George Hook: Giving unimaginative coach so much control a critical mistake
Published 06/07/2013 | 05:00
Today's television audience in Ireland will probably not be cheering too loudly for a Lions victory. This is a mistake and shows a misunderstanding of the Brian O'Driscoll furore, which has dominated the headlines in the build-up to the game.
The problem is rooted very much in the attitude of the organising committee of Lions tours. First and foremost, in the professional era all the power has been given to the coach, unlike what pertained for over 100 years in the amateur era. Certainly, the Victorian approach to touring might not have been the ideal, but the balance has shifted far too much in giving complete control to the coach.
Only close students of this tour will know the name of the manager. Even if Andy Irvine's name was on everybody's lips, it is still perfectly obvious that he has little or no power to influence matters in Australia.
A similar situation pertained on the last tour in South Africa with Gerald Davies and was dramatically exposed when Clive Woodward ran the tour to New Zealand as a personal fiefdom, with Bill Beaumont an anonymous manager. This time around, Gatland not only picked the team but, more importantly, the coaching staff. Thus, the best backs coach in these islands – Joe Schmidt – was ignored.
This week Keith Wood was wrong when he suggested that the Lions tour was about blending four nations; it is no such thing. It is about winning the Test series. In 1971 in New Zealand, coach Carwyn James and the captain John Dawes were Welsh, as were the entire backline for the first Test with the exception of Ireland's Mike Gibson. In all there were nine Welsh players.
Robbie Deans has picked a team that is eminently capable of beating the Lions. His selection of George Smith over Michael Hooper is a clear reaction to the selection of Sean O'Brien at No 7 for the Lions. The Wallabies have been impressed with the Tullow man during this tour but it is questionable whether Gatland's strategy can get the ball often enough into his hands.
Modern coaches and analysts seem unable to make a decision about players without reference to statistics. Throughout this tour every player has been judged by the number of tackles completed or yards gained.
Based on that formula, Jamie Heaslip has played well and Sam Warburton's statistics prompted Clive Woodward to declare that the captain's performance in the second Test was the greatest performance by an openside flanker in Lions history!
To the naked eye, O'Driscoll has not had a good tour, following on from a Six Nations championship where – by his high standards – he was average. The problem for him is that Ireland and the Lions, unlike Leinster, were unable to use his diminishing but still outstanding talents.
The Lions scrum will be marginally better with Alex Corbisiero at loosehead but unlikely to dominate.
Unfortunately, the line-out may struggle as Richard Hibbard will add weight to the scrum but diminish the throwing. It is astonishing that international hookers cannot throw the ball with any accuracy – Rory Best, easily the best footballing hooker in this group, cannot find a place because nobody in 20 years has taught him how to throw the ball correctly.
One thing is certain: the team selected will play the way the coach wants. He has picked a team by weighing scales rather than by talent. He will try and dominate the Australians physically, using Jamie Roberts to bash up the middle and attempt to play multi-phase rugby.
The Gatland doctrine is classic Kiwi: keep possession until the opponents crack. The problem is that he and his coaching team have no ability or imagination to use the possession provided. Jonny Sexton faces the biggest challenge of his career in trying to operate within these narrow parameters. So far, the Irish fly-half has shown no inclination to do anything other than as instructed by the coach.
When the Lions won the Test series of 1971, 1974 and 1997 they had common elements – imaginative coaches, quality backlines and high morale. In 2001 during the tour to Australia under Graham Henry, Austin Healey revealed in his newspaper column that morale was on the floor.
This time around, because there is a contractual gag on the players, we have not heard how things are in the camp, but it would be a miracle if the idiosyncratic selection policy of the coach and his unimaginative game plan had the squad's total support.
Can the Lions win? Absolutely, but only if they are allowed to play to their potential. They have always had a team capable of beating an average Australia side with no No 10, a lightweight pack and a substandard scrum. It has, in fact, taken a major effort by the Lions management to allow Australia to survive.
If Gatland releases Sexton from the strategic straitjacket he has imposed and plays a game in keeping with the Lions traditions, then victory would be a probability. However nothing in the Kiwi's career indicates that flexibility is his strong point. Australia to win.