Come June 22nd, the Wallabies will play the first of three Tests against the British and Irish Lions.
As evidenced on this forum of late, a lot of Roarers have strong opinions about who should be in that Wallaby side. And they also have strong opinions about the Wallabies’ coach, Robbie Deans – they feel they know him and the way he thinks.
But what do we know about the coach of the team Deans and company will be facing? How will Warren Gatland play us?
To add to the speculation, I’m conducting a phantom question-and-answer with him here to see how close I can come to his thinking.
Roarers are cordially invited to agree or disagree with my questions and “his” answers.
But firstly, a little about Warren for those who may not be that familiar with his background.
According to his CV, he was an All Black who played something like 140 games for Waikato.
He coached Leinster and Ireland then London Wasps, then got the Welsh job in 2007.
Two years later he was the forwards coach for the Lions on their trip to South Africa, a series the Boks took 2-1 partly thanks to Morne Steyne’s long distance shot in the last moments of the second Test (the Boks won the first Test 26-21).
Gatland was too busted up to coach the Welsh tour of Oz, but was on hand to see Wales take the Six Nations title this year.
And now, so I read, he’s closely watching rugby in Britain and Ireland looking for outside-the-box picks for his Lions squad.
He and his assistants, Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Rob Howley, will knock heads and announce the squad, expected to number 36 players, at the end of this month.
But will he send out his starting 15 based on which players are showing the best form, or will his choice be influenced by the team his Lions will be playing?
In a recent interview published in the U.K. Telegraph, Gatland admitted it was imperative to select a squad that balanced attacking flair and defensive prowess.
“We’ve got to go out there with a team that can play up front,” he said.
“But you’re not going to win a Lions series in Australia without playing total rugby. We need to have the ability and confidence to score tries. And to score those tries, we’ll have to master the subtleties of passing, offloading and getting the ball away.”
Gatland went on to say that a varied kicking game will also be vital to keep the Wallaby defence in check and allow the game to open up.
“People ask me why you kick the ball instead of running it every time. You need a kicking game to create a bit of space. You need it to keep teams guessing and potentially slow down your opponent’s line speed,” he said.
“In 2009, we played some great rugby against the Springboks. We scored tries, but we lost the series. Given the choice, I’d rather grind it out on the ground and win than have brilliant backplay and lose. For the future of the Lions, winning this series is extremely important.”
Hard to argue with that from Warren’s point of view. And he’s immeasurably helped by the fact that every one of his 36 picks will be an outstanding rugby player. Does Robbie Deans have that kind of luxury?
Are there 36 outstanding rugby players in Oz? Let’s get to the interview, fake though it may be.
Me: Warren, what do you think the Wallabies’ biggest asset is? And what’s yours?
Gatland: Home ground is their biggest asset. It’s their turf, their weather and their crowds even though we’ll be well supported.
Our biggest asset is that all the players in our run on-team will be specialists in their position.
Me: As apposed to the Wallabies where guys aren’t presently playing in their best spot?
Gatland: Exactly. Take the fly half position, for example. The playmaker is the offensive director much of the time, and we’ll have three very competent men if we’re talking about Biggar, Farrell and Jonathan Sexton, if Sexton’s fit.
At last count, there are several Aussies in line for consideration if you include Kurtley Beale, and he’s far from being a natural first-five. Quade Cooper and Matt Toomua play there full time, but James O’Connor and Chris Lealiifano, two others in contention, are holding down other positions these days.
So that’s a real problem for Robbie Deans.
And we haven’t even touched on your biggest negative. In my opinion, you have only three gold-plated stars in Australian rugby, Genia, Horwill and David Pocock, and you’ve lost one of them. That could be a game changer right there.
Me: Maybe, but we have a couple of excellent fillers in Hooper and Gill. And George Smith if he can get a release.
Gatland: They’re all fine flankers, but they’re all sevens. I don’t believe you have a six in the same class while we’ll be loaded with quality flankers on both sides of the scrum.
Also, I’m penciling in two dynamic eights, Morgan and Faletau. I think either will get the better of Palu, although Robbie might think about starting Auelua who’s really impressed me.
Me: So how do you rate your potential front five against our potential five?
Gatland: In my estimation we’re ahead. We have tough, strong props like Healy, Vunipola, Adam Jones, Euan Murray, a fine hooker in Rory Best, and real performers in locks like Gray if he’s healthy, Launchbury, Parling, Ian Evans and Alun Wyn Jones. In the Wallabies I rate Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander, Horwill, of course, and McMeniman’s looking good.
But I believe we’ll be stronger in the set pieces.
Me: Okay, let’s talk about the backs. We’re ahead there, right?
Gatland: I’m not so sure. We’re settled and you’re not. At 9, no question. Genia’s the best anywhere. But who will Robbie Deans pick for the midfield? I’m thinking McCabe to handle Roberts which won’t do that much for your attack. I think Ashley-Cooper will get the nod at 13.
Oodles of experience and he’ll need it to contain Tuilagi or O’Driscoll. Iaone on one wing and I’m betting O’Connor on the other.
Robbie will want him on the field with permission to roam. Mogg should be your full back, but if O’Connor isn’t kicking well, look for Harris to start. Three points are worth more like five in Test rugby, and Harris is good with the boot.
Me: You skipped the ten spot. Who do you think will get the job?
Gatland: Quade Cooper. Hope so, anyway.
Me: You hope so? Why?
Gatland: Too many quirks in his game. He can mess up an attacking phase by over delaying his pass or wondering if he should try something cute and runs out of time. He used to be an instinctive player but he no longer is. We don’t worry about Quade. We do worry about Will Genia.
Me: What do you plan to do about him?
Gatland: If our front five performs the way I think it will he’ll have his number eight’s behind in his face all day. In broken play we have to make sure there aren’t two props defending cause he’ll run between them. We’ll assign a loosie to make his life hell. Once he passes the ball we can breathe a little easier.
Me: It’s sounds like you’re thinking parity, more or less, in the backs, but that your forwards will decide things in your favour.
Gatland: Definitely. The reason why we lost to the Boks wasn’t just because of Morne’s great kick but because they were a little bit better than we were up front.
Well, we aim to be the champs up front this time. We plan to outmuscle you. In the red zone we’ll try to pick and go you to death, and in general, be more disciplined than you at the breakdowns.
Gatland: We want the refs on our side. Chris Pollock will be in charge in Brisbane and he’s the strict schoolmaster type.
If we get enough penalties our way Farrell or Halfpenny will pile up the points. In Melbourne Craig Joubert’s the man. In the Wales, Scotland game he dished out 28 penalties. If he does that in Melbourne, we want most of them.
Me: Romain Poite gets the Sydney Test. How do you feel about him?
Gatland: Great. Usually, he favours the pack that’s moving forward. That should work for us if we get things right.
Me: So what are you thinking for the series? Lions, 2-1?
Gatland: Sounds about right.
Me: There are lot of Aussies, me included, who think it’ll go the other way.
Gatland: It’s possible, of course. But don’t bet the farm on it.