Lions Watch - Week One

 

On the face of it, there was not a lot for the home nations to shout about after the opening weekend of the autumn Tests.

Three matches against the participants of the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship, and three defeats.

Only England, who put an under-strength and under-prepared Fiji to the sword at Twickenham, could take much pleasure from their initial efforts.

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

For Lions head coach Warren Gatland, who took in Ireland's defeat by South Africa and Scotland's dismantling by the All Blacks, the notebook on potential tourists might have remained relatively blank.

But even sifting through the debris of those two performances, and Wales' surprise defeat by Argentina, there were individuals who did themselves no harm amid the collective malaise.

So which players impressed?

Let's start with a player who was starting only his second Test on Saturday.

Alex Goode was a slightly controversial selection at full-back for England, given the consistent domestic excellence of Harlequins' Mike Brown.

Watch Goode in action as England ease to victory over Fiji

But the Saracens playmaker, 24, more than justified his place, coming into the line to help create three of England's seven tries, kicking well from hand and bringing a sharp rugby brain and awareness of space to the red rose attack.

"He is a footballer, very skilful, he carries the ball in two hands and he comes off both feet to keep the opposition guessing," noted former England centre Jeremy Guscott.

"He played like a second five-eighth [fly-half] rather than a traditional full-back," observed ex-Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies. "He came in and helped Toby Flood to control the game."

Goode's versatility - he has also played fly-half for Saracens and appears to have the attributes to play centre - may also be a useful factor in his Lions prospects.

Full-back is not a position where Gatland is scratching around for options, with Wales' Leigh Halfpenny again impressing with his positioning, solidity under the high ball and goal-kicking against Argentina, even if - like the rest of the Welsh backline - he was muted in attack.

With Ireland's Rob Kearney, who started the second and third Lions Tests in South Africa in 2009, out of action until the new year, Simon Zebo also took the opportunity to impress against the Springboks on Saturday in only his second Test start.

"I thought he looked very comfortable on the ball, exciting in attack and very solid when the ball was kicked to him," said Ireland's injured talisman, Brian O'Driscoll. "He has great feet, is really quick - he is the son of a sprinter - and runs great trail lines," added former captain Keith Wood.

What about the fly-half generals?

Before the autumn Tests started, Ireland's Jonny Sexton was the unanimous choice of all four of our BBC analysts for the Lions number 10 spot.

Lions Watch - Jonny Sexton

His first-half showing against the Springboks, when he kicked four penalties to give the hosts a 12-3 half-time lead, did nothing to dispel that impression.

"He also showed great leadership qualities and when the chances came, he put them over - he looked very calm and composed," noted Wood. "He has to be one of the Lions' 10s."

"When he gets into a rhythm he is a world-class goal-kicker, to go with the rest of his game," added Sexton's injured Leinster team-mate O'Driscoll.

As for his competitors, Rhys Priestland again struggled to spark the Wales attack as the hosts ran out of ideas in their attempts to counter a formidable Argentine defence, while England's Toby Flood played very flat on the gainline, picked out runners in good positions and nailed seven out of eight kicks at goal.

Any decent finishers on display this weekend?

England coach Stuart Lancaster, reflecting on Chris Ashton's absence from his side's opening Test because of suspension, mused recently that "there aren't too many world-class finishers around".

But while the likes of Wales duo Alex Cuthbert and George North, and Ireland's Tommy Bowe, endured frustrating games, Ashton's replacement Charlie Sharples helped himself to two tries and Scotland wing Tim Visser announced himself to a wider audience.

Did you know?

  • Visser's father Marc played more than 80 times for the Netherlands in the back row
  • His younger brother Sep played for the Dutch Under-18 team
  • Visser played for the English Schools' Under-18 team

Visser, 25, was born in Zeewolde, Netherlands, and was spotted playing in the Amsterdam Sevens before coming to the UK, where he had a three-year spell with Newcastle before moving to Edinburgh.

Having scored 43 tries in 74 games in his first three seasons with Edinburgh, Visser - who qualifies for Scotland on the residency rule - has now scored four tries in his first three Tests, Sunday being his first on home soil.

"Visser was a flying Dutchman and now he is a flying Scotsman, I am pleased to say," said former Scotland captain Andy Nicol, who chose Visser in his Lions Test side before the autumn series started.

"He left [New Zealand wing] Cory Jane for dead with his pace for his first try, and he is always in the right place at the right time. He has a great try-scoring record in club rugby and we always ask the question 'can he step up?' Well, he has just done it against New Zealand."

What about up front? Any positive signs?

Amid the wreckage of Wales' opening effort against the Pumas, Gatland could at least take some solace in the performance of number eight Toby Faletau in a losing cause.

Lions Watch - Toby Faletau

The Grand Slam holders, without injured flanker Dan Lydiate and centre Jonathan Davies, lost another of their main ball-carriers when Lions centre Jamie Roberts trooped off early in the contest.

Much of what little momentum they generated came from Faletau, the multi-talented back-rower who turns 22 on Monday. He made 122m from 18 runs with the ball, the most by any Welshman, and also got through a mountain of work in defence.

Elsewhere, Gatland will have noted the impact of a player who has yet to play a single game for his new club, Leinster. New Zealand-born prop Michael Bent has barely arrived in Dublin, but with an Irish grandmother on his CV, he came on for his Test debut against the Springboks.

"Ireland had just given away two tight-head penalties at the previous two scrums, but he came on and got into an incredibly good position with a very flat back, didn't go in at all, and suddenly the penalties started going Ireland's way," noted Wood. "He also carried the ball very well."

Wood, by the way, believes that while supporters love to discuss Lions contenders, the players themselves must put it firmly to the back of their minds if they are to actually achieve their ambition of being selected.

"It is amazing that players who start thinking about the Lions at this time of year tighten up in club games and internationals, because people say there is big pressure on them to put in big performances to get on the tour," he said. "That is not what they need to be thinking about."

O'Driscoll, a contender for a fourth Lions tour, maintains strong collective performances, especially in the Six Nations, should be the prime focus.

"The attitude has to be for the team to do well, because then you will get more players on the tour," he added. "That is the way it works, as we saw when Wales won the Slam in 2005, and ourselves in 2009.

"Guys are going to pick up injuries throughout the season and others are going to show form, so the teams picked now are going to look nothing like the team that travels to Australia."

Don't let that stop you coming up with your own, mind.