Monday 27 January 2020

Tony Ward: Gatland is the Jack Charlton of rugby but his ‘up and at ’em’ approach gives Lions half a chance

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Whatever your views on the concept, there is no denying that tomorrow's first Test between the Lions and New Zealand has captured the interest, if not quite the imagination, of sports fans everywhere.

I was privileged enough to be a Lion so I take an interest over and above the ordinary, yet I understand the ambivalence of some people - although I don't fully accept it.

I am a sports lover, irrespective of the size or shape of ball. And the real beauty of sport is that journey into the unknown - of course one team is favourite, but the other believes that they can win.

I can honestly say that I never prepared for a game, be it in rugby or soccer, where I did not believe we could come out on top, irrespective of how long the odds were against us.

If you truly believe, then anything is possible.

Three weeks ago, nobody gave the Lions a prayer. The rugby they have delivered in the interim hasn't been particularly easy on the eye, but there is no denying the progress made or the impact of their pressure game.

Peter O'Mahony during a British and Irish Lions training session at QBE Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Peter O'Mahony during a British and Irish Lions training session at QBE Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

I hated the Jack Charlton mantra of 'put 'em under pressure' but it certainly didn't stop me joining Jack's Army, or detract from the euphoria of the European Championship and World Cup adventures.

Well, Warren Gatland is rugby's answer to Charlton. What we have seen evolve over the past number of weeks is the 2017 version of 'putting 'em under pressure' Lions style.

It ain't pretty but is mighty effective and it almost guarantees a competitive three-Test series of the highest intensity. I say 'almost' because you have to fear the All Blacks' individual and collective genius. They have the ability and desire to offload when the pressure is at its highest. They do it through club and Super Rugby as a matter of course.

For us in this part of the world it is an alien concept save when backs are to the wall. There are exceptions, but these are few and far between.

Gatland recognises his limitations and acknowledges (privately at least) just what is required over and above set-piece, defensive line-speed and kick and chase to turn this sow's ear into a silk purse.

I have been hugely encouraged by the coach's selection. Even allowing for the poverty of the Chiefs on Tuesday, Gatland has applied sensible analysis.

In particular, I am thinking of the back three, where Liam Williams and Elliot Daly - and Jack Nowell too - made 11th-hour cases for inclusion in the opening Test.

The most disappointing aspect of the tour to date has been in the wider channels, particularly from an attacking perspective, but the broken-field performance of the back three in Hamilton was a step in the right direction.

Once Gatland decided he could do without Leigh Halfpenny's goalkicking - with Owen Farrell (rightly starting at out-half) and Johnny Sexton in the 23 - Williams or indeed Anthony Watson was set to be the better, more adventurous alternative at full-back. I would have accused Gatland of definite bias had he picked George North on the left wing, but by picking the versatile Daly instead, the coach has gone with form and potential over the tried and trusted from times past.

Gatland has also made the right call in the second-row. Any combination from the five locks available would have been acceptable to most, but in choosing Alun Wyn Jones alongside the nailed-on George Kruis, while leaving the captaincy with Peter O'Mahony, he has covered all bases.

I rate O'Mahony very highly, as player and captain. He has that "Munster mongrel" to which Gatland refers. He has a steely edge combined with a coolness under pressure.

It will take a 23-man effort to stay the full 80 with this All Blacks side; that makes impact off the bench critical.

In that respect, and it is not an Irish bias, I feel CJ Stander would have been a much more practical (covering all three back-row positions) and in-form alternative to Sam Warburton.

The tour captain's form has not warranted selection even on the bench.

Perhaps Gatland is looking at the bigger picture in terms of the captain's involvement for morale in the camp going forward.

My utility back (ahead of Halfpenny) would be Jonathan Joseph but it appears the England centre is persona non grata at this point on the tour.

As for the All Blacks line-up, there are possible question marks over Rieko Ioane and Ryan Crotty ahead of Julian Savea and Anton Lienert-Brown, but the truth is I'm nit-picking here.

Like the Lions, they have a special scrum-half in Aaron Smith, who could match Conor Murray in the kicking game.

A howitzer lies ahead but I still fancy the Blacks.

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