Wednesday 23 October 2019

5 decisions that haunted the Lions

ONLY time will tell whether Warren Gatland lives to regret the big decisions he made this week, with much of the debate centring around his naming just two fly-halves, the omission of Rory Best and Matt Stevens' left-field selection.

Between now and June 1 – when the tourists debut in Hong Kong against the Barbarians – there will be plenty to chew over, but only when the Tests have begun will we know if these Lions will roar or whimper.

Certainly the decision not to pick Best left Keith Wood mystified, while former England prop Jeff Probyn – himself left out controversially in 1993 – described the decision to go with Dylan Hartley as a "major surprise."

There is also the belief that Jonny Wilkinson will be parachuted into the touring party on completion of his Toulon duties – another call that Gatland will have to live or die by if he makes it.

These decisions can make or break a tour. Here are five decisions that had a major bearing on the final series outcome.

1. Clive Woodward making Alastair Campbell press officer

The 2005 tour to New Zealand was an unmitigated disaster and former England coach Woodward's first mistake was to name Tony Blair's former spin-doctor as his media handler.

The appointment set the tone for a miserable tour with the huge touring party being perceived as aloof.

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Their relationship with the media was an unhappy one, summed up by a staged photograph designed to show that Woodward's relationship with Gavin Henson was sweetness and light.

"I would be lying if I said they (the Lions) hadn't got it wrong – they got three things fundamentally wrong," current All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, then an assistant, said.

"Their initial game-plan; the use of Alastair Campbell (above) certainly backfired and probably the size of the squad."

2. Graham Henry opting to split his squad

Ten years before leading New Zealand to their second World Cup, Henry (right) took over the Lions and oversaw a narrow 2-1 series defeat to Australia.

The then-Wales coach rates the experience as his greatest challenge and believes it made him a better coach, but despite the closeness of the results, there was plenty of fallout at the end as his decision to split the frontliners from the dirt-trackers early on caused rancour in the squad.

Austin Healey, Malcolm O'Kelly and Matt Dawson all complained of their disillusionment.

"I learned more from that experience as a coach than any other," Henry says now.

"I did not do things as well as I should have and made some wrong decisions.

"If I had got them right, we would have won the series. I thought I could do the job, but I was green as an international coach then.

"I now know that the position of Lions head coach is the most demanding in Test rugby."

3. Introducing an anthem for the Lions

There were plenty of mistakes made in 2005 under Woodward (right), but one that will live long in the memory is the decision to create an anthem to be played before games.

'The Power of Four' was a dreadful song that rang out to much mirth around New Zealand. It was so bad, that it defeated the purpose, undermined the traditions and demotivated the players all in one.

That the Lions, an anomaly in the professional game, have survived is remarkable, but that song almost did for the concept as a whole.

4. Austin Healey goading Justin Harrison

The 2001 midweek side's victory over Super Rugby's top dogs the Brumbies may have given them a lift, but Austin Healey's comments about Wallaby lock Justin Harrison came back to haunt the tourists.

The lippy Englishman (above) labelled the second-row an "ape," a "plod" and a "plank" in a newspaper column, but Harrison was able to ram the words down his throat 10 days later when playing in the crucial third Test.

With the Lions chasing victory in the closing stages and with a line-out on the Australian five-metre line, who rose highest to steal it back for the hosts but Harrison.

Healy was subsequently charged with "bringing the Lions into disrepute" and fined.

5. Ronan O'Gara's up and under

The second Test of the 2009 series was an epic and it all came down to Ronan O'Gara's decision to go for a speculative Garryowen in the closing stages.

Still wobbly from a huge collision with Jaque Fourie, the Ireland fly-half signalled to Tommy Bowe that he was going the aerial route and launched a bomb that was fielded by Fourie du Preez, but O'Gara (above) couldn't halt his run and took the player's legs from under him.

The penalty was awarded, Morne Steyn delivered from the tee and the series went South Africa's way.

RUAIDHRI O'CONNOR

Irish Independent

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