Sunday 24 September 2017

George Hook: Too many of Gatland's Lions just not up to Test standard

But coach the real culprit as negative game plan puts Aussies in driving seat

A dejected Warren Gatland all alone with his thoughts after the Lions’ defeat
A dejected Warren Gatland all alone with his thoughts after the Lions’ defeat

It will require a sea change in selection and tactics for the Lions to win the series after losing to Australia in what was a pulsating but frustratingly error-strewn game.

With Christian Leali'ifano restored to health, the goal-kicking differences narrowed and the better team won, although it took that late try to snatch it.

The statistics tell the story of this game. The Lions had just over 30pc possession and made 144 tackles. Only the sternest of defence prevented a rout.

Yet, against the odds, the Lions could have stolen this Test but for some terrible decisions in the final 10 minutes.

First, Brian O'Driscoll, instead of keeping his head when all around him were losing theirs, aimlessly kicked the ball upfield to allow Australia to counter-attack and gain the territory from which they scored the winning try.

Secondly, with a line-out that was brought back to inside Australia's 22m line and offered the opportunity for Jonny Sexton to kick a winning drop-goal, the decision was made to throw to the back and the ball was lost.

Incredibly, O'Driscoll, the stand-in captain, spoke to his forwards immediately before the line-out but seemed to have omitted to stress that a safe throw was all that was needed.

Similarly, Sexton failed to communicate his desire to drop a goal. If that was not the plan, then there is a crisis of leadership in this side.

Warren Gatland stands indicted of poor selection, dreadful use of the bench and the inability to develop a tactical plan.

ANONYMOUS

As expected, his decision to pick a badly matched centre partnership misfired and O'Driscoll was anonymous. The greatest centre of his generation was used as a tackler and groundhog at the breakdown.

The coach's use of the bench was dramatically exposed as Mako Vunipola was in trouble at almost every scrum and Gatland stubbornly refused to replace him with Ryan Grant, who all season had shored up the Glasgow and Scottish setpiece.

Then, when Conor Murray replaced Ben Youngs he clearly had been instructed to shut the game down.

The Munster player resorted to kicking the ball to the Australians at every opportunity. As the possession and territory statistics mounted in favour of the home team, the Lions invited the Wallabies to run at them.

Worse still, the team had no plan other than to kick the ball up in the air. The forwards, in tandem with a dreadfully slow scrum-half, never delivered a ball of any quality to the backs. The attitude of both teams to the restart was instructive.

Kurtley Beale kicked the minimum 10 yards and invited his team-mates to recover possession, which they did as often as not. In contrast, Sexton kicked long, put the defenders under no pressure and conceded up to 40 yards on the kick back.

The out-half and his captain seemed incapable of making a mid-course change of plan.

It would not have taken a genius to work out that Will Genia was vital to the Wallaby attack. We were told that the change of Dan Lydiate for Tom Croft was to shut down the ebullient scrum-half.

Similarly, the selection of two back-rows and sacrificing a lock on the bench was to ensure that the back-row contest would go the way of the Lions.

It was to no avail. Genia and Michael Hooper were among the most dominant players on the field and at no time did there seem to be a concerted plan to shut off the Australian ball supply.

Genia pulled the strings by running to check the Lions defenders and sweeping passes away in one movement when space outside beckoned.

It was a masterclass for Youngs and Murray. Meanwhile, Hooper probably handled the ball more often than his opposite back-rowers combined.

It was incredible that Australia, with a makeshift fly-half in James O'Connor and making more handling errors than is their wont, were able to utterly dominate the Lions.

Their ability to create repetitive phases was in marked contrast to their opponents.

One shudders to think what would have happened if the flaky but talented Quade Cooper had been at No 10.

PROBLEM

The biggest problem for Gatland is that so many of this squad are simply not of Test standard. Without Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts and Alex Corbisiero, the Lions have little or no chance of winning this series.

Without Phillips the backs do not get a quick service; without Roberts the outside-centre cannot flourish; and without Corbisiero the scrum is a mess.

Throughout his career, Gatland, despite his successes, has never demonstrated strong selection qualities or a keen understanding of back play.

He has, however, always been extremely shrewd in his choice of back-up staff and, above all, he has been lucky.

This time his luck has run out and injuries to key players have neutered this squad. His staff is in the likeness of their boss and unimaginative.

Robbie Deans has shown much greater skill at handling a reduced squad. Australia are true to the traditions of the handling game we first saw in the late 1980s under Alan Jones.

In contrast, these Lions are nothing like their predecessors, who challenged the might of the southern hemisphere by trusting their skills and taking risks.

Irish Independent

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