The one constant with Warren Gatland over the years is his ability to generate controversy. It is something that doesn’t bother him unduly, even if you can be assured of some tetchy press conferences over the days and weeks ahead.
Four years ago he had the courage of his convictions when omitting Brian O’Driscoll from the starting line-up for the deciding third test against Australia. The fact the Lions won the series more than justified that decision in his mind.
The fallout from his most recent left-field call, in drafting in six additional players on a short-term basis to cover the remaining midweek games against the Chiefs and Hurricanes, in Hamilton and Wellington, respectively, could linger for some time to come, however.
The fact that it is intended to release all six from active duty after that final midweek game against the Hurricanes with the second and third test still to come only adds further to the intrigue. Are those players part of the touring party or not?
On arrival for my first live game of the tour on Saturday, I was struck by the hushed tones that hung over the assembled media contingent from Britain and Ireland in the press room soon after the confirmation earlier in the day that the addition of the six players, as predicted on Thursday by All Blacks coach Steve Hanson based purely on geographical considerations, actually came to fruition.
It is a decision that rests uneasily with the sense of pride and achievement attaching to Lions selection. With due respects to Cory Hill and Kristian Dacey, even some of the fanatical Welsh support that traditionally dominates the massive following a Lions tour attracts struggled to identify who they were. How must Joe Launchbury, Jonny Gray, and Donnacha Ryan feel about the inclusion of the Dragons second row?
Gatland has gambled massively with this call and if the Lions fail to win, or, in the worst case scenario, fail to be competitive in the series, the fallout could be huge. Lions selection represents the pinnacle of your career and should not be attained solely on your proximity to the tour.
Quite what impact and effect this decision will have on the wider squad remains to be seen as Gatland is clearly placing all his eggs in the test basket. It will be interesting to see how it impacts on performance in tomorrow’s game in Hamilton given that all six newcomers feature on the bench.
The real pity with the timing of this decision is that it has taken some of the gloss and attention off the excellence of the Lions win over the Maori All Blacks on Saturday. Even the predictably one-eyed New Zealand media have been forced to sit up and take notice. They now appear to accept that, at the very least, the Lions will be functional, direct, focused, and confrontational.
The danger from a Lions perspective of placing so much stock in the game against the Maoris one week out from the opening test is, lose it, and you dig a pretty big hole for yourself. Despite two defeats to this point on the tour, game five in Rotorua was always going to be a watershed moment.
The fact the Lions won will serve to fuel a belief that they have the capacity within their ranks, especially up front, to offer a serious challenge to New Zealand in the first test.
The appetiser to the Lions on Saturday evening in Rotorua was a first glimpse of Hansen’s All Blacks when they made their seasonal debut against Samoa up the road in Auckland 24 hours earlier.
If the Lions laid down a marker for the series with the excellence of their set-piece power, competitiveness at the breakdown, defensive solidity, and accurate kicking game, the All Blacks did likewise with their running and handling ability. Registering 12 tries, even against a hopelessly off-the-pace Samoan side, was an impressive statement even if, understandably, New Zealand looked vulnerable and rusty for large periods of the opening half. Dealing with the impressive defensive line speed of the Lions will pose questions of an entirely different nature.
What Saturday’s win over the Maoris served to do was cement in Gatland’s mind his approach, in terms of process and selection, for the test series. It also highlighted for the Maoris the difficulties in putting together a conglomerate side with limited preparation as the Lions had to deal with in the early part of the tour.
Disappointingly, the Maori side lacked any real conviction or understanding and appeared to put more time into the organisation of their impressive pre-match Haka than in breaking down the Lions’ strengths. It remains to be seen therefore which side got more from their first test warm-ups over the weekend.
The control and direction offered at half back from Conor Murray — the Lions’ most consistent player on tour — and Johnny Sexton was masterful. The mark of great players is to perform when the pressure is on. With an injury doubt hanging over Owen Farrell, the Leinster out-half was under the microscope and he delivered big time.
Gatland implied that Farrell would recover from his quad strain in time for Saturday’s showdown in Eden Park but uncertainty hangs over the composition of his No 10/12 combination.
Insiders say he will not pair Sexton and Farrell together while others suggest Gatland is keeping his cards close to his chest.
The form and understanding generated by the outstanding back-row trio of Peter O’Mahony — what a brilliant job he did in leading the side on Saturday— Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau also offers the Lions a massive boost entering the series.
Despite the understandable satisfaction in the camp in the immediate aftermath of this result, there will still be a quiet unease at the Lions’ inability to convert try-scoring chances into points.
Twice Jonathan Davies made decisive line breaks but the Lions failed to seal the deal. That remains a worry.
The show now moves on to Hamilton for a game against his home region, the Chiefs, that already appears a minor irritation to Gatland. It is important for the overall feelgood factor of the entire squad that the Lions turn up and perform in this one.
Otherwise it could prove a long few weeks for some of the players.
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