Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Lions Call Ups

One thing is for sure, Warren Gatland and co. are no strangers to controversy. Nor are they ones to court favouritism; always willing to make the calls others would shy away from - See James Davies, Martyn Williams,  Justin Tipuric, Dan Evans and Brian O'Driscoll for more information. The latest call from the Kiwi and his crew has again jammed in the craw of many, but it's one they have got right.

Firstly the decision to ring fence the the squad for the first test - and likely the second test the week after - more than makes sense and whilst the decision to call up players for the mid week games may well have been premeditated, it doesn't make it wrong. The players Gatland has shipped in are perfect for the role he wants them to play too. Whilst many are unhappy with Gatland's selections, they DO make sense.

Gatland has already cited the obvious issue of geography. It's an easy cop out, but it's also true. Wales' first test was rearranged for Auckland after Tonga's facilities were deemed unfit. Scotland, meanwhile, were just over the water beating Australia in their own backyard. Of course it's logical to call up players who are already on your doorstep, just ask Dai Young, Shane Williams, Andy Nicol and Ryan Jones. 

Conversely, England are 30 to 40 hours away in Argentina, which throws up questions of the feasibility of calling up anyone in time for the Chiefs game. That would mean playing a test on Saturday, immediately setting off for New Zealand, travelling by coach and plane for a day and half with no post match recuperation, completing one training on Monday and learning set piece moves by Tuesday's game. That's before jet lag and 15 hours time difference comes into play.

By contrast, Cory Hill has already trained with the Lions at their Hensol base before setting off across the equator. Not only has he taken part in Lions set pieces in training, he has called the lineouts and completed analysis on them. 

As well as the logistical and technical, there's the mental. Firstly, there is the clear message that the camp are sending out, "we are happy with our progress." Calling up the likes of Hartley and Launchbury may have been seen as panic within the ranks, worry that their initial selections may not be strong enough. At very least, it would be easy for Steve Hanson to spin it that way. With these choices, the selectors are showing they have faith in their players and - whether you agreed with it or not - their system.

Then, there's the harmony in camp. It's clear that Gatland runs a very tight ship, of which he likes to be in control. What he says goes and his leaders are expected to back him. Players step out of line at their own peril as the likes of James Hook, Tom James and Alix Popham found out. 

In 1997 big personalities helped make the tour successful, but that was the early days of professionalism. Since then we have had the England strike of 2000, which saw player power truly flex it's muscles. When Graham Henry's Lions tour derailed in 2001 he quickly pointed to rogue players and the press. In 2005 Clive Woodward and his bloated glut of staff managed to disenfranchise just about the whole squad. Modern Lions coaching seems to be as much about keep some egos in check as it does creating the confidence in others. 

Before coaching the squad to victory in Australia four years ago, Gatland spent the best part of a year with Ian McGeechan to analysis errors in tour gone by - that 2005 tour in particular. With this move Gatland has righted Sir Clive's biggest wrong. Now the Tuesday team doesn't feel like a rag tag group of players cast aside a left like unwanted children and shut out of their own team's meetings. They are a team grateful to be there and happy to have the opportunity to pull on the jersey and receive their unique cap number. They are delighted to be a Tuesday team.

With that he also minimises a repeat of Henry's failed campaign. A diary by Matt Dawson and an Austin Healey article ghost written by Eddie Butler causing a stir within the camp. Don't expect to see any Cory Hill diary entries in the Telegraph or Tomas Francis bemoaning the lack of harmony. These are players Gatland knows and trusts, players who will get their head down and get on with it. These call ups are unlikely to win the Lions any test, but they certainly won't create a disruptive figure could certainly cost them either and that is what matters most. 

While we will want to be competitive in midweek games, it's the tests that truly matter. Nobody cares that we lost to Northern Transvaal in 1997, only that we beat the Springboks. We forget the defeat to the Brumbies four years ago because we ended our barren run in the test series. We aren't proud that we only lost twice in South Africa in 2009 because both those defeats were test matches that cost us the series.

So, whilst people talk of the these selections devaluing the Lions jersey, we must ask what value there is if the Lions aren't competitive? And, if they aren't competitive, will there be a Lions jersey at all to value in the future?

Adam and the Ants - Feed Me to the Lions