Ainley was actually offside or not. Assuming he WAS offside, the Webb pass was to nobody in particular. In fact, it looks like he may have been trying to pass it to Ainley and milk a penalty under the posts. The ball is well in front of his support runner and well short of the next man. Ainley is allowed to get back onside, and Gardner deemed he was far enough away not to impact things. Webb stuffed up. Henshaw knew it. The Lions’ – especially their half backs – are not averse to a little whinge, and we didn’t see Webb insisting on Ainley’s offside. The non-conspiratorial alternative, is that the scrum half just stuffed up.

4. Dillon Hunt Entry – This is a really interesting one. Hunt is the tackler before the ruck is formed. The arriving Lions clean out the Highlanders 12 and the ruck lasts barely a second or two. Now a ‘ruck’ is when two or more players are bound over the ball on the ground. As soon as the clean out went beyond the ball, the ruck was over. Does Dillon Hunt then, being the tackler, have to come back through the gate, or can he play the ball from where he stood? The grouse here is that he may not have been within one metre of the tackle to enter. Dunseath has a point, but it’s not as obvious as he’d like us to believe. Hunt doesn’t ‘enter the ruck from the side’. There is no ruck when he enters. It’s a grey area of the law, and certainly wasn’t a game changing call.

5. Dan Cole Scrum Penalty  – Scrum penalties are a lottery. That is accepted fact. However, in this case, serial offender Dan Cole is hardly an innocent babe. Mr. Dunseath would have us believe that Aki Seiuli was solely responsible for the penalty that went the wrong way. He accuse replacement loosehead Seiuli of dropping his bind and ‘hinging’, where a player bends at the waist collapsing the scrum. While we will never know what actually happened, the evidence gives us some clues. The tighthead, i.e. – Cole, is expected to bind on the arm of the loosehead. Cole, typically, goes just under the armpit and on the jersey of his opposite. It’s true that Seiuli goes to ground. However, if a player hinges, he must bend from the waist. If he does that in the propping position then it is the opposite player that will go to ground first because he is pushing forward against a weight that collapses against away from him. In this instance Seiuli goes forward under Cole. You can also see Dan Cole’s arm pull backward on Seiuli forcing him into a twist. Watch the video, watch Coles’ forearm. If you are genuinely pushing forward, that sort of a pull back is not possible. Cole is going sideways and pulling the loosehead with him. The tell-tale sign is when the Highlander’s jersey gets pulled upwards towards his arm. His movement is always towards – and not away from – Cole, and his jersey is also being pulled towards by Cole, who drags him inward. It is a master of the dark arts against a rookie replacement prop. Gardner had done his homework.

Mr. Dunseath is right to bring up these issues. However, they must be brought up for discussion and not as some evangelical crusade against the referee. None of the calls above were clearly and obviously wrong as the video and article suggest. Debatable, certainly. But not anywhere near worth crucifying Angus Gardner and blaming the Lions’ poor showing on him.  Read more…

Sri Lanka’s Cricket Hilarity

Talking to Dom and Asanka on the ‘Fix’ on Monday morning, I think I described our win against India as a ‘flash in the pan’ and anticipated that things will be ‘business as usual’ pretty soon. Despite the horror of my own cliches, I realise that cliches are all that can be used to describe what has turned out to be a hackneyed modus operandi by Sri Lankans, both in the SLC jumpers, and not.

I only watched the India game when we were nicely poised and the place I happened to go to for dinner, had the cricket on. It was a pleasant surprise and a good come back for Mathews. Watching this team otherwise, is rarely worth the investment. Later we found out that this atypical performance was galvanised by some uncharitable words from Virender Sehwag. Hardly the motivation that professional sportspeople should aim for, but whatever works right? Fortunately, I was working for most of the Pakistan game, but didn’t anticipate it going any better than it did. Sri Lanka’s weaknesses against fast bowling have been well documented. And Pakistan, with their battery of left-armers, debutantes and match-fixers gave the Sri Lankan middle order some real trouble. Some batsmen got out to excellent deliveries and a few others to bad shot selection, forced by good bowling.

I have little grouse with the batsmen. Sometimes – especially when you’re playing Pakistan – the opposition just bowls really well. Dickwella needed to go on, and he and Mathews should probably have been a little bit more switched on.

The real grouse is with the fielding side. The complete lack of effort is now, finally, obvious to everyone. A few of us journos have been banging on about the fielding for years now. It reflects the state of the dressing room. Regardless, of your batting talent and bowling resources, most teams should be pretty even on the fielding charts. True enough, you sometimes have some exceptional fielders like Jonty Rhodes or Ricky Ponting. That is fabulous. But by and large any athlete – for that is what professional sportsmen should be – in the international arena, possessing the hand-eye coordination cricket requires, should be able to feckin’ field. Especially in the modern game, where skills have advanced so much, you should not be allowed anywhere near an elite team unless you can field competently. Not exceptionally, just competently.

Sarfraz’s incredible inside-edge catch off Dickwella, changed the game in Pakistan’s favour. Thisara Perera’s simple catch could have changed the game in Sri Lanka’s favour. It was one of many drops on the night, all of which were unacceptable from international cricketers. What has riled people up mostly, is that the incompetence is now blatant. It is not limited to a few players on the team, it is a pandemic level malaise that infests the entire side.

Lasith Malinga can’t field anymore. But he still bowls his heart out and is still, one leg, pot-belly, lion’s mane and everything, still one of the best exponents of his craft in the world. None of the other Sri Lankan cricketers – with the occasional exception of Mathews – can lay claim to that kind of reputation. Fans and analysts are likely to cut players of that quality, some slack. Nobody would have complained if Shane Warne refused to field at fine leg. Because he took blinders at slip. But if you’re not Shane Warne, you jolly well field where you’re asked to, and do it well. Not long ago an ageing Mahela Jaywardena had to be employed in the outfield because he, at 35, had more pace and a better arm than most players on the team. That is not acceptable. Nobody expected this team to go out and win. They did expect them to look like they were trying though.

It is for this reason that Chandimal and Perera have copped the flak. Understandably so. Chandimal should have realised that Sophia Gardens was not the flat batting track the Oval was. He barely got a knock at the Oval in any case, and then flailed expansively at the second ball he faced. There is something to be said for playing your natural game, but there is more to be said for circumspection and respecting the conditions and the bowler. You need to earn your right to dominate the opposition and unfortunately, talent is not enough of a wage to buy that right.

It is this kind of brain freeze, and lack of application, from highly paid professionals that is beginning to upset Sri Lankans islandwide. The memes and vitriol have been hilarious and scathing. Some do-gooders have called for ‘those who have never dropped a cricket ball to cast the first cherry’, but that kind of Biblical forgiveness is not the remit of cricket fans. From the perspective of Sri Lankans who see their politicians fiddling while Ratnapura floods, seeing the highest paid professionals in the country arsing about, clearly unqualified for their roles, is a legitimate source of chagrin.

Some ex-cricketers have rushed to the aid of their buddies on social media, asking us to applaud the effort of a team that ‘gave everything’ and ‘sacrificed so much’ to get where they are. Bollocks, mate. Speak about sacrificing time with their families to soldiers fighting a war. Speak about giving everything, to the mother who works a full day and has to get squashed on a train back home to feed and nurture her children on a measly stipend. Don’t ask those Sri Lankans and many others on the spectrum of every day struggle, to believe that showing up for cricket practice is an inconvenience on any level. Dedicated sports people sacrifice a lot. No doubt. But their rewards are also great. It doesn’t take an avid sports fan to take one look at Rafael Nadal and Thisara Perera and discern which one makes more sacrifices and gives more.

For the Sri Lankan cricketers of late, their rewards are relatively great without any manifest effort. It is reasonable therefore, for the average fan to ask how – if they are ‘sacrificing so much’ – did they acquire those pot bellies? How, did they become so inept at one of cricket’s most basic skills, i.e. – catching dollies. It doesn’t add up.

Yes, it’s cold. But it’s 19 degrees. Not 5 degrees. Making an effort in the field will keep you warm. Deal with it, or don’t tour abroad. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan all come from the tropics and they all made the semi-finals.

This particular team is a reflection of everything that’s wrong with this country. It is inconsistent and mediocre. It finds excuses and refuses to accept responsibility. Leadership is under constant threat, and communication – judging by the amount of run outs – is not optimal. Some guys try valiantly hard, some guys are good at what they do, but one or two morons spectacularly cock up everything for everyone.Whether it’s the parliament, an international cricket match, or being stuck in traffic, that seems to be how the story unfolds.

Hold people accountable. Put them under pressure. Fashion credible alternatives. Call for heads to role. Things will improve.

Don’t accept any old crap coming your way. Take pride in what you do, and hold professionals to the standards you’d like to see. It’s a long process. And our cricket team holds a mirror up to all of us. You don’t want to be the metaphorical Thisara Perera, do you?

Lions stifle Crusaders in ugly win

It’s been a trying week in Warren Gatland’s hotel room, that much is sure. The Lions coach, back in his native land of the long white cloud, had a countenance that would put any rain cloud to shame for much of the first two games on tour. The first, a narrow win against a team of Johnny Nonames comprising the Provincial Barbarians and the second, a convincing loss against the country’s weakest Super Rugby franchise. There was, it would appear, cause for some concern, if not alarm.

To be fair to the touring Lions, the first Barbarians game was played in front of a 90,000 strong crowd in the north of country at Whangarei. It seemed that the Lions had to pay their respects to the region of Tane Mahuta and the people it gives shade to. Only three days after landing and less than that in training sessions, the Provincial Barbarians, playing what is likely to be the biggest match of their careers were leading until an Anthony Watson try in the 52nd minute quelled their hopes of a famous victory. It was a lacklustre performance from what seemed like a hotch-potch ensemble of Lions.

The second game, three days later, against the Auckland Blues would have allowed for better acclimatisation and preparation. Or at least it should have. However, the second row unit of Laws and Itoje, together with the starting centre combination of Henshaw and Payne could not exert dominance on New Zealand’s weakest Super Rugby franchise. Tana Umaga is used to beating the Lions. First with the captain’s armband in 2005, and now in the coaches’ box in 2017. However, unlike the first essay, this was not a win any right-thinking Blues fan was expecting. When they got it, courtesy of a couple of magical offloads from Steven Luatua and Sonny Bill Williams finished off by blistering pace from Ihaia West, Umaga’s coaching box was as elated after a long season as Gatland’s was dour prior to a long tour.

When the head coach announced his team to play the Crusaders therefore, the only unbeaten team in the Super Rugby competition, he had to unleash a few of his trump cards. The XV that lined up at Christchurch was one that was picked to redeem Gatland. Not one that was picked in an effort to challenge for starting berths. This team was as close in the key areas to what the Lions’ starting XV would look like. It is unlikely that he would have wanted to show Steve Hansen that lineup until later in the tour. However, Umaga’s Blues forced his hand.

The resulting ugliness was not entirely a bad thing. Fans of Super Rugby will be disappointed by the anomalous lack of tries. Fans of the hard grind would have been delighted with the tourists’ defensive effort and line speed. Mako Vunipola personified the kind of effort that will be needed to make a mark in New Zealand, with some outstanding commitment in shooting up defensively, making big hits and carrying the ball strongly. His team mates obliged and willingly smashed into the Crusaders from kick off.

The determined line speed of the Lions, fuelled by their mid-week loss, rattled the Crusaders. Richie Mo’unga likes time on the ball. He was denied any of it by an outstanding rush defence that shut down all his options forcing him to kick the ball away. Without the reassuring presence of the injured Ryan Crotty outside him, Mo’unga functioned well below par, knowing that the long ball used to such good effect domestically was not available to him with the umbrella formation Andy Farrell had drilled to perfection. The Crusaders struggled to get wide, and the Lions kept making the tackles. The pressure was evident when Sam Whitelock fumbled at kick off. The Crusaders rarely mess around in set pieces and losing three crucial line outs with their all All Black second rowers was a factor that Alan Wyn-Jones and George Kruis can feel extremely happy about.

The hosts should have gotten closer though, with Joe Moody and Wyatt Crockett being penalised unreasonably by Mathieu Raynal when they were clearly dominant against the Lions front-row. The scrum penalties hurt the Crusaders, so much so that they spurned the opportunity of a scrum under the posts for a 5m line out, which was again spoiled by the excellent Vunipola.

Apart from Jack Goodhue’s (watch this lad) superb break which was fumbled by a nervous George Bridge, the Crusaders never came close to scoring with their 30% possession. Israel Dagg showed solidity, but none of the game breaking counter attack that even David Havili possesses. With Ben Smith under an injury cloud, Cory Jane’s exile may yet come back to haunt Hansen.

The Lions’ win, like Mako Vunipola, was unspectacular but hard working and physical. It will be the recipe that helps them get close. Without some finishing ability and creativity though, they will not be able to beat the All Blacks. Steve Hansen would not have failed to spot the acres between the onrushing first line of defence and the back three. No doubt Barrett will spot it well before Mo’unga did as well. Sean O’Brien was excellent for the Lions, as were Peter O’Mahony and Taulupe Faletau. Whether O’Brien will be in the Test XV though, is doubtful. If he isn’t, it will be a crying shame.

The All Blacks will definitely be better than the Crusaders. Retallick, Barrett and whoever starts at half back will ensure that. The worry for the Lions is whether they can get any better than they were on Saturday.

30 Years and Counting: Can Trinity Salvage Their Season?

Watching the Exeter Chiefs string together 34 phases in the build up to their Premiership win over the weekend was pretty exhilarating. The fact that the Wasps didn’t concede a penalty in all those phases was also an extraordinary performance. But watching the Premiership final, I was reminded, glaringly, what a cruel game rugby can be.

A devastated Nathan Hughes watched the ball sail through the posts after he conceded a penalty in the 78th minute of the game after being outstanding in attack and defence for the 77 minutes prior to that. The Chiefs tied it up and won with a scrum penalty in extra time. A scrum penalty which came, because the Wasps chose to send back their substituted prop and play without a tighthead to avoid uncontested scrums. It was sporting positivity that did unfortunately didn’t get rewarded on the day. Spare a thought for Hughes though, who was monstrous with ball in hand, and equally wall-like in defence. All it takes is one mistake at a crucial time, a refusal to heed JP Doyle’s call to ‘let it go eight’ and suddenly you’re a runner-up and not a champion.

Trinity College tasted much the same medicine last week when they made some crucial errors to allow Royal seal the league title up in Pallekalle. A much improved Royal side, were almost unrecognisable from the first round to the second. A side which began the season with plenty of holes in their wider defensive channels seemed to understand themselves much better in the second half of the season. The Guneratne Trophy win against STC seemed to herald their arrival as genuine contenders. Trinity began the season with a bang against Wesley, but since then, lost several key players to injury and seemed to spiral into a pressure-driven dissipation.

Royal’s outstanding run of results led them to a deserved league title. One that looked almost impossible with their shaky start against St. Joseph’s and close rum wins over Dharmaraja and St. Anthony’s. In a way, that start probably strengthened Royal’s resolve, while Trinity’s start made them a little complacent.

Lote Raikabula, despite being a World Series winning sevens player, is unlikely to have found himself – or expected to find himself – in the kind of cauldron that Pallakelle turns into on Bradby day. While skills and game plans are important, coaches also need to focus on the kind of discipline which prevents errors like crooked throws and errors on touch kicks. These are mistakes that happen after a stoppage, without any opposition player pressuring an error. Trinity were guilty of several unforced errors which cost them the game. They were also guilty of allowing their intensity to spill over into aggression. An aggression that saw them running at the man instead of letting the ball do the work as they did for their first try.

They paid the price for being psyched out, instead of being psyched up – a balance that previous coach Neil Footie had mastered. No surprise then, that Irish Lion Eric Miller, and All Black sevens star Raikabula emerged second best to Sanath Martis who in many ways is as street smart as Footie was for his four years in charge.

Imagine my surprise then when I saw Trinity keeping the ball in hand for as long as they did. Yes, the opening exchanges are always good to show the opposition you mean business, but the only way this Royal pack is going to be demoralised is if you send them backwards constantly. It’s as if Trinity had not even considered kicking as an acceptable tactic. Royal on the other hand knew what Trinity would try to do and matched them with some ferocious midfield defence.

With the kind of power in the forwards that Royal possess and then the driving maul which is their piece de resistance, the only way try and play them is by dominating field position. By forcing them to play in the wrong half of the pitch. I often find that foreign coaches, who come from much cooler climes where rugby is a winter sport, don’t like to kick. However, in Sri Lankan rugby it is a crucial part of the game. What is baffling is that even after several months, some coaches don’t cotton on. They do deserve some sympathy though. Unless one referees the driving maul like JP Doyle did so astutely in the Premiership final, the defending team have no chance. The fact that Sri Lankan referees go mute when they are expected to say ‘that’s once’ or ‘use it now’ make life almost unliveable for most teams, especially when they are playing Royal. But even though Trinity should have got more than one turnover last Saturday, coaches need to come up with a Plan B.

After the debacle against Isipatana, where the Royal full-back was all at sea, Shaqir Naufer has emerged as one of the Royalists’ best players when he was asked to play there. His placed kicking takes the pressure off captain Askey and adds tremendous value to the team. That Trinity have not even attempted to pressure him consistently, is another trick the Lions seem to have missed. Kicking and chasing is a a facet of the game that only Royal and Isipatana seem to have got right. And it is not surprise that they are deservedly at the top of the leaderboard.

Trinity have to ask themselves whether their high profile coaches are the way to go. Neil Footie was certainly not a British Lion nor an All Black Sevens player. But he brought home some Bradby Shields. After waiting 30 years for a league title they will be pretty gutted to cough up the Shield for the third year in a row.

Royal won this league and have taken a step towards the Bradby on the training paddock. Not in the 80 minutes that constitute a rugby match. Other teams will do well to appreciate the difference.

The Call of The Wild

Usually, lions roar. And do so in what has proverbially become known as their ‘den’. But apart from the Biblical story of Daniel which features a den, lions generally live on the vast planes without any fear. The question on everybody’s minds then, is whether the incongruent British and Itirsh Lions will mirror the lifestyle of their mascot from the animal kingdom?  Roaring and dominating as the apex predator. The chances are that the 2017 edition of the British Lions may not do that. The Lions, being exclusively a touring team, are forever deprived of their ‘den’, and are often found scrapping for their prey in a hostile Southern Hemisphere savannah.

 

The last foray into these hostile environs yielded excellent results though, with the British and Irish Lions beating the World Cup semi-finalists of the time 2-1 in a close series. The current, freshly-chosen, Lions squad seems to have a bit of a Cardiff hangover to it, given the names that Gatland has put on his team sheet. The same coach and same captain from the winning hunt last time combine against a very different opponent. A finely balanced series in Australia was won emphatically through controversial selections in 2013 and Gatland has stubbornly stuck to the script four years later, despite the script being faded and tattered.

 

In the final test with both Warburton and Paul O’Connell injured, the talismanic Brian O’Driscoll was expected to lead the Lions in the decisive game. An honour he had been craving ever since he lasted only a few minutes of the first test under his captaincy in 2005 against the nasty All Blacks. This honour was clinically taken away from him though, by Warren Gatland who was not about to allow emotions to get in the way of winning a test match. He picked Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in the centres and the Lions won 41-16 recording the most points ever by a Lions team in a test.

 

That team featured ten Welshman without the absent captain. And despite the pundits’ outcry, the in-form Welsh backline put their Australian counterparts to shame, with Davies and North being particularly excellent. Gatland has insisted that his current side has been picked on merit and not on nationality. However, that is a chorus that even the choir will have a little difficulty in singing, given that if the Six Nations was still the competition of old, Wales would have finished last. Davies is a shade of the player he was, and Jamie Roberts’ battering ram days are well behind him.

 

England’s Joe Launchbury is high on the selection casualty list, as is Ireland’s excellent Gary Ringrose. Both players could have made a difference especially with Ringrose’s attacking subtlety, a subtlety which Wales have lost under Gatland. The imposing Rob Kearney misses out, as does England’s dangerous Mike Brown. Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell find places in the squad as does Ben Te’o who is not considered good enough to start for England. This is interesting as the high ball game has become such a staple in test match rugby and Leigh Halfpenny, for all his aerial prowess, is not a big man. If Farrell starts he doesn’t even need to kick. With SBW and Ben Smith chasing kicks, it could be a little more worrisome for the full back, which begs the question why Brown and Zebo were omitted. Stuart Hogg though, must start. The new mantra is pick at least two full backs if you can’t pick another.

 

In fairness to Gatland though, only three players in this writers’ opinion wrote their names boldly on the squad sheet prior to the announcement. Those were Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Stuart Hogg. The others who really stood out were all in the Irish back row, in the form of Stander, O’Brien and O’Mahoney in that order. Given this dearth of real quality and the fact that England were a head and shoulders above all other teams, it is perplexing that Gatland has not gone for more players from the champion team. He must remember that in 2013, Wales were the form team. This time, despite boasting 12 in the tour party, they are nowhere close. England are closer.

 

Beating the All Blacks is often a pipe dream. Especially in their home country. To do so, a certain physical callousness is required. A clinical approach that Martin Johnson’s England managed, but O’Driscoll’s Lions didn’t. Those tours were a couple of years apart. To bring that physical edge Gatland seems to be relying on Henderson, Itoje and Lawes backed by the Irish bruisers. Whether that will eventuate remains to be seen but it is unlikely that Itoje on his first tour outside of the Northern Hemisphere will deal adequately with the hostility that is Jerome Kaino and Brodie Retallick, not counting the likes of Messam and Dixon who will certainly pop by for an appetizer before the Tests. Devin Toner’s absence at line out time will also be felt in that his sheer physical presence will pressure the smaller Whitelock.

 

It appears Tommy Seymour has also been selected haphazardly. During the tournament he was not the best wing, and was ironically enough, not even Scotland’s best wing with Visser ghosting toward the line more than once during the tournament with some sleight of foot. Johnny Gray, with his defensive work rate can also be a little upset he doesn’t make the tour party at the expense of George Kruis. The personnel do not seem to suggest an underlying ethos, nor style.

 

All things considered. Gatland has perhaps not given himself the best chance of achieving an improbable goal. Unless he knows something the rest of the rugby world doesn’t, the decision to play Farell in the centres smacks of some naivete or master plan. One of the extremes.

 

For what it is worth, here’s my Lions match day 23 notwithstanding the squad that has been picked. Yes, there’s no place for the skipper:

 

Hogg, Daly, Ringrose, Henshaw, North, Sexton, Murray; Vunipola, Best, Furlong, Gray, Wyn Jones, Itoje, O’Brien, Stander

 

George, McGrath, Marler, Lawes, Warburton, Youngs, Farrell, Payne

 

Hopefully, for the neutral, the Lions will roar. Not whimper.

 

 

 

Masters Not In Charge

After much controversey, the schools rugby season has begun in earnest. How earnest we will know soon enough, because the Sports Minister has threatened to indefinitely postpone the tournament due to the absence of a rule book.

Hardly a trivial matter, the absence of rules in this country. It seems to work quite well in government departments and corporate life. The Honourable Minister will do well to impose his standards on other areas of Lankan life as well. Nevertheless, he has a point. Rules need to be in existence. And they are currently not.

The absence of rules was rather apparent when Wesley College were recommend enormously large bans to some of their players. The bans are still to be implemented, but unconfirmed reports have it that Jayaweera, the hapless Wesley second row, faces a one year ban for the least culpability in the entire fracas at the tail end of Trinity v Wesley encounter which kicked off the season.

Jayaweera chases back and tries to prevent Sakalasooriya from scoring Trinity’s tenth try. For a guy chasing back the opposition’s tenth try, he should be given a medal rather than a ban to be honest. He runs into Sakalsooriya, who had grounded the ball, leading with his shoulder. It was not even close to the worst thing I’ve seen on a rugby pitch this year. He runs around, raises his arm and apologises to the referee, and carries on until Sakalasooriya has a rush of blood, dashes the ball to the ground – which itself is a penalty – and advances on Jayaweera. When a team is winning by 40 hopefully they will have the good sense to be empathetic of the opposition’s frustrations. But that wasn’t the case. While facing the advancing Sakalasooriya, Jayaweera gets pushed, hard, in the back by Madena. A yellow card at the very least, if not red, for the being the third man into a fight.

The fact that these niceties were lost on the adjudicators is both hilarious, and tragic. With Jayaweera getting the longest ban for the mildest crime. The two Trinity players escape without sanction. Unbelievable. The disparity of one year vs. nothing at all, is mind boggling.

That the Wesley team and the bench should receive harsh punishment goes without saying. There is never a situation where a bench should empty onto the pitch and home teams must ensure that the crowds are controlled. Wesley failed on both counts and should be penalised.

The fact that the immediate response has been similar to the Dharmaraja vs Joes fight is also laughable. In that situation, the Rajan player had been carded and took a swing at an opposition player on his way out of the ground. The circumstances were much, much worse and the crowd invasion far more severe. That this incident should warrant a similar ban is just bad administration.

And what can you expect of bad administrators, but just that? DSS were admitted to the competition at the 11th hour. When the issue had been brewing since the end of last season. It’s shambolic. It really is.

And despite the shambles the tournament is followed avidly by keenly interested fans in their thousands. Surely, they deserve better? Sponsors deserve better for the millions they pump into the sport. Where do those millions go? The schools bear the cost of the games, they pay the coaches, hire the grounds and also chip in for the referees, so what of the much vaunted title sponsorship cash?

I dunno.

 

 

 

 

 

“You’re shiiiit…and you know you are”

My only guest blogger is also the only other person who sings ‘you’re shit and you know you are’ at the SSC bar to the tune of Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Go West’. With the Aussies thumped in the test series, their whinging has continued despite the ODI series win. When will they stop? Will they ever?

….

Growing up a Jaffna Tamil boy, it was a reality that I had more relatives living outside Sri Lanka than I did living in the same city. Let me point out one thing before I start though, I’m hardly Jaffna Tamil. I’d prefer to label myself a product of the immaculately tree lined neighbourhoods of central Colombo. I’m very proud of this. I went to school at Reid Avenue and Gregory’s road, attended Aunty Julian’s swimming squad at the SSC and once I grew up and settled down in employment, have spent many an evening sipping an ice cold Lion lager at the Rowing Club.

I mention these facts because this is very much what I see myself as. I am a product of Colombo and this is what I identify with. There will be other Sri Lankan’s who have a different set of factors which have influenced them in a similar way.
When I was little, there were two TV channels. ITN and Ruphvahini. Then MTV was launched and I almost wet myself with excitement. As they launched they showed trailers of the kind of programming they would be showing. If memory serves me correctly “The Incredible Hulk” was one of their early movie hits. They used to start broadcasting in the afternoons. I used to turn the TV on and sit staring at the geometric pre broadcast pattern until the digital clock counted up to 1630. I think I spent so much time in front of the box TV that we had, that I began to acquire serious static. Things would stick to me. Either that or I was a very dirty child.
My neighbourhood had about 10 kids and apart from the cartoon watching that MTV facilitated (unless you count Rupavahini’s, Soviet Era “Just you wait Rabbit”) the predominant leisure activity was cricket. Played with a tennis ball, down a narrow lane. The one thing this lane did encourage you to do, was play straight. The most effective shot the lofted straight drive, but not too lofted, over the road and into the adjoining houses was out. This particular quirk butchered any serious cricket ambitions I had. I was always caught at mid on or mid off, seemingly always checking my stroke. We played in shorts, wearing rubber slippers. We played in the rain. These were happy memories of childhood.
Almost all of my cousins lived in Australia. I loved them. They were fun and when they used to visit we would go on long trips to the hill country or to the beach. They would spend summers with us. What baffled me was the different set of rules which they seemed to live under. I had to be dressed up like a member of the Vienna Boys Choir in order to go out for dinner, whereas my cousins seemed to be able get away with the minimal fuss of trousers and t shirt. They also used to posses an infinite wealth of Chocolate. Most often in the completely alien form of “Cherry Ripe” or the weird Carmello Koala. This was a big deal for me.
Even at dinner time, special meals were cooked for them. Less chilli more tomatoes, or alien spirals of what I later in life found out was called “pasta”. They were madly into cricket and commentating. This came out mostly when we used to take our trips out of town. They would sit with me in the back seat and give a running commentary on the driving style of our erstwhile driver Gunasekere. They would marvel at the way he drove. I used to laugh with them. Only later did I realise they were being quite cruel. I would also mimic them and refuse to eat rice and curry. They were older than me and I adored them. The only point at which we would fight would be when it came to cricket. My heroes were De Silva and Ranatunga, theirs The Waugh Twins, McDermott and Boon.
As life went on and I grew older. I realised there was a serious disconnect between my cousins and myself. I had grown up and moved to several countries, although I was very much Sri Lankan. They too had moved on and then returned to Australia and settled down. Their attitude towards my family was always of quaint condescension.
We were the relatives who came from the beautiful but backward Island nation. They were always family but I used to catch the quietly mocking comments of “Oh is that how it happens in Sri Lanka?” or when speaking about the Gallery Cafe or the like “That restaurant is ACTUALLY nice”. Of course its nice, its bloody marvellous.
Then there was always the political commentary. The quiet sniggers of “You got your license, and how much did you pay? Typically Sri Lankan.” Which was probably correct but not really that funny when a nation was led by a man like Tony Abbot.
Things would boil over only during family dinners when cricket was brought up. So much so that the women in the family banned all talk of cricket. My cousins would (rightly so) harp on about the record of the Australian cricket team against Sri Lanka. We would gleefully remind them of 96. They would retaliate with our seeming inability to play test cricket. Someone might say that Australians don’t really play cricket in as much as they merely sledge the opposition and would have to count on that to win. They would say Murali chucked. We’d call them thugs.
Which brings me back to the curious incident that took place over the month of August. Australia were obliterated in the test series against Sri Lanka. Mind you, against a Sri Lankan side which seemed to border on the comical. But suddenly they were transformed. Enough has been written about the performance of the respective sides so I don’t have to go into it anymore. I will however elaborate on certain instances and comments during the Test Series.
Nathan Lyon remarked “If I go any further, I’ll hit water.” Commenting on the foot holes during DAY 1 of the SSC test match. This was mainly because of the Australian gripe on the turning nature of the pitch. Mind you Five centuries would be struck during the test, two by Australians. Yes pitches in Sri Lanka spin. However Nathan, apparently you just bowl right arm slow, because you were about as effective as brandy when its used to douse a fire. However the gripe continued, because these were Sri Lankan pitches. As I was reading these comments, countless trips in the family Fiat came back to me. As did the countless family dinners in Sydney, Melbourne and around the world.
Mitchell Starc who is a fabulous bowler and performed super human feats always enjoyed a good sledge. He was also in on the Act saying the pitches were poor. Or recently in the one day series, throwing the ball at the batsmen after the delivery had been deemed dead by the umpires. He bowled a beamer during the second Sri Lankan innings at the SSC that a Discus thrower would have been proud of, because Australia were about to be whitewashed 3-0 by Sri Lanka. 
 
Brendon Julian (Yes, BJ) pushed Russel Arnold so far during the post match sum up in Pallekelle, that Russell threatened to visit him in the small hours of the night (He actually said, “You have to watch what you say in these parts Brendan”). That was because Australia had lost a test match from a winning position to Sri Lanka. 
Before the test series started several of the Australian batsmen were likened to Don Bradman. Including of course Adam Voges. Now after death by Rangana, several of them seemed destined to spend an increasing amount of time on the couch of some of Australia’s more specialised psychiatrists. A pundit on Cricinfo summed it up perfectly “You saw Bradman batting in Asia?”. The statement rings true, history is written by the victors, why is it that cricketing greatness has always been measured by how sub-continental players perform in England and Australia? Did Bradman play at the SSC or Eden Gardens? World cricket is about more than three or four countries. The ICC must take cognisance of this. We must unlike those who have gone before us measure success against all comers and in all conditions.
The world has changed. We aren’t perfect but we have 24 hour TV now and highways and two years ago we came together as a nation to effect one of the greatest democratic changes the world has seen. We have a long way to go but we will get there. Yes, Sri Lanka. Messy, hot, humid Sri Lanka. We drive badly, our curries are hot, our politicians corrupt and our systems inefficient. We don’t have a lot but we can play cricket. Our tracks spin and we will probably struggle on quicker wickets (Mind you, we’ve got some young batsmen now). However we beat you, and although you might wonder at how this happened perhaps a start would be to stop pretending that our cricketing culture is somehow inferior to yours.
So life will go on, and we will see what happens in the aftermath of this series. I for one can’t wait for the next family reunion. C’mon Aussie, can we play you every week?
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