Warren Gatland’s appointment as head coach of the 2017 British and Irish Lions Tour of New Zealand was met with little surprise and jaded responses last September, which probably had a lot do to with the fact that it was a one-horse race. Joe Schmidt ruled himself out of contention at the first mention of taking on the job; Eddie Jones couldn’t have made himself any clearer when he rejected the notion of leading the tour following England’s June Series win over Australia last year; and when the news broke that Vern Cotter would be returning to France, the job was Gatland’s by default. The possibility of someone outside the UK or Ireland being given the job was discussed (Graham Henry’s name came up – as it always does), but never likely to happen. It wasn’t that Gatland was the best man for the job, he was the only one who was actually bothered with it.
Opinions on Gatland tend to be mixed. His supporters view him as a canny, hard-nosed operator, while his critics see him as an inflexible and unimaginative tactician. Whatever your opinion of the man, he knows what it takes to win silverware. A coach doesn’t have three Premiership titles, a European Challenge Cup, a Heineken Cup, an NPC title, three Six Nations trophies (two of which were Grand Slams) and a Lions Series on their CV if they don’t know what they are doing.
Big Fish, Small Pond
Several pundits, journalists and commentators are quick to dismiss a team’s Six Nations success when they go and get beaten by one of the southern hemisphere teams. Scenarios like that are often used as evidence to support the argument that there’s a gulf in quality between the two hemispheres. There’s definitely an element of truth to it, although the people who hold that view can be very selective in the examples that they use. The overriding theme of many post-RWC 2015 analyses was that the southern hemisphere sides were head and shoulders above the northern hemisphere ones but there was no sign of that superiority complex the previous November when Ireland, England, Wales, France and Scotland all enjoyed wins over Rugby Championship opposition.
In the case of Gatland’s Wales, though, there’s no denying that they’ve hit something a glass ceiling over the last few years when it comes to playing The Big Three. After the 2012 Grand Slam, they were expected to go well against Australia in that year’s June Series, but they lost it 3-0, coming agonisingly close in all three games. Australia have developed a mental edge over them since then, winning every Test in the interim by narrow margins even when Wales were dominant for large periods of some of them: 14-12 (November 2012), 30-26 (November 2013), 33-28 (November 2014) and 15-6 (October 2015).
They’ve had a slightly better record against the Springboks, with a win over them in November 2014 and a one-point loss in June of that year. The most recent Autumn Series saw Wales put them to the sword, but it is worth remembering that the current South African team under Allister Coetzee are a pale imitation of their all-conquering, World-Cup winning predecessors. As for New Zealand, Wales haven’t beaten them since 1953, and last year’s June games between the sides barely qualified as contests.
The reason why Wales’ record against these teams is relevant to this year’s Lions tour is because Gatland is a creature of habit, and just as he did in 2013, he is going to pick a team made up mostly of Welsh players, and he is certainly not going to stray from the territorial-based, Warrenball tactics that have characterised his tenure as Wales’ head coach. Ireland showed last November that possession is more important than territory when playing New Zealand because they can score from anymore. Ball-retention was the order of the day for Joe Schmidt’s side in Chicago, either by putting it through the hands for several phases at a time, or kicking to regather; the inability to get hold of the ball frustrated New Zealand, resulting in them conceding cheap penalties due to having less try-scoring opportunities than they are used to.
The game plan that Gatland will employ instead is highly ill-conceived, because if the likes of South Africa and Argentina aren’t able to pummel New Zealand into submission, then a composite northern hemisphere side has no chance of beating them in an arm wrestle either. Steve Hansen’s team have become adept at handling themselves in the tight phases, and for all their skill, intelligence and vision, the Kiwis are able to fight dirty when it’s required, and their line speed, intensity in contact and ability to reorganise quickly mean that they rarely struggle in-close defensively.
“But The Lions Were Successful In 2013”……….Well, Sort Of
The 2013 Lions Series win has been pointed to as evidence that Gatland can get the job done against the best teams, even though that tour is remembered for him dropping Brian O’Driscoll for the third Test, rather than the rugby that was played. It was a controversial decision, especially considering that Jonathan Davies had underperformed in the first two games, but Gatland selected him alongside a fit-again Jamie Roberts because that partnership had served him so well with Wales. To be fair, both players were excellent in that final game (Davies in particular) and Gatland’s selection was seen by some to be vindicated. It was a one-sided blowout that the Lions won in fine style, which led to questions being asked about how good Australia really were at the time, if they could be beaten so badly at home.
“They can only play what’s in front of them” is an expression that gets thrown around when one team beats a perceived inferior team by a low margin. It’s often a nice way of saying that the winners didn’t push themselves too much and should have hammered the losers out the gate, but if you were to measure the 2013 Lions Test squad by the quality of their opposition, they don’t look great. That Australian team had its share of problems: their head coach had one foot out the door, their out-half was a centre/winger/full back that has had more off–field issues than any other professional rugby union player in his generation, and their front five was a clown car.
The tourists fell over the line in the first Test, lost the second because they forgot that they are allowed to actually pass the ball, and then ran in a couple of tries in the third to beat a Wallabies side that didn’t get off the bus. It was a successful series in the sense that it went down as a win in the record books, but it’s not going to come up in any conversations about Test match classics or tactical masterstrokes. Anyone who thinks that it’s cause for optimism for a series win in New Zealand needs to recognise that the difference between that Australian team and the current All Blacks side is unquantifiable. Even with the injury concerns over Dane Coles, Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and Beauden Barrett, they have enough strength in depth in every position to handle whatever the Lions throw at them.