On Tuesday, the 2013 pride of Lions lost a little bit of their bite. Before the tour began, Captain Sam Warburton had declared his intention for the squad to win every match they played. A brave and bold call it may have been, but it was an aim that seemed increasingly plausible with every convincing victory that was notched up on the board. Alas, the best laid schemes of Lions and men often go astray, as was the case following the ACT Brumbies’ 14-12 victory. A loss is hard to take at the best of times but the manner of this midweek defeat (characterised by inaccurate, inept play) will not have pleased Warren Gatland and his coaching team who have come to expect solid performances from every side that steps onto the field. With several back-line players either injured or being nursed back to health for the Test series, the coaches had decided to draft in current England starters Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt, recent England debutant Christian Wade and (in a totally unexpected move) retired Wales legend Shane Williams. Although these late inclusions into the squad gave the press and fans alike a bit of gleeful excitement in a tour that’s been all too predictable until now, they contributed to the feeling that this particular Lions side was nothing more than a ‘scratch’ team. Had the Lions sneaked a win, the decision to start with these new arrivals would have been lauded as an enjoyable (slightly bonkers) yet satisfying sideshow; an aperitif to the main course of Wallaby to be served this weekend. However, the game ended in defeat and the coaching staff will now face questions regarding the team they fielded on Tuesday. It also provides an opportunity for the sceptics who have been keeping schtum so far to raise their voice in questioning certain decisions that have been made by the Lions hierarchy. This week, in the lead up to the all-important first test, the blog takes a look at the main bugbears of those questioning the coaches and asks whether they have a point or not.
‘Calling up Wade and Williams devalued the Lions brand – they should pick on form’
To date, seven players have been called to Australia as injury cover – Alex Corbisiero, Ryan Grant, Simon Zebo and the aforementioned Twelvetrees, Barritt, Wade and Williams. The first five of these would have counted themselves unlucky not to be in the original squad and so their call-ups are not only unsurprising, they’re also deserved. The contention here lies with Wade and Williams and you’d imagine that the decision to pick these two would have rankled with the Vissers, McFaddens and Ashtons of this world (in that order). But the truth is that, in deciding who to call upon, Gatland and his coaches had to be practical. With the extent of the Lions’ injury worries not making themselves clear until last Sunday, the management had very little time to get somebody to Australia who could then go straight into the team on Tuesday. Let’s not forget that at that time, with North, Tuilagi, Bowe and Roberts all injured, it appeared that there were only four fit players left to fill the First Test three-quarter line. Calling Christian Wade to travel from Argentina (where he was on England duty) looked like a sensible option given his potential, but what about Williams? Well calling ex-internationals out-of the-blue to ‘do a job’ isn’t unheard of on Lions Tours (see Andy Nicol warming the bench in 2001’s Third Test) and had Shane scored a try, as he came close to doing in the opening minutes, he would have justified his inclusion. This one-off selection (and it will be a one-off) again smacks of pragmatism by a coach who is confident that the majority of his backs will be fit within a week. Verdict: The little speedsters were the right choice in a moment of need for the Lions. Unfortunately their decision wasn’t backed-up with a win.
‘The amount of injury call-ups proves the squad was too small in the first place’
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but in retrospect including a couple more backs would have been of benefit to the Lions this year. Had Twelvetrees and Zebo been included from the start, things may have been easier at this point of the tour. However, the decision to take 37 men to Australia was made for a reason – to encourage squad cohesion. When Clive Woodward took 44 men to New Zealand in 2005, a definite split emerged between the weekend ‘A’ team and midweek ‘B’ team. That tour (which ended in a 3-0 whitewash) is now regarded as something of a disaster. Aware of this, the coaches of 2009 decided to take a smaller squad of 37. They also made it clear that each member of the squad started with an equal chance of making the Tests. Interestingly, the squad of 2009 ended up with 42 players due to injury while this year’s crop are already up to 44 (the same size as the original 2005 party). The key difference here is the ‘all for one’ attitude that is generated when you select a smaller squad. If a player gets injured and has to be replaced, the siege mentality remains. Injuries are guaranteed on rugby tours but squad cohesion is not. It is for this reason that the coaches will gladly take the headache of this week if it means the Test side is all the better for it. Verdict: The 2013 Lions have had their fair share of injuries and niggles, but they’ve been handled well by a coaching team that was correct in taking a ‘traditional’ touring squad of 37. Maybe one more would have helped though!
‘Gatland picked the wrong players in his initial squad of 37’
Squad selection is always going to be subjective and opinions will largely depend on which part of the country you’re from (and which club you support), but there’s always one player filling column inches as the ‘should’ve been picked’ figure. At the start of the tour it was Jonny Wilkinson; now it seems James Hook is flavour of the month. Ultimately, Gatland and his coaches will be judged on the Test series and so it remains to be seen whether the initial squad selected was the correct one. That said, Mako Vunipola, Sean Maitland and Richie Gray have performed well so far on tour. In addition, the wayward throwing of Rory Best suggests that Gatland may have been correct in initially overlooking the Ulsterman. The one player I would question is Matt Stevens who has made little impact from what I’ve seen. I think Scotland’s Euan Murray would have been a better option. Verdict: The proof will be in the pudding but the early signs suggest the coaches (in the main) got it right.
So let’s not get too despondent Lions fans as we move towards Saturday’s game in Brisbane. There is no doubt that Warren Gatland, his coaching team and the entire touring party will be disappointed to experience a first loss of the campaign, but they won’t be worried. As Gatland himself said, “No one is going to remember if we win all the other matches and lose the series”. For the coaching staff of the 2013 British and Irish Lions Tour, the mission is clear – beat the Wallabies. To this end, they have done everything in their power to ensure the team that runs out at the Suncorp is fully fit, fully prepared and fully armed to counter the Australian threat. In my opinion, Gatland and Co. have been canny in their decision-making up to this point. But with the defeat to the Brumbies stalling the momentum of the tour, the coaches now have to convince their charges that Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than a blip. We always knew that the First Test was going to be important but it now becomes vital. Lose two games on the bounce, and the whole tour may unravel. I don’t think that will happen though. I suspect that, under the careful guidance of Head Coach Gatland and his team, the Lions will find their roar again on Saturday. Here’s something to think about: the last time the Lions lost to a provincial side was on the 1997 tour to South Africa…and we all know how that test series ended. Come on the Lions – nothing tastes sweeter than a well beaten Wallaby!