Friday 22 September 2017

George Hook: Napoleon was quite right... it is better to be lucky than good

Fortune plays big part as victory covers up multitude of flaws in Gatland's leadership

British and Irish Lions' George North is caught between Australia Wallabies' Jesse Mogg and Joseph Tomane
British and Irish Lions' George North is caught between Australia Wallabies' Jesse Mogg and Joseph Tomane
George Hook

George Hook

I find it very difficult to write about the third Test, where the Lions overwhelmed Australia. For the duration of this tour, I have been critical of the coach's selection and strategy.

Those opinions were based on my knowledge and experience as a coach and student of international rugby for the last 30 years. One victory, albeit in style and of record proportions, does not airbrush out those concerns.

When Warren Gatland was first appointed coach to Ireland in succession to Murray Kidd, I posed the great Napoleon conundrum, "is he lucky?"

A study of the Kiwi's career demonstrates the answer to be a conclusive yes, and never more so than on Saturday. The home side were caught in a perfect storm of poor refereeing, substandard prop forward play and dreadful team selection.

The pre-match suggestion that Romain Poite is one of the best referees and, crucially, an acknowledged expert on the scrummage is nonsense. That statement would be received with hilarity in Munster.

His refereeing of the scrum, if followed by his colleagues, will change forever the role of the set-piece. His decision to yellow card Ben Alexander was flawed, given that Alex Corbisiero was certainly in an illegal position. It was impossible on many occasions to decipher the reason for the penalty, other than the fact that the scrum was going backwards.

If going back in the scrum is an offence, then the attacking front-rows will drive upwards to pop their opponents and gain the penalty, which is exactly what happened on Saturday.

Australia lost this match because of their inability to compete in just one aspect of the game. It beggars belief that the huge investment made by the Australian rugby union into the game, cannot find players to hold up the scrum. The purpose of the scrum is to restart the game, not to be a conveyor belt for penalties.

The game was over as a contest after 20 minutes because there was no way that Australia could win a match in which every scrum was a penalty and three points to Leigh Halfpenny. It destroyed the confidence of the Wallaby players and apart from a brief flurry when they got to within three points, the team morale imploded.

After over 70 games in charge Robbie Deans will be sacked as Australia coach. His stubborn refusal to accept that James O'Connor is not a fly-half has cost him this series and his job. It is indicative of how far O'Connor's star has fallen that his contract will not be renewed by the Melbourne Rebels, who are far from being a first-class franchise.

It is instructive to reflect on how the Lions played in this Test. Predictably, Poite gave an inexplicable free-kick for early engagement at the first scrum. Mike Phillips' early reaction set up the series of attacks that led to the opening try. From that point on the Lions played the same predictable rugby of the previous Tests and simply waited for the penalties to come.

That conservatism allowed the Wallabies to come back to within three points. Once more Gatland's Lions went into their shell until a piece of genius by Jonny Sexton change the game and broke Wallaby resistance.

The chip by the No 10 for George North was brave in the extreme because his team had been under sustained pressure and the natural inclination would be a clearance kick. The breakout led to an attacking position from which Sexton scored the decisive try. The rest of the game was a formality.

The coverage of this match will be uniformly extravagant in its assessment of Gatland's bravery in selection. The coach simply went back to the centre partnership that he had intended to use before he left the UK.

The selection questions that should be asked are why did he prefer Jamie Heaslip to Toby Faletau, anybody to Sean O'Brien and bring Mako Vunipola in the first place? Why did he bring Shane Williams on tour for 48 hours? And why was there no clear pecking order at scrum-half? In an evenly matched Test series, those errors together with the dysfunctional game plan would have proved fatal.

It is obvious that this was a bog-standard Australian team which covered a multitude of deficiencies with outstanding innovation in the backline, a back-row that dominated the breakdowns and had in Will Genia the series' most influential player.

CRIPPLES

This tour has thrown up a raft of problems for the IRB. None is more serious and pressing than the injuries suffered by players and their long-term health after retirement. Increasingly, influential voices are making their concerns heard, and this weekend Gavin Hastings warned that young players could become "walking cripples" if they continue to push their bodies beyond limits.

This series has been notable for the number of head injuries. What is even more worrying is the number of times badly shook players have returned to the field of play. Yesterday George Smith was hurt in a clash of heads with Richard Hibbard. As he staggered off the pitch I suspect that nobody watching expected him to return.

The IRB has instituted the PSCA (pitch side concussion assessment) where medical staff have five minutes to decide whether the player is concussed or not. Many medical experts are convinced that it is not possible to make a judgment in that time. It also has to be understood that the doctor is under pressure from the coach to get the player back on the field. It is a recipe for disaster.

Gatland is now on a high and it took him less than 24 hours to put his name forward for the next Lions tour to New Zealand. Perhaps Napoleon was right that it is better that a general be lucky than good.

The Brian O'Driscoll decision this week was a sideshow. Winning this series covered up a multitude of deficiencies and as two coaches walked out of the stadium on Saturday, one was heading towards an uncertain future and unemployment and the other to the plaudits of four grateful nations and the certainty of a multitude of job offers.

Irish Independent

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