Liam Toland: Stop the Vunipola boys and you stop Saracens
Match up of Lions Maro Itoje and Peter O’Mahony worth the match ticket alone
Peter O’Mahony rises high to steal a crucial late lineout against England’s Maro Itoje at the Aviva. The two Lions will renew rivalry tomorrow at the same venue. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Had Peter O’Mahony not soared highest on 73:19 minutes and, in doing so, stolen England’s lineout and their last chance to win back-to-back Grand Slams, would Lions selection have been different?
Or had Jamie Heaslip’s untimely last-minute injury not occurred as it did in the Aviva prior to Ireland’s defeat of England would O’Mahony be in the travelling party to New Zealand? That O’Mahony totally deserves to be there is not my point; that it took opportunity to meet his preparation is.
Incidentally it was Maro Itoje who O’Mahony stole from in that lineout! Lions selection has been made and new Lions ‘team-mates’ are back in the Aviva tomorrow; Itoje and O’Mahony’s battle is worth the match ticket alone as they poke the Lion!
Others were not as fortunate.
I wonder how much influence the coaching ticket had on those marginal calls. Clearly having Andy Farrell in the Irish camp can have done no harm to Jared Payne but for those missing out this time the reverse can be true (Denis Hickie in 2001 or Trevor Brennan in 2005).
Time pressure cruelly exposes poor preparation, hence the amount of crossover players included. It is better to have a second-choice centre who may also be second choice fullback in the tour from the beginning and although there may be a better starter back home he has the dexterity and corporate knowledge to slot into two positions covering injuries and form.
But it all starts with the bench. Who are the impacts and how can the starting Test team provide the platform for the bench to finish? The six front row players selected are quality but don’t necessarily provide the explosive impact of a Cronin or Healy.
Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander’s potential role will be fascinating. Quality internationals but imagine them coming off the bench to replace Billy Vunipola, Sam Warburton or O’Mahony; add to them Cronin and Healy! That’s a serious impact of four Irish animals! In fact the potential Lions Test pack and impact bench are all quality athletes bursting with pace and ball carrying.
Athletes such as O’Mahony’s ability to win your lineout and the opposition’s lineout is huge but I especially love watching his post-tackle action where he’s the best in Europe. Watch it tomorrow.
Saracens at home or Clermont away – which is the more difficult assignment is a huge question. The bullet to dodge is Saracens and, funny as it seems, if the Irish provinces were flipped, I’d be more confident as Muster have the mind to win in France and Leinster the game to beat the Saracens. No outfit can flick a switch in match week but in cross-fertilising from each other the Irish provinces can win.
Stop Billy Vunipola (and his brother Mako) and you stop Saracens. Part of that is to starve them of the ball (and slow them down to plus five-seconds recycle) but when they do have it they have the ability, especially Mako, to unlock their diamond shaped attacks. In fact Mako has the best hands in European rugby and that they are at the end of a body that weighs 121kg is remarkable. Watch his hands off turnover ball. And watch the Saracen runners off him.
The lesser known backrowers will run aggressive lines that’ll get behind and punish Munster. Leinster have different players executing Mako’s role but in similar fashion Leinster are getting their point of contact wider. Along with their ability to give and take on the gain line, Mako et al is why Saracens beat so many defenders (35 against Glasgow).
Brilliant and ruthless though they are, Saracens concede double-digit turnovers and this is where O’Mahony’s post-tackle action is pure gold. But initially the Munster players must assess the various pictures presented by Saracens. The flat pass is one but another is when either Vunipola is tree-trunked they pirouette, hunting an offload. It happens regularly and a second Munster defender needs to pounce targeting the ball.
When Saracens are defending, especially off narrow carries they get the opposition ball carrier to the deck quickly and immediately peel away leaving what appears to be a ruck but remains a tackle area. They prioritise filling the field and encouraging teams onto their defence. But watch where their scrumhalf locates himself; oft times in the neutral position but 15m behind the ruck. Munster can target this area whilst sucking in Saracens to the future breakdowns.
But what makes Saracens such a special team is how all ball carriers present to the opposition defence. Regardless of shirt number each Saracen squares up his shoulders to the opposition telling them; ‘I’m running at you’. None of the Saracens players carry with the shoulders pointing to the touchline hence each carrier is a threat and only after fixing the defence do they unlock other players who run shoulders square lines.
But I fancy Saracens will oscillate between their natural game of far fewer kicks than Munster and Leinster utilise and a power pack performance where their lineout maul is a serious tool. Unlike the hapless Wasps in the Aviva, Saracens have a clear understanding of the various switches required to stun the Munster faithful.
In the meantime watch the two bears/Lions, Itoje and O’Mahony poking each other.