Saturday 19 August 2017

Gatland's refusal to call on ‘geography six’ is ridiculous – it highlights poor Lions planning

Analysis

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Austin Healey

One of the first things you are taught as a player is don't compound an initial mistake with another error - don't make a bad situation any worse. Unfortunately that is precisely what Warren Gatland has done with his handling of the "geography six".

Initially I held back from criticising Gatland about calling up Kristian Dacey, Allan Dell, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Gareth Davies and Finn Russell.

His explanation was that the proximity of the Wales and Scotland tours would help those players acclimatise a lot quicker. Even if you disagree with the principles involved, the logic is clear.

I also believe that a commercial consideration counted against England players based in Argentina.

If Gatland had to fight to expand his initial squad then you can bet the beancounters will have put their foot down on paying for business class flights from South America to New Zealand.

Yet surely Gatland must have been aware of how his decision would be perceived. The Lions have always marketed themselves as being the absolute pinnacle of British and Irish rugby. So much store is placed in the fact that only the very best get to wear the shirt. Then you pick Dacey and Hill ahead of Dylan Hartley and Joe Launchbury. A backlash was inevitable.

Gatland has dealt with enough of these before, particularly with the decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll in the last Lions series, so I find it incredible that he refused to use the "geography six" from the bench except for an injury because of the negative public reaction. If you make the initial decision then you need to have the courage to see it through.

A lot of criticism is done from the comfortable armchair marked hindsight; the second-row combination of George Kruis and Alun-Wyn Jones didn't play particularly well in the first Test so people will say Gatland clearly should have played Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes instead. If they had played well we wouldn't have heard a peep.

In this case, Gatland has brought it all upon himself. In effect, he was limiting himself to two replacements - George Kruis and Leigh Halfpenny - for the 31-31 draw against the Hurricanes yesterday.

That meant the entire front row putting in an 80-minute shift which effectively rules them out of starting the second Test.

Dan Cole had another strong game and I think he has had an excellent tour. So what happens if Tadhg Furlong pulls a hamstring in training tomorrow?

Does he turn to Kyle Sinckler, whose seems tailor-made to be an impact replacement, or does he ask Cole to back up 80 minutes within five days.

All of this smacks of poor planning. You don't want to pick out individuals but there are probably five backs and three forwards who simply should not have been picked. Their performances and ability simply did not merit selection. If you are going to play that Gatland style of play you take Richard Wigglesworth and Mike Brown every day. Those are not even 50 per cent decisions.

Instead you pick a back three that's quite lively but that will make mistakes and will cost you points. You saw that with Liam Williams. He was brilliant on the break and helped create one of the great Lions tries. But then he drops a high ball and Reiko Ioane scores.

I go on and on about it, but the composition of the back three as a unit is just as important as the front row because of the amount of kicking as well as limited opportunities to finish. Gatland needed to have gone on the tour knowing who his back three was going to be.

He didn't and that made him a hostage to form. George North is a prime example. Gatland is not playing a style of rugby where he is going to touch the ball a lot so he hasn't impressed, yet he remains his most dangerous strike weapon.

Hearing the Lions lost the first Test because of "missed opportunities" makes me want to scream.

"Missed opportunities" actually hides the detail which is that the All Blacks are a lot quicker of thought and deed.

Elliot Daly couldn't finish his chances because Israel Dagg got back to get his arm under the ball.

Think quickly, act quickly. That's what is worrying about the second Test; the All Blacks will not get any slower. The only option is for the Lions to play with more pace everywhere.

The one thing that Gatland was not guilty of was overreacting to New Zealand's treatment of Conor Murray. If you go for the standing leg like Jerome Kaino did then there's a good chance you are going to break his leg or at the very least cause some ligament damage. Reckless, dangerous and potentially premeditated - that is a citing offence any day of the week.

For Steve Hansen to use the episode to have a pop against Gatland was out of order. My hope is that the squad can use an attack on their coach to galvanise themselves for victory in the second Test.

That may be clutching at straws but that is all the Lions have at the moment. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Austin Healey was part of the Lions tour in 1997 and 2001

Telegraph.co.uk

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