Friday 22 September 2017

Lions need answers to problems of their own making

Lions head coach Warren Gatland has plenty to ponder ahead of Saturday's first Test against Australia
Lions head coach Warren Gatland has plenty to ponder ahead of Saturday's first Test against Australia
Conor George

Conor George

THE phoney war is finally over and what Warren Gatland had desperately sought to avoid happening has come to pass – the Lions squad has now become two distinct camps.

It hasn't been split into the traditional Test and 'dirt-trackers' side; no, it is now split in terms of ability and the Brumbies match, which the Lions lost on Tuesday, has exposed the lines of division.

There are those who are good enough to be considered contenders for the Test team and then there are the bulk of those who played against the Brumbies in Canberra.

It's something the coaching staff were cognisant of during the deliberations ahead of today's Test team announcement.

The reasoning behind the initial selection of just 37 players was to avoid splitting the squad into two distinct groups.

This has proven to be ill-advised and inadequate, with the travelling party of players now at 42.

Indeed, Lions chairman Gerald Davies and his wife volunteered to give up their seats on the team flight from Canberra to Brisbane yesterday morning to make room for the extra players.

Davies was up before dawn to make a flight earlier than the squad's 11.05 departure time.

A squad of 37 players was never going to be enough for an end-of-season tour and that is something Brumbies and former South Africa coach Jake White was incredulous about in the build-up to Tuesday's game in Canberra.

"I would have brought two full teams and replacements," said White. "Maybe 44 players in total. That way you have a Test team and you have a second team that are challenging to become Test players.

"What is wrong with saying to Owen Farrell: 'You are second choice to Jonny Sexton?'

Reality

"That's the reality of it and I don't think anyone, including Farrell, thinks otherwise. You say to one team: 'You are my Test players, prove my judgment right' and you are saying to the other team 'prove me wrong'.

"It's a win-win for the coach," White added.

Gatland acknowledged that he erred in his initial selection when he opted for Dylan Hartley over Rory Best – Best's lack of accuracy out of touch notwithstanding – and his suggestion that a larger squad will be needed for the tour to New Zealand in four years' time was a subtle acknowledgement of another error.

Gatland decided that 37 players would suffice for this tour. He was under no restrictions and, as he confirmed, soon after the squad landed in Hong Kong, that there was no specific reason for deciding on that size – "37 seemed a good number, it could have been 38 or ... " he said at the time.

Gatland's preparations weren't helped by the actions of some of the opposition coaches. One example was Western Force coach Michael Foley's decision to rest a number of his players for the game in Perth.

The insistence to pay the ARU a reported £360,000 to play only nine matches in Australia, in order to facilitate an unhelpful run-out against an appalling Barbarians team in Hong Kong was an exercise the coach could have resisted – and he should have.

Whether the preparations and build-up to the all-important Tests were adequate and effective will only be known after the series is decided.

So, where do the Lions stand in terms of preparation just two days ahead of the opening Test in Brisbane?

What is the Lions' state of readiness ahead of first Test?

They are undercooked.

It is not arrogant to suggest that four of their five warm-up games were below standard. Lions tours must also include games against provincial sides to keep the spectacle alive and engaging, but proper preparation for the Test series should never be compromised.

As a consequence, the quality of the relative training and conditioning programmes, as well as the intensity of that work, will be what separates the sides. The Aussies have played no games, so the Lions do have an advantage in this regard, even allowing for the dearth in quality of some of the opposition.

What mistakes have been made?

The initial squad was too small.

The reasoning behind the smaller squad was laudable as it was an attempt to ensure squad unity.

However, after a hard season with their clubs and countries, it was too much to ask that size of squad to undertake an arduous seven-week tour.

Despite the lack of quality opposition, the wear and tear of matches and the force of the collisions have taken a massive toll on players, as the injuries have shown.

Also, the decision to play a game in Hong Kong to boost the Lions coffers was wrong.

The Lions should also have insisted that the ARU include a game against an Australian 'A' side in their schedule. Their game against an 'A' selection in 2001 was the toughest of their warm-up games.

The Lions had bargaining power here because the ARU desperately needs the revenue from this tour to drag them out of debt.

Should they have done anything different?

Moaning about the opposition showed an arrogance on behalf of the management that will fuel the Aussie fires for the Test series. If they go on a nine-game tour of Australia then they can expect to play against weakened teams, especially when it's during the local season.

A bigger squad should have been selected to travel. The tourists now number 42, which includes some injuries, but they are looking somewhat lacking in the depth of quality in some positions when you scratch a little below the surface.

A third out-half should have travelled. The folly of shoe-horning a full-back in Stuart Hogg into the most important and most specialised position was exposed against the Brumbies.

The management should have lobbied to play the Brumbies on a Saturday. They are the best team in Australia at the moment and were always likely to provide the strongest challenge.

What are the worries now?

The large body count in terms of injuries is concerning. The performance against the Brumbies exposed some players as being out of their depth.

The Lions cannot afford any more injuries to key players.

There is also the question of how the players' clubs and countries will integrate their players back into their systems. Those in Wales and, especially Ireland, will be given time to recover.

You can assume that Racing Metro will want Jonathan Sexton starting the first game of their season ... if not their pre-season. The other French and the English clubs will be just as demanding.

What are the positives?

They have been playing matches. Australia haven't. Also, the combinations seem to work well and key connections are looking strong.

The front-five forwards are a solid unit. The back-row mix is strong, even allowing for Sam Warburton's inclusion. The half-backs are working well and the 10-13 combination (be it Brian O'Driscoll or Jonathan Davies at outside centre) is impressive.

The scrum plays are coming together and defensively they were very good against Queensland, as were the line-outs. The Test team should be happy and raring to go.

If they lose, is it over?

If the Lions don't win, the brand will certainly take another hammering and the whole concept of the Lions will come up for debate. Lions tours are great, but can they afford to go 20 years without a series win? The cost of the Lions is huge and big business is ruthless. Will sponsors stay with them in the current environment?

Losing the Test series might not result in the Lions coming to an end, but it could spell the beginning of the end ... the prospect of facing into a tour of New Zealand in four years' time without a series win in 20 years will not be appealing.

What's the probable Lions Test team to be announced today?

Leigh Halfpenny; Alex Cuthbert, Brian O'Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, George North; Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips; Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones; Alun-Wyn Jones, Paul O'Connell; Tom Croft, Sam Warburton, Jamie Heaslip.

Irish Independent

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