Friday 20 April 2018

Alan Quinlan: Gatland's selfish decision totally devalues what it should mean to play for the Lions

Gareth Davies and (inset) Gatland
Gareth Davies and (inset) Gatland
Warren Gatland Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

When I got picked for the Lions tour in 2009, it was going to be the biggest honour of my career. Everyone knows what happened after that but, for me, it would have been the ultimate accolade.

Any person who has ever played for the Lions will tell you how proud they were to pull on that red jersey. I would have been no different and neither are the six guys who were called up over the weekend but that doesn't mean they earned it.

There is no doubt that Warren Gatland's decision has dented the ethos surrounding the Lions. Part of me thinks it's completely wrong but if I put myself in his shoes, from a selfish point of view, you can see where he is coming from.

It won't make much difference to the other players who are currently in the squad because these guys have been brought in as cover. It's the players who are on the fringes that you feel for.

When I first heard about it, I was very surprised. If this was part of Gatland's plan all along, then I think it should have been publicly flagged from the outset.

But that said, if this was always going to happen, why not bring an extended squad with guys who have earned the right to play for the Lions? You could argue that Finn Russell was unlucky not to have been picked in the first place. Gareth Davies is a proven international who could have gotten the nod when Ben Youngs pulled out.

It's not these guys' fault they got called up, they were hardly going to turn down the chance to play for the Lions but I know if I was an Irish player in Japan, I would've swum to New Zealand, if it meant I got the chance to play a minute for the Lions.

These players are only going to be in camp for 10 days and by all accounts will be released after the Hurricanes game next week. That in itself devalues what it should mean to play for the Lions.

When the squad was initially announced, everyone was picked on merit. For me, there were no real controversial decisions but these call-ups have raised eyebrows everywhere.

You can't tell me that Joe Schmidt or Eddie Jones wouldn't have released some of their players if Gatland  had come calling.

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In England's case, if you're Joe Launchbury or Dylan Hartley and you get a phone call last week about the possibility of being released from the Argentina tour, you'd be on the first plane out of the country.

The same can be said for the likes of Cian Healy and Devin Toner. The point is, you may never get another chance to play for the Lions. Who knows what's going to happen in four years?

What is Healy thinking sitting in his hotel room in Japan when he sees Allan Dell getting called up? No disrespect to Dell, but I'm not sure he had the best Six Nations.

Healy, on the other hand, is a proven international who was robbed by injury on the last tour. It must be absolutely gutting for a guy like that to be overlooked in this manner. Jonny Gray is another who falls into that category. He could easily have flown across from Australia and no one would have batted an eyelid at his inclusion.

It sits uneasy with me and even listening to Ian McGeechan on TV, you could see that he was disappointed. This is a man who is steeped in Lions history and is much more qualified than me to talk about it, but it's difficult to see how this doesn't devalue the Lions.

The amount of hard work that goes into even putting yourself into consideration for the Lions is incredible and all those guys who narrowly missed out down through years will be fuming about this.

Gatland's decision has brought even more pressure on himself and even though he won't show it, deep down he knows that if he doesn't win the Test series, these call-ups will be put in the spotlight again.

The show must go on however and with the first Test this weekend, the players won't be getting distracted by any of the furore.

Peter O'Mahony will definitely play and whether or not he captains the Lions on Saturday will depend on who Gatland goes for - Sam Warburton or Seán O'Brien.

In my mind it shouldn't be a difficult decision. Warburton is a quality player and captain but his recent injury before the Tour has him undercooked. O'Brien, on the other hand, had another outstanding game against the Maori and looks hungry.

It's been quite a journey for O'Mahony to get to this point in his career but he has earned it. Playing for the Lions must be a really special feeling, to captain them in a Test match would be an incredible achievement.

He wasn't involved in Chicago in November and was on the back foot throughout the Six Nations but to put himself in the captaincy frame shows the relentless grit and determination of a brilliant leader.

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