Lions Watch - Week Two

 

If Warren Gatland's notebook was hardly bulging after the first weekend of autumn Tests, it is difficult to imagine the Lions head coach furiously pencilling in more potential tourists over the past three days.

Wales' abject loss to Samoa, England's dim-witted defeat by Australia and Scotland's failure to cope with South Africa's power added up to another dispiriting weekend for the home nations.

Only an Ireland XV, denuded of caps but imbued with the adventurous spirit of youth, found reasons to be cheerful after racking up eight tries against admittedly limited opponents in Fiji.

If anything, events at Twickenham only brought into sharper focus the scale of the task facing Gatland's Lions down under next summer.

The Wallabies, deprived of a third of their first-choice XV, may have enjoyed some good fortune against England but such an impressive statement, a week after being hammered in Paris, was a reality check for those confidently predicting a first Lions Test series victory since 1997.

So were there any crumbs of comfort?

Not many, but dig below the depressing scorelines and there were a few morsels for Gatland to chew on.

It's not often a South Africa scrum finds itself in full disintegration mode, but Scotland did a job on them to the extent the Boks were routinely conceding penalties at the set-piece by the end.

For that unlikely scenario, they were indebted in large part to the returning Euan Murray , an experienced tight-head renowned for his strong-arm scrummaging.

"Murray, who did not play in the game against the All Blacks because of religious reasons, reminded the Murrayfield faithful what they had been missing."

The 32-year-old, who returns to the English Premiership with Worcester later this month after a spell in France with Agen, might have played a greater role on the last Lions trip but for an untimely ankle injury that ended his South Africa tour just before the first Test.

After missing Scotland's opening autumn Test against New Zealand because his faith precludes him from playing on Sundays, Murray gave opposite number Gurthro Steenkamp, no mean operator himself, all manner of trouble at Murrayfield.

Ably assisted by the spectacularly hirsute loose-head Ryan Grant, who was also a lively presence in the loose on only his fifth cap, it was a timely reminder of the influence Murray can exert on a game.

With Wales titan Adam Jones one of a dozen probable tourists currently hors de combat, and Dan Cole and his England comrades coming off second best to Australia, Gatland will welcome signs of depth in this pivotal, cornerstone position, just as the value of Jones to Wales was highlighted in the way their own scrum splintered in his absence in the final quarter against Samoa.

Any other signs of Lions in the making?

Yes. Or cubs at least. It may be too early to be talking of some players in a Lions context, but a few players put themselves forward as potential 'bolters', as they like to call outsiders who come from nowhere, down under.

Adriaan Strauss

Highlights - Scotland 10-21 South Africa

Not many outside Scottish rugby knew much about Henry Pyrgos before Mike Blair threw out an ambitious looping pass six minutes into the second half, which was gleefully picked off by Springboks hooker Adriaan Strauss to canter over for a second try and kill the game stone dead at 21-3.

Or so we thought. Out came Andy Robinson's crook, off came Blair, and within two minutes of entering the fray, Glasgow scrum-half Pyrgos - who made his debut as a late replacement against the All Blacks - had zipped through a line-out from Kelly Brown's tap-back to score a try that energised his forwards, fellow backs and the entire occasion.

"Pyrgos made a real impact when he came on, bossing his forwards, injecting pace and making sure Scotland got the ball wide for the first time," noted former captain and scrum-half Andy Nicol approvingly.

That's what you call an impact replacement

Indeed. And while England's Joe Launchbury did not have quite the same transformative effect on proceedings at Twickenham, it was possible to detect the stirrings of a major talent in the making.

In the opinion of his Wasps coach Dai Young, part of the victorious Lions side in Australia as a 20-year-old in 1989, the 6ft 6in, 18-stone lock is a "nailed on Lion, if not this time, then the next".

England 14-20 Australia

England 14-20 Australia - Highlights

The athletic 21-year-old made an immediate impression when he came on after 53 minutes for his second cap, having won his first as a replacement against Fiji last week, leaping like a full-back to claim a fairly aimless kick from Toby Flood just seconds after his arrival.

He remained heavily involved in an impressive cameo as England tried to salvage the game in the final quarter, showing good ball skills, game understanding and a secure line-out target, claiming four balls on England's throw and stealing one of Australia's.

Does he have the requisite 'grunt' to make a consistent impact at Test level? We may not have to wait long to find out, with a first start in the offing - possibly as soon as Saturday against South Africa.

While we're talking about the line-out, England hooker Tom Youngs can also take a bow. With doubts over his throwing accompanying his debut against Fiji, the converted centre can be proud of a record that sees England yet to lose any of their 28 line-outs in their two games so far.

With Dylan Hartley and Ireland's Rory Best, two of the Lions front-runners, among those on the sidelines, such accuracy in one of the hooker's prime arts will have been noted elsewhere.

Any other rough diamonds waiting for a polish?

Well, it's difficult to assess a player's real worth against a side as accommodating against Fiji, but Ireland may have at least unearthed one or two gems in Limerick on Saturday evening.

While the backs stole the headlines - wing Craig Gilroy's searing pace brought him a hat-trick, while centres Darren Cave and Luke Marshall, and fly-half Paddy Jackson all enhanced their claims - the stand-out performance belonged to Ulster blind-side flanker Iain Henderson .

Ireland's Craig Gilroy

Highlights - Ireland XV 53-0 Fiji

"He is definitely someone to watch over the next year or two," purred ex-Ireland captain and flanker Phillip Matthews. "He is a powerful runner, has a little step, and the turnover he won [ripping the ball away from Fiji scrum-half Nikola Matawalu in the 60th minute] was a very mature play for a very young man. It was a fairly complete performance."

One that was sealed "with a gorgeous little dummy, before drawing his man" to put Marshall over for the final try of the night.

"He seems to have time on the ball and appears completely unflustered," noted another former Ireland captain, Keith Wood. "He carries it incredibly well. There is no panic at all, which at the age of 20 is very impressive."

OK, so these might be Lions of the future, but what about next year's opposition?

It would be remiss not to conclude this week's Lions Watch without a word about the Wallabies.

With the likes of James O'Connor, Quade Cooper, Will Genia and James Horwill back in Australia and the return of star open-side David Pocock delayed by a further week, the Wallabies' resources looked to be wearing thin.

But prop Ben Alexander shored up the scrum, Nick Phipps shone at scrum-half, Berrick Barnes showed footballing nous and goal-kicking prowess from full-back, wing Nick Cummins tucked into some Test 'meat' and Michael Hooper , 21, suggested that even without Pocock, Australia have a high-class breakdown tearaway.

British & Irish Lions 2013 Tests

22 June: 1st Test - Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

29 June: 2nd Test - Etihad Stadium, Melbourne

6 July: 3rd Test - ANZ Stadium, Sydney

"He has had a big year and just keeps going," said coach Robbie Deans. "He has got a great motor. His ability to carry the ball is a point of difference but he's also good over the ball."

Hooper's demonstration of his startling progress since making his Test debut in June did not bode well for Chris Robshaw's Lions prospects, the England captain looking out-paced and out-thought in comparison to his direct opponent.

But he wouldn't be alone there among home nations players.

"The difference at the moment," noted former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies indicating his head, "is that the southern hemisphere sides are playing up here a bit better.

"Everyone probably thought before the autumn series that the Lions would beat Australia. But people forget that union is only the third or fourth sport in Australia, and this series will be vital for its future down there. They can't afford to be blown away by the Lions."

Oblivion is clearly a powerful motivator.