Wednesday 17 January 2018

Tony Ward: No one can deny impact of no-nonsense 'Warrenball'

Warren Gatland and Brian O'Driscoll following the third Lions Test
Warren Gatland and Brian O'Driscoll following the third Lions Test
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Already the talk is of Warren Gatland becoming an Ian McGeechan-type figure and taking charge of the 2017 Lions tour to his homeland.

After Saturday's incredible showing I doubt anyone will question the possibility of that coaching reappointment.

It really sums up the fickle nature of professional sport. Had the Lions lost, Gatland would have been pilloried from all angles, particularly in this country. But Saturday in Sydney was his day and his series victory – he deserves as much credit as the 23 players who took to the field.

The head coach devised the plan, which was simple. He picked the players he believed in to get the job done, and they rewarded his faith.

Nothing we witnessed in the final Test will convince me that Jonathan Davies made for a better selection than Brian O'Driscoll, but that was the main man's prerogative and having taken the third Test, and with it the series, he need not justify his decision to anyone.

STRATEGY

The formula is simple: win and you're a genius, lose and you're a thundering fool.

The series-clinching display we witnessed came nowhere close to genius, but it was the right strategy for the challenge and culminated in the right result. It was a resounding victory.

The Wallabies weren't just beaten, they were humiliated on their own patch before their own fickle rugby faithful. Rugby union is struggling to stay the pace with Aussie Rules, rugby league and soccer in Australia and this drubbing will hardly have helped, despite the healthier ARU bank balance on the back of the last six weeks.

For the Lions it was an extraordinary result that few saw coming. 'Warrenball rugby', as it has now been christened, was the undoubted winner. Here was route-one, no-nonsense rugby in which scrum domination provided the platform for everything that followed.

Australian rugby has a serious scrummaging problem, and it's an issue they have failed to meaningfully address. Leigh Halfpenny was the player of the series, but Alex Corbisiero was unquestionably next in line.

Bear in mind that this scrum technician was in Argentina with England until Gethin Jenkins' injury opened the door for him. Along with Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones it made for the most powerful front-row fielded throughout the tour.

The Wallabies simply couldn't cope and allied to Romain Poite's penchant for consistently giving goal-kicking opportunities to the eight going forward at scrum time, it was set up for Halfpenny to deliver the rest.

Toss in two scintillating second-half breaks culminating in series-sealing tries for Jonny Sexton and George North and little wonder the ultra-consistent Cardiff player got the outstanding individual nod.

From an Irish perspective, the obvious omission of O'Driscoll apart, it was another powerful contribution which cannot but have impressed Joe Schmidt.

Sexton was in a different league to his opposite number James O'Connor. O'Connor is not and will never be a natural outside-half at this level but will continue to be a class rugby player fully deserving a slot further out the line.

For the beleaguered Robbie Deans, the out-half gamble (leaving out Quade Cooper) unravelled, as it was always likely too.

Sean O'Brien was a wrecking ball, with a tackle count well into double figures.

Tommy Bowe was perhaps the least involved, given Conor Murray's remarkable impact in the final quarter off the bench, but what an achievement following an operation mid-tour just to be there.

However, this series win is as much about the head coach as it is the players who made it happen.

Credit where credit's due. Gatland stood by his principles and put his faith in those he trusts – and they delivered in spades.

When a team plays to its coach's demands and delivers the type of comprehensive winning performance the Lions did in Sydney, then it's argument over, case proven for the chief buck cat. He ran with his gut instinct and it worked.

We may not always agree on the end justifying the means, but on this occasion Gatland has emerged with his reputation further enhanced.

O'Driscoll still adds being part of a winning Lions series to that extraordinary CV. Maybe it's a case of win-win all round, but somehow that doesn't quite sit with me.

Congratulations to Gatland, and credit to his players, but let's give full praise to O'Driscoll too for giving his all in the immediate post-match celebrations. Now there truly is a giant of a man.

Irish Independent

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