Warren Gatland has made big decisions in his rugby life and refused to back down when they evoked widespread condemnation which makes his incomprehensible handling of the “Geography Six” on the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand so worrying.
He brought in the Welsh quartet of Gareth Davies, Tomas Francis, Kristian Dacey and Cory Hill along with Scotland’s Allan Dell and Finn Russell to provide cover on the replacements bench for the mid-week games against the Chiefs and the Hurricanes.
Dell played in the Chiefs game as a sin-bin replacement for Joe Marler, with Russell coming on as a head injury replacement for Dan Bigger. The four Welsh players remained unused in their Lions kit and their place in the history of the most famous touring team in the world remains unclear. Are they full-fledged Lions or merely an asterix at the bottom of the page?
As the implications of the use of those six players, who were only chosen because the Welsh and Scottish tours made them the closest options to join what is supposed to be a showcase for the very best of Home Unions rugby, are digested let’s remember exactly what Gatland said in 2013 after he stunned the entire sport and Ireland in particular by dropping Brian O’Driscoll for the decisive third test against Australia.
He faced the media and announced :”I will go back to the UK after this and say: ‘Did I make the decision because I believe it’s the right decision or did I make it because it was politically right?’ I have to put hand on my heart and say it’s the right rugby decision. I would hate to think we had made calls to avoid criticism or for reasons of public popularity.
“It’s only hard because you are making the decision using your head and not your heart. Then you realise that what comes of making a decision like that is all the peripheral stuff, because it becomes a major story for 48 hours and it becomes a debate.”
The Lions won the that third test and the series 2-1, Gatland was lauded for his strength of character and that kind of decision made it easy for the Home Unions to pick Gatland for this tour. Besides experience of two previous tours – he was an assistant to Lion King Ian McGeechan in 2009 in South Africa – Gatland offered the Lions something unique – to be coached by a New Zealander against the world champion All Blacks. It meant the Lions would have a vital insight into their opponents, their psyche and the whole nation.
Now, it has all gone wrong and Gatland is being portrayed as whinging clown and his judgement is being questioned by friend and foe following his admission he ignored the six replacements because of outside criticism – including comments from McGeechan. All of this is happening in the build up to the announcement of the team for the critical second test with New Zealand, the tour defining match that will significantly affect Gatland’s standing in the game and how rugby history will judge him.
Gatland has faced withering criticism from sections of a parochial Kiwi media but he will have known that would happen before boarding the plane at Heathrow as he is a local coaching the “enemy”. The positives envisaged by having a New Zealander in charge of the Lions has been significantly denuded by one of the biggest mistakes of his coaching career and his explanation for not using the Welsh and Scots additions is difficult to stomach for those who put Lions selection on a pedestal.
Gatland stoked the fires by accepting: “I know there was a lot being made of that… [but it was done] to protect as many of the test 23 as we could. If we didn’t have those players there( tonight) then we might have had players on the bench on Saturday (for the second test) who might have been exposed.
“So much was made about devaluing the jersey and those things so we made a decision to try to get through game with as many in the starting XV as we could. Possibly, you may have been a little bit more positive about bringing those players on fresh, but so much was made of that. I understand people’s views… we made a collective decision that we’d make them injury replacements or as HIA replacements.”
Where has the man who dropped O’Driscoll and then faced down his critics gone? A Lions tour takes it lead from the head coach, the man who is constantly in the eye of the storm and particularly in New Zealand it is possible to galvanise a tour party by using the constant stream of abuse that is fired their way during a test series. On this tour, there is now a worrying dynamic; a head coach whose judgement has been found wanting just as he needs to be at his most decisive to keep the series alive.
as seen in Evening Standard