The Lions are bringing in several Wales and Scotland players to cover for the next two midweek matches, but is it the right decision?
So the British & Irish Lions are bringing in four Wales players and probably a few Scots to augment their squad in the lead-up to the first Test. The primary purpose is to protect the Test 23 and ensure that none of them have to play against the Chiefs on Tuesday night.
Warren Gatland first mooted the possibility of bringing in reinforcements when he was appointed coach in September. He did something similar in 2013 for the Brumbies game before the first Test, when Shane Williams flew in from Japan at short notice.
Given the Lions’ schedule in New Zealand, possibly the toughest there has been, it’s a sensible option to rest the Test 23 for the next two midweek matches to ensure they are in the best shape to take on the All Blacks. But questions must be asked as to the way the Lions have gone about choosing these additional players.
This time the Lions have confirmed that Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies and Tomas Francis are joining up with the squad ahead of the Chiefs game having played for Wales against Tonga at Eden Park last night. Finn Russell and Allan Dell will also come in following Scotland’s win over Australia in Sydney, and they arrive in Hamilton on Sunday. These players are likely to feature against the Chiefs and Hurricanes, and will then reportedly leave the squad.
“We have said all along that we need to give ourselves the best chance of winning the Test series and that could potentially involve calling up players,” said Gatland. “Bringing in these players from an identical time zone, who can hit the ground running and step straight in rather than having to adjust following long-haul travel will help us manage players before the first Test, give us quality training numbers to prepare properly as well as offering us options for selection for the Chiefs match.”
The practicality of Gatland’s plan is understandable – but should geographical location really be more important than ability? Half-backs Davies and Russell would have been discussed during the original squad selection meetings, but Dacey? Hill? Francis? Even if you base it purely on geography, surely WP Nel and Jonny Gray are better players than Dacey and Hill, even just looking at experience.
Then there are players in Argentina and Japan who could count themselves desperately unlucky not to get a call-up. Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury, Cian Healy, Devin Toner… If this plan had been in place for such a long time, surely the Lions could have called players in from further afield before this weekend’s Tests and then they would have enough time to adjust to the time zone.
England coach Eddie Jones told the BBC he hadn’t heard from Warren Gatland at all and has criticised how the Lions have chosen these replacements, saying: “I would like to see it picked on merit rather than geographical proximity.”
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Obviously for an England player to arrive in time to prepare for the Chiefs game they wouldn’t be able to play in the second Argentina Test and would have to already be en route. Whether Jones would have been happy to lose, say, Hartley and Danny Care when he only has one other hooker and scrum-half in Argentina we can’t say, but there is enough cover there at lock for Launchbury to head over.
Gatland could be trying to cause the least disruption to the other home nations, allowing them to retain their strongest squads for this weekend’s Test matches and therefore logistically England players were out of the equation.
However, these decision to bring in players based on location rather than ability calls into question the whole Lions concept. It’s supposed to be the best of Britain and Ireland, not who was closest. It’s not surprising that many fans believe this whole process is devaluing the Lions jersey.
Personally, I have to agree. Yes, players have been brought in on an ad hoc basis on previous tours to cover last-minute injuries, but never on this scale. Surely it would have been better to bring in those players who narrowly missed out on the original squad. This is the season when all the home nations pull together to support the Lions and had these been injury replacements they would have surely gone for the best option available. Even those players coming in probably feel a little strange about the whole situation.
At a time when the Lions is already facing questions about its future, this will add fuel to the fire for those who believe the tours cannot survive in the professional era. It may be a practical decision but it’s not a popular one.
Gatland has been widely criticised for his decision but he said: “This is something we planned right from the start and we informed the (home nations) coaches what we were looking to do; it was just about personnel. When you’re so far away, it’s about when you bring people in. They will be with us for a week and are there for bench cover. My job is to win the Test series and I’ll do whatever it takes to do that.”