Lions 2013: Irish and Welsh give Warren Gatland comfort
Last week, having spent a couple of weeks running his eye over potential candidates before returning to Wales duty, Lions head coach Warren Gatland was upbeat about what he'd witnessed so far this autumn.
"There's definitely been positives," he said. "There are some individuals who've put their hands up. There are a couple of players who haven't been doing brilliantly for their club sides but have been showing some pretty good form on the international stage."
With the more established candidates, many of whom toured South Africa in 2009, Gatland says it is more a case of "checking on their form, and hopefully their form is good". That hasn't necessarily been the case, and at least a dozen 'probables' remain sidelined by injury.
"A couple" of younger Scottish players had, he said, "really put their hand up" - Ryan Grant? Tim Visser? Henry Pyrgos perhaps? - but it was also possible to detect a touch of disappointment in his observation that "I don't think there's been any really outstanding performances from the younger players at the moment".
This third weekend of autumn Tests would have offered some comfort on both fronts, with some experienced players recovering form, and fresh faces vaulting into contention.
Irish eyes are smiling again
Gatland might have mixed feelings when he watches Ireland's seven-try demolition of Argentina.
While cumulative fatigue in their last Test of the year appeared to affect the Pumas' performance, the new-found verve of the Irish is a looming danger for Wales, as their first opponents in the defence of their Six Nations title in February.
But with his Lions hat on, the New Zealander must surely be enthused by the purpose, precision and panache exhibited by Ireland in all areas of the team.
Up front, prop Cian Healy, South African-born hooker Richardt Strauss, lock Donnacha Ryan and flankers Peter O'Mahony and Chris Henry will all be firmly on Gatland's radar.
Loose-head Healy has looked like a Lions probable for the past two years anyway, and Ryan increasingly looks the dominant figure in the Irish second row, with Paul O'Connell struggling with injury and Donncha O'Callaghan no longer a first-choice.
O'Mahony impressed with his work in the air and on the floor, Henry was "exceptional" according to Ireland coach Declan Kidney, while Strauss's set-piece prowess and footballing ability has swiftly elevated him into contention after just two caps for his adopted country.
Behind the scrum, Conor Murray distributed intelligently, Jonathan Sexton confirmed he is the Lions fly-half elect with some superb passing, tactical kicking and two well-finished tries while Tommy Bowe, who played all three Lions Tests in South Africa, collected a brace of tries as a reward for his impressive energy and work-rate.
"I saw him at the beginning of the season and he looked a bit flat, but he has come back and found his pace, his edge, his determination," noted ex-England and Lions centre Jeremy Guscott of Bowe.
The name on everyone's lips though was Craig Gilroy, who after marking his debut in the non-cap international against Fiji with a hat-trick, capped his first Test proper with a scintillating try amid a display of stepping, jinking and elusive running that drew comparisons with the great Shane Williams.
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's dancing, he's shimmying, he's scoring!" drooled BBC commentator Andrew Cotter, before adding admiringly of the Ulster wing: "His movement is Williams-esque."
While several of the other Lions wing contenders - Wales duo George North and Alex Cuthbert, Scotland's Visser - are of the marauding giant variety, Gilroy is almost diminutive by comparison at a slight 6ft, but brings welcome variety and a reminder that brains as well as brawn will be required to beat the Wallabies.
"Gilroy is like a breath of fresh air," said former Ireland and Lions hooker Keith Wood. "Every time he gets the ball there's a bit of a buzz and he made something of it every time. There's a sparkle there.
"He seems very balanced. He was energetic, sharp and aggressive with the ball in hand and runs great trail lines."
What about the other home nations? Scotland?
With due respect to Richie Gray for another afternoon of hard toil in a losing cause, it would seem a trifle inappropriate to discuss further Scottish candidates after what former captain Andy Nicol called "the worst result in Scottish rugby history" against Tonga.
The delicate question of how many Scots might make the Lions party (two originally in 2009, three in 2005 and 2001) can wait for another day.
Perversely, could Andy Robinson's departure make him a candidate to join Gatland's coaching team? He was, after all, an assistant coach on the 2001 and 2005 trips. Just a thought.
Any England movers and shakers?
Flanker Tom Wood, in his first Test since the World Cup, suggested he has the physicality, mobility, defensive resolve (he was England's top tackler) and attitude to join the already bulging list of back-row contenders.
His ability to play on either flank could work in his favour, although whether it will be sufficient to elevate him above some high-class blind-side and open-side specialists is debatable. The Northampton man probably needs to nail down a position for the rest of the season.
Joe Launchbury's mobility again caught the eye on his first Test start during the narrow defeat by South Africa, while fellow lock Geoff Parling made good yardage, was strong in the tackle and is becoming a quietly impressive Test player. As England's line-out leader though he will not enjoy Monday's review session, even if the fault-line appeared to lie more with hooker Tom Youngs's radar.
Those advocating Chris Robshaw as a potential Lions captain - let alone tourist - are probably diminishing in number after more questions around his decision-making for the second week in a row.
Another solid outing from full-back Alex Goode apart, none of England's backline shone, with fly-half Toby Flood falling backwards after two costly missed penalties and errors in other areas of his game.
And Wales? Reasons to be cheerful?
The scoreline in defeat to New Zealand may not suggest it, but this was Wales' best performance of the autumn by far and for the last half-hour they showed they could match the pace and intensity of the world champions, an encouraging sign.
Critics will argue, quite rightly, that 30 minutes out of 80 is nowhere near enough, but from the depths of despair at 33-0 down, the character and quality of the fightback was a positive sign for both Wales and the Lions.
Outside centre Jonathan Davies, in his first Test of the season after injury, looked like a Lion-in-waiting, while Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau reasserted their credentials with strong outings, hooker Matthew Rees and lock Luke Charteris improved the Welsh set-pieces, and wing Alex Cuthbert got better as the match went on.
Gatland will hope to see more evidence against Australia next weekend that some of his key performers have rediscovered themselves.
After all, another chance to get up close and personal with the opponents they may face in a different red shirt next summer is not one to pass up.
If Wales could end their seven-match losing streak against the Wallabies, it may bring significant psychological rewards down under.
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