Some people think Warren Gatland is a good coach for the British and Irish Lions. You can’t dispute his impressive record with Wales—two grand slams—his supporters cry. Some people probably think the Earth is flat. Gatland is a coach lacking in imagination, skill, intelligence or tact. His lack of all four traits has been demonstrated on this tour.
Last Saturday, as we sat among a hostile Aussie crowd, I began to see the reason for their derision— why they don’t respect Northern hemisphere rugby—even if coached by a nominal Kiwi. A few minutes into the game, the Lions are on top and have an attacking line-out midway between the Wallaby 22 and the tryline. The Lions opt for a 12 man line-out. The most creative player of his generation is thrown into a line-out in an attempt to maul the ball over the line.
Flashback to 1999, Lens: A Gatland-trained Ireland is five minutes away from its lowest ebb. Ireland pile in for a 13-man line-out. Argentina successfully defend and Ireland are out of the World Cup. For the first two test matches whenever the Lions have the ball, the option is for normally creative players like Johnny Sexton or Brian O’Driscoll to hoof the ball aimlessly, and for a big winger to chase and attempt to catch or at least win a penalty. Leigh Halfpenny is normally unerring and kicks the points. That’s it—Gatland doesn’t need to leave his game plan in a taxi for the Aussies to figure it out—kick, chase—if you don’t fit into the plan (i.e. you’re not a 6'4'' and 18-stone winger), you’re dropped.
Gatland is lucky: Kurtley Beale wears the right boots in the Suncorp, and he is another losing Lions coach trying to salvage his reputation.
Gatland said he would pick his Lions test side on form, not on reputation and not on nationality. Yet every decision he has made, it appears at first sight, has been based on nationality or familiarity. He had a chance to lay down a marker by selecting a non-Welsh captain with two former Lions captains in his squad. Yet he chose Sam Warburton, who wasn’t even assured of his place on the Welsh side during the Six Nations.
Gatland’s unwavering loyalty to the Welsh players he knows so well could be justified if they were the dominant European team over the last four years, but before this year’s Six Nations revival, Wales had lost eight tests in a row and had been blitzed by a rampant Ireland in the first half in Cardiff. They ultimately won a very poor Six Nations by beating a callow English team.
Every 50-50 decision has gone the way of his Welsh stalwarts. Warburton was playing poorly and was given a chance to play his way into form. Selecting first-time tourist Warburton as captain only added to the pressure he was under to rediscover his form. During the first test, Sexton deferred to Paul O’Connell as often as he asked Warburton. O’Connell was the real leader in that first test.
Alex Cuthbert endured an ineffective tour and was chosen over the exciting Simon Zebo for the first test. A woeful performance from Cuthbert was salvaged by a well-taken try. He dropped to the bench for the second test when Tuilagi was a better option as an impact player.
Another player enjoying a torrid tour was Mike Phillips, and he was chosen over the claims of Ben Youngs and Conor Murray, who has impressed. Philips was totally ineffective in the first test and was only dropped, it appears now, because he couldn’t train in the week leading up to the second test. Murray again impressed when he replaced Youngs, yet Phillips was given the nod again. Gatland also ignored the form of Sean O’Brien—a player the Wallabies fear. When Gatland was short of back-line options, instead of calling for Scotland’s Tim Visser, England’s Chris Ashton or Ireland’s Andrew Trimble, he called upon the retired, former Welsh wizard Shane Williams.
But all of the above decisions had some logic and could be justified—Zebo is inexperienced, Murray’s pass can sometimes be laboured, Warburton did eventually find form and is a quiet but effective leader. However, then the Wallabies won and Gatland lost it—he reverted to type. A record 10 Welsh players were selected. This from a team that lost eight internationals on the trot, a team that has lost to the Wallabies on the last eight occasions.
Missing the unofficial tour captain, Paul O’Connell, and the official tour captain, Warburton, Gatland could have turned to Brian O’Driscoll (former Leinster, Ireland and Lions Captain, 132 caps for his country, 245 test points, 17 Lions caps), the finest centre of his generation. Instead, he dropped O’Driscoll from the match day 23 and appointed Welsh man Alun Wyn Jones as captain. True, O’Driscoll has performed to his high standards, but he has been a rock in defence and his very presence can’t be underestimated in a team lacking leadership. His stats on the tour: 250 metres, 36 tackles and 29 successfully completed passes.
Gatland drafted in Jamie Roberts to replace O’Driscoll to form an all-Welsh midfield partnership with the underperforming Jonathan Davies, despite O’Driscoll and Roberts forming an effective midfield partnership on the last Lions tour in South Africa. O’Driscoll clearly wasn’t happy with the limited tactics Gatland has employed. With the team selection for the series decider, every 50-50 call went the way of the Welshmen, with Justin Tipuric and Shane Williams the only fit Welsh tourists not to start.
The Lions tour is supposed to be about four nations coming together as one—the best of four nations taking on the rugby powerhouses every four years, playing attractive, winning rugby. For 125 years, the odd political decision notwithstanding, it has largely met that criteria. Gatland has betrayed that tradition. In many ways, whether the Lions win on Saturday or not, it doesn’t matter.
It will be a Welsh victory, ground out by an unimaginative coach using backs as bludgeons and not rapiers. It will be ugly, and the Aussies will be right to smirk. Everyone together now—Aussie, Aussie, Aussie…