Warren Gatland is entering the business end of his fourth British & Irish Lions tour and never has his huge stash of experience felt more relevant. Facing him and his fellow coaches is the trickiest Lions selection conundrum in years, much of it reliant on gut instinct rather than anything he has specifically seen since arriving in South Africa.
A novice head coach would be clutching his head, wondering how on earth he is meant to pick a bristling Test team to beat the Springboks this Saturday based on the evidence of the outings against South Africa’s leading provinces. Let’s just say the Lions, the Sharks (twice) and the Stormers have not mounted an entirely compelling sales pitch for the United Rugby Championship which will be replacing the old Pro14/16 tournament this year.
The 49-3 win against the Stormers on Saturday was merely the latest worrying illustration of how the romance of Lions touring is being eroded. Why flog around a distant land in midwinter for tradition’s sake when the hosts cocoon their best players for the Test series and leave their visitors to rack up soulless victories against weakened opponents? If almost every non-Test fixture becomes a dispiriting non-contest, even the greatest showman will struggle to sustain the touring dream.
The exception, thankfully, was the South Africa A game last Wednesday which the Lions lost 17-13. Any repeat of their sluggish first-quarter performance and the touring team will be dead meat in the three-Test series, but encountering such meaningful opposition was timely.
“We got exactly what we wanted in terms of what’s coming next week,” Gatland said. “It gives us an insight into what to expect.” The Lions, in short, are preparing for a distinct type of challenge, specifically stopping the opposing big beasts thundering on to short pop passes from Faf de Klerk and dealing with their aerial threat.
“We’re expecting a lot of runners off nine and we expect a lot of kicking,” Gatland said. “With a lot of teams there might be 20-odd kicks in a game but when you play the Springboks it goes up to 40-odd. So that’s an area we need to do a lot of work on this week … our kick-chase, getting back in support of players and being prepared to stay in that arm-wrestle.”
Which makes the coaches’ upcoming selection meeting even more fascinating. Gatland insists he does not commence tours with any preconceived notions, and he has rightly identified the loose-forward trio, the back three and the bench as particularly vital areas.
What he did not mention were the other delicate judgment calls to be made about his captain, Alun Wyn Jones, and at scrum-half and hooker. At least Gatland has been up on this swaying high wire before. Who can forget the fuss when he left out Brian O’Driscoll for the decisive final Test in Australia in 2013? The upshot then was a series win, with Jonathan Davies playing a full part at 13. Last time around, in New Zealand, he switched Owen Farrell from 10 to 12 for the second and third Tests and the All Blacks failed to win either game.
This time it is about trusting the evidence of his own eyes or keeping faith with past masters. On this tour the liveliest hooker has been Luke Cowan-Dickie and the most energetic scrum-half has been Ali Price. Scotland’s Chris Harris has probably been the most consistent centre. Not many Lions watchers – and possibly not even Gatland himself – would have imagined that trio of potential first Test starters even a month ago.
A promotion for Price would be a particularly good story. Born in Norfolk, the Scotland scrum-half briefly combined his rugby with getting up at 3am to make bread in the Krusty Loaf bakery in Hunstanton.
With Gatland’s original captain, Jones, now back available, the case for sticking with his stand-in Conor Murray’s slower service becomes less essential. It boils down, ultimately, to tempo. If the Lions want to hang tough for an hour and then crank up the volume in the final quarter, they can easily pick accordingly. But what if the best moment to unsettle a slightly rusty Boks side proves to be the first 20 minutes? In that event, it might make more sense to start with Price, Cowan-Dickie and Courtney Lawes, with the Boks not a team ideally suited to playing catch-up.
With the prospect of endless Springbok garryowens raining down there is an increased case, too, for nimble, alert footballers such as Elliot Daly to help bail out the back three. For all Marcus Smith’s promise, the chances of Farrell not being involved somewhere in the matchday squad feel slight, but Gatland is reserving the right to play a joker or two.
“Sometimes it’s about looking at the stats and sometimes it’s about having a gut feeling about certain players and combinations.” Choose wisely and the 2021 Lions could yet come up trumps.