By Alan Dymock
THE BRITISH and Irish Lions have given themselves every chance of winning the series Down Under with their squad selection.
If you are looking for a “Woe is me; Warren Gatland only picks Welsh players”-piece, you have come to the wrong place. This is the first Test squad selection where Gatland has picked a decisive style of play – rather than an amorphous, kick-based chase-or-counter style – where the Lions have no option but to generate momentum and fizz round the fringes over and over again.
If the Lions wanted a style different from the way Wales (the best team in the Six Nations for two years in a row) play, then they should not have selected the head coach of Wales to lead the Lions. Want romantic, impractical, swashbuckling rugby? The job should have gone to progressive dreamers like Brian Ashton. Want a game based entirely on set-piece and up-and-unders? I haven’t heard much from Marcelo Loffreda recently.
This was the problem. Having been bound by some poor initial squad selections for the tour as a whole, Gatland was set to have a schizophrenic side. The loss against the Brumbies was a joke of an outing, where fresh, uninitiated players were chucked in and asked to create magic, while players who had been there all along where hashed in beside them and told to just get on with it. Gatland was uncharacteristically bowing to the suggestions of those around him.
With that as preparation and very few established combinations throughout the trip, the first Test was played more like a Scotland side with nothing to lose. Offloads and continuity only broke out when someone generated momentum from nothing, returning a kick or taking a chance that went against their system. The chase was hard – as I’ve previously explained, sometimes too hard – and they won by grace of having played more rugby than their opponents in the weeks leading up to the game and by having a truckle of luck compared to the Wallabies’ mere crumbs.
That style completely changed for the second Test, where injuries and swaps led to the Lions playing like the Argentina of World Cup 2007, clawing, gnashing and chasing while hoisting up stratosphere-kissing kicks. They did not attain the same painful careen at the rucks or the slow, ponderous but ultimately effective scrummage of that Pumas side, but they only looked like scoring with the boot and in the end deserved to lose to the side who ran through the same defensive chase and over-commitment to rucks in the final quarter of the game, perhaps the only hangover from the week before.
There is the issue that few have discussed during the public outpouring of detestation, following the announcement of the Lions side for the decider: tactics. There is not one singular way of playing rugby, and finally Gatland has stopped trying to appease a certain tradition or pander to the four nations at once. He has gone to a style he has worked on and implemented over the last six years.
Sure, no Brian O’Driscoll is a gamble and Gatland’s Wales have an abysmal recent record against the Wallabies. However, he has picked a side he feels deep down can play round the corner at pace and burst through tackles. One that, unlike Wales, hopefully has enough voices on the skirts of the squad who promote a positive tone and a much bigger partisan crowd behind them, made up from three other unions.
Gatland has gotten selection wrong in the previous Tests, picking benches that do not fit to one style. He had a defensive bench in Test one which could not help should he have needed to chase the game. In Test two he had no second row and one unused prop which allowed fatigue in his front five to set-in when Australia chased the hardest.
Now he has a whole squad that can play front-foot rugby; “Gatlandball”, as some have called it. Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Richie Gray, Justin Tipuric and Manu Tuilagi can all add pace and ballast to the game, ensuring that the emphasis on momentum remains for 80 minutes.
Of course, Tom Croft and Brian O’Driscoll are big omissions when you want to attack and Jonathan Davies has a lot to prove, but this is Gatland proclaiming that bowling bulky men into the fore for the duration will ultimately beat the intellect of Will Genia, Christian Lealiifano and Adam Ashley-Cooper and the constant motoring of their back-three.
People say Gatland is short-sighted or biased with the selection for Saturday. He is neither. It’s just that he has finally grown a back-bone at the end of the tour.