Saturday 16 December 2017

Rory Best's omission is the biggest shock of the Lions team announcement

James Corrigan

The genuine rugby union fan will not only have dropped his jaw at the absence of Jonny Wilkinson or Chris Robshaw from Warren Gatland’s 2013 Lions, but at that of Rory Best. That was the biggest shock of this squad announcement.

Of course, the Wilkinson hysteria will command the reactive headlines and so it should. The revelation that he wasn’t available for the entire Lions tour will come as a relief, if only to logic. There would have been an almighty row if he been ignored for rugby reasons.

As it stands, Wilkinson knows what is required and could still play a part. He is the ultimate professional, who, as anyone who has ever watched him will testify, is anything but a coward.

If he doesn’t believe he could stand the physical challenge of the full itinerary then he should be respected. And he definitely should not be ruled out.

He is as likely to rock the apple cart or to threaten the unity as he would have been to arrive at team-camp in a Ferrari with a supermodel on his knee. For Wilkinson, it’s never been about him, but all about the squad.

Jonathan Sexton is booked in as the Test outside-half and, notwithstanding injury, his backup on the bench in that First Test will, at most, be expected to close out the game. There is nobody better at doing that in world rugby than Wilkinson. Certainly not Owen Farrell.

Granted, the young Englishman is one for the future; but, more than any rugby collective in existence, the Lions team is all about the present.

At the moment, his weaknesses are exactly the same as Wilkinson’s, revolving around his ability, or otherwise, to release the line.

But Farrell’s strengths are also the same as Wilkinson’s – except, as yet, they’re not nearly as strong. Wilkinson is the more accomplished kicker, both out of hand and off tee, while his decision-making is obviously that much more mature.

However, the question still nags – why didn’t Gatland take three outside-halfs? This squad looks ominously exposed in this most important of positions, particularly as utility backs such as Billy Twelvetrees, James Hook and Greig Laidlaw were overlooked. Jonny should stand by his phone, with his passport ready. It is very likely he will get the call.

And then the media circus surrounding him will be yet more frenzied than it would have been – “Saint Jonny arrives to save the summer”.

In truth, the media attention on any player should have no bearing on any selection. It’s the manager’s job to manage, the coach’s job to coach, and the player’s job to respond. Camera clicks don’t, or shouldn’t, come into it.

Gatland has always said as much, although he also foolishly said that the spotlight on the England players could affect his decisions. Those comments were sure to have been dug up.

Robshaw’s snub made that even more inevitable. At least, the England captain can look at the backrowers who were picked and understand Gatland’s thinking. The return to fitness of Tom Croft and Dan Lydiate have basically done for his hopes.

They are fresh, they are hungry, they are proven and they are everything Gatland wants from his men with the foam at the sides of their mouth and the destruction in their eyes.

Robshaw’s error was in being too versatile. As an out-and-out six he would have enjoyed a far greater chance of inclusion.

It is difficult to know what more Best could have done. He was most of the experts’ first choice at No 2. Yet somehow he has lost out. No other player should feel any more aggrieved than the Ulsterman.

In instances such as this, the mind tends to work in mischievous ways and a memory stirs of Gatland on the side of the Croke Park pitch on the eve of the Ireland-Wales Six Nations match in 2008.

Best had been quoted in the build-up as suggesting the visitors weren’t all that. Gatland was incensed.

“Well, when you get a world class player like Rory Best making such statements it can be reasonably motivating for a little team like us," he said.

But then, Gatland has also extended his needle towards Dylan Hartley, the man presumably chosen ahead of Best (principally when the England hooker refused to go outside for a fist fight with Gareth Williams).

So Gatland can hardly be accused of allowing petty personal conflicts influence selection.

Gatland and his selectors have simply done what they believe is best for the Lions and anybody who suggests otherwise is an overly patriotic idiot. Yet they how they could believe it was best not to have Best is beyond some of us.

Press Association

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