Warren Gatland’s 2017 British and Irish Lions side to tour New Zealand in June has met with virtual universal approval from the often vicious British rugby media.
Robert Kitson, a rugby journalist I admire, summed the euphoria for The Guardian in an article titled: ‘Blend of Anglo-Saxon power and Celtic thunder will give Lions heart.‘
The British cohort of journalists, though, often build up the chances of their teams pulling off famous victories only to rail relentlessly against them when they fail to win the trophies they were expected to win. Look at the viciousness launched against Stuart Lancaster when his England side failed to even make the finals in Rugby World Cup 2015.
Gatland’s Lions are one of the more experienced sides this famous institution has ever sent abroad. The coach is the first back-to-back head coach. So there is something, perhaps, in the expectations of greatness for the side.
The captain Sam Warburton is only the second player to lead the Lions on a second consecutive tour. The other double-captain was Martin Johnson, captain of the Lions in 1997 and 2001. So Gatland’s Lions have experience in the leadership positions, on and off the field.
The Lions tour every four years to either Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Selection on a tour, generally, is the single highlight in the career of most British players. But two of the 41-man squad will be on their third tour. Fourteen of the players will be on their second.
The youngest player in the squad, at the age of 22, is Mario Itoje. Itoje, though, for all his relative youthfulness as a Test player, is the one player in the squad who has possibilities of greatness in his play.
Gatland has rewarded England for its great run of victories since Eddie Jones took over as a coach in 2016 with 16 selections. Wales provides 12 tourists, Ireland 11 and Scotland 2.
These numbers seem to be out of kilter with what is happening in British rugby.
There is an over-loading of Welsh players, matched by an under-representation of Scottish players. Moreover, there are queries about whether too many players might be on one Lions tour too many – Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole, Alun Wyn Jones, and Sam Warburton, in particular.
Scotland, as any number of Scottish rugby writers have pointed out, defeated both Wales and Ireland in this year’s Six Nations tournament. They finished ahead of Wales on the points table. To have only two players in the squad has led to some understandable disquiet north of the border.
Alasdair Reid, the respected rugby correspondent on The Scottish Times, made the case for four specific Scottish players who missed the cut: “Richie Gray, a towering lock who was back to his best (and better than he was when he was chosen for the Lions in 2013) in the later stages of the Six Nations … flanker Hamish Watson, outstanding in the tackle and on the ball … Greig Laidlaw, an outstanding leader and a world class goal-kicker … Finn Russell who was so much better than Dan Biggar when Scotland beat Wales at Murrayfield that it was embarrassing to watch.”
All these players would have given Gatland’s Lions elements of brilliance (Gray, Watson and Russell) and tenaciousness (Laidlaw) that seem to be lacking in most of the actual selections.
In all of the cases, though, a Welsh player could have been dropped to make way for the Scottish player: Alun Wyn-Jones, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar. And this is the reason, probably, why the Scottish players were not selected.
Gregor Paul in The New Zealand Herald, in an article titled ‘Lions name team to tackle All Blacks,’ made this point about the seeming lack of flair in Gatland’s Lions: “It all looks good for the Lions, except for one missing piece perhaps – their squad lacks the creative, intuitive footballers with the skills and imagination to ignite their attacking game?
“The midfield options look exceptionally dry: functional sorts who will bang up the middle and take a bit of tackling. Being direct is fine, but it is not enough in itself to really trouble the All Blacks.”
The All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has moved in quickly to identify the limited, “uncomplicated” Gatsball game plan that Gatland’s teams invariably play: “I’ve never seen him do anything else other than that. I guess we need to be prepared for what we normally get and prepare for something different as well … He’s done most of his coaching up north and has a particular style he likes which works for him up there using big ball carriers up front, big mid-fielders to carry.”
Like Hansen, I think that if Gatland plays this Gatsball style that worked, admittedly, against the Wallabies in 2013, the All Blacks will monster the 2017 Lions.
The Gatsball style worked in 2013 because the Lions forwards, particularly in the third Test at Sydney, were totally dominant in the scrums against a struggling Wallabies scrum. This is unlikely to happen in 2017 when the All Blacks set piece, scrums and lineouts, are particularly strong.
There is no match-winner in the backs or the forwards in Gatland’s Lions side. And if the All Blacks blunt the set pieces of the Lions game, then the visitors are going to struggle to get points.
I have watched a lot of European rugby recently on the various Fox Sports channels. The point that strikes me all the time is the slow pace of the rugby is, at all times. Even when teams are pressing for a victory with minutes remaining the game meanders and half backs stand over the ball waiting for their runners to amble into position.
The time the ball is in play in Europe is up to 10 minutes fewer, I would guess, than it is in Super Rugby. You would have to think that the pace of the All Blacks game is going to run the Lions off their feet, especially as they are coming from an extremely tough and long season of hard-slog rugby.
You look through the list of Gatland’s Lions and you see this general lack of real pace, in the backs and forwards, throughout the squad. Who are the runners who can clear out for a runaway try? Where is the forward who hits every ruck before all the other players?
Sam Warburton is a case in point. He is like virtually all the British flankers, what Eddie Jones calls a “six-and-a-half.” He is not really quick enough to be a real seven and not big enough or strong enough in the lineouts, especially, to be a real No.6.
I question, too, his leadership qualities.
He does not automatically command, or should not automatically command, a place in the starting side as a No.7. Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien are better players.
He failed, too, in the Rugby World Cup 2011 semi-final when his red card for a tip tackle early on in the match against France virtually killed off the strong chance that Wales had of making the final.
And let us be blunt about this. If the Lions had another coach, someone who did not coach Wales, there is no way Warburton would be in the side, let alone be its captain.
This gets us to the big problem with this Lions side – and virtually every other Lions side, with the exception of the 1971 British and Irish Lions side that won its series against the All Blacks, the only time this success has been achieved in New Zealand.
That 1971 Lions side contained a number of Welsh players, JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, John Dawes, Barry John and Gareth Edwards who were once in a life-time Welsh players.
On most other tours, the Welsh players have been notoriously bad travellers. Wales, for instance, has won only one Test against the home side when playing in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
The tendency for the Welsh players on Lions tours is to form home-sick cliques. This tendency not to fit in, in contrast with Irish players, say, is accentuated in modern Lions tours with the enormous size of the playing squad.
There have been problems, too, with the English players doing the same thing of forming disgruntled cliques, as Graham Henry found to his cost during the Lions tour of Australia in 2001.
Brian Lochore, former All Black captain and coach, reckons that the key to beating the All Blacks is for the players in the Lions squad to form a cohesive unit: “Their biggest problem is working together. If they can make the side work well, then they will have a very good side. Too often they get here and they don’t work as well together as they should. It is never the quality, it is if they gel.”
I reckon that Gatland could have helped the gelling process immeasurably if he had named Rory Best, the Irish hooker, as captain. Best, after all, has captained to Ireland to a victory over the All Blacks, something that Warburton has not done.
Moreover, Ireland players learn how to get on with other players who they might, in other circumstances, tend not to like. The particular the Ireland rugby side is selected dictates this. When Ireland plays rugby, this is the only time in sport that the north and the south come together as a team.
The best of the Lions captains have been Irishmen. Karl Mullen, a product of the Old Belvedere club in Dublin, with the 1950 Lions. Willie John McBride, from Ballymena in Northern Ireland, in 1977.
Rory Best, a hooker like Mullen, would have had an emollient effect on Gatland’s Lions and could have helped ensure that the gelling process worked for the team. This would have helped the Lions to come together as a team, forgetting their parochial differences, the way the Ireland team does when it take the field.
In summary then, I make this fearless prediction. Warren Gatland’s Lions are doomed.
They don’t have the cattle or the chemistry to pull off a series victory over an All Blacks side that has both these necessities.