The most illuminating part of Warren Gatland’s press conference after naming the team for the first test of the series against South Africa was his frank admission of no consensus among the coaches.
All named different matchday 23s. There was only unanimous agreement, said Gat, on three backs and four forwards.
This is alarming, reassuring and amusing all at the same time.
Amusing, because after four weeks of tour, it seems the coaches at the front end are as bewilderingly confused as all those fans spending valuable waking moments on selection websites clicking on names for their own 23s, very few of which are remotely similar.
Alarming, because you’d hope that after so many games – albeit with so much disruption caused by Covid – that the coaches would have reached a greater consensus on who was to play than seven out of 15 players.
Reassuring, because one assumes that the differences between the coaches have all been well-argued. It’s indicative that nobody’s been truly horrendous on tour so far. Although I would argue that the least impressive player in the squad – if you take in prior to the tour AND during it – is actually starting the test match.
Here’s some points from the selection:
Three Scots – at last the thistle counts
🗣 "It's the hardest selection meeting that I've ever been in"
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) July 21, 2021
It’s been too long – the third test in Australia in 2001. Tom Smith finally passes the torch to Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe and Ali Price.
I suspect Price was one of the three “unanimous” back picks. He’s been a livewire on tour, while Gareth Davies has struggled for time. Conor Murray has looked tired and slow, his famous boxkicks suddenly prone to chargedowns. An example, if we needed more, of how an outsider becomes a first choice in the touring environment.
Hogg really deserves this chance, as Gatland conceded, but sentiment isn’t part of it. I just think he brings more threat than Liam Williams and a better kicking option. That’s no detriment on Williams, who I think should be starting on the wing.
Van der Merwe is the surprise, and quite unlike conservative Gat. They have to know the Springboks will pepper the SA native with kicks (and with abuse), but clearly reckon it’s worth the risk.
Going forward, Duhan has looked a potential gamebreaker – more so I would say than Josh Adams or Louis Rees-Zammit because he can go through people. But going backwards…I’d have had Williams in this slot.
It’s just the first test
TEAM NEWS 🦁
The moment we’ve all waited FOUR years for is here…😆
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) July 21, 2021
Ideally, you’d like to get it dead right with test selection straight away, but only Geech and Jim Telfer have ever managed that for the Lions. Gatland is well aware what can change.
On the last tour Peter O’Mahony was such a unanimous choice from his play in the build-up games, he was even made captain. After the 30-15 shellacking in the first test, he never even saw the bench for the last two.
Thus there is a chance for those left out of the 22. If I know Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy and their preferences, I’m betting they had Chris Harris in at 13.
Elliot Daly is surely there for his left boot option more than anything else, because he’s had a poor season and has hardly lit up the tour on his appearances.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the impressive Jonny Hill forces his way in; Alun Wyn Jones is unlikely to last all three tests. Taulupe Faletau can reclaim the 8 shirt. And players will be hurt – there’s nothing surer.
We’ll see if Hamish Watson was too small
Courtney Lawes was specifically on the tour from the outset because Gatland wanted him for the tests at 6, in my opinion.
With Pieter-Steph du Toit looming, that’s understandable, but it sort of goes again the idea that the Lions could run the `Boks around a bit. This is the big-boned Lions back row but mobility is not what it could be.
We could yet see a Curry-Watson-Faletau trio which could be a bit more flexible – and effective – further down the line.
The Lions are underdogs, but they were anyway
5️⃣0️⃣-up for Pollard against the Lions on Saturday
🇿🇦 Experienced Bok side named for Cape Town Test
🗣️ “The forward battle is going to be as tough as it gets"
👉 Team announcement: https://t.co/VpaSUP4YGe#CastleLionsSeries #StrongerTogether #StrongerForever pic.twitter.com/GuTORY78qJ
— Springboks (@Springboks) July 20, 2021
It’s interesting to note that South Africa have a poorer record in Cape Town than just about any of their regular home venues.
Games being played at sea level are going to help the Lions, but the ease of which the Springbok IIs – never an A team – handled the Lions the other week with so little prep does not augur well for the tourists’ prospects in the tests.
12 years ago Gatland says the Lions were undone by the `Boks keeping their big guns out of provincial games. His team were unprepared for the physical step-up of the test matches.
Roughly the same has happened and I don’t think that one game against the A team remotely fills the void, really.
Cockerill’s departure not a shock, but who wields the stick now?
I don’t think anyone is downright shocked by Richard Cockerill abruptly leaving Edinburgh. There will be plenty of takers for his confrontational style and ability to whip a team into shape.
John Barclay’s observations in the Times on his short two-year spell under Cockerill rang true. Two strong characters almost inevitably clashed. That’s not to say either was wrong, however.
John concedes that Edinburgh pre-Cockers were an entitled, somewhat soft lot who basically played out the string between internationals. My concern is that there’s still some around from that era. You could argue that at least one of candidates to replace Cockerill was part of it as well.
The culture change of responsibility was definitely a major plus of Cockers’ regime. It’s crucially important that this doesn’t revert back under new management.