As we’ve noted in Breakdowns past, Warren Gatland, the head coach in perpetuity of the British and Irish Lions it seems, has more than earned the right not be second-guessed.
That doesn’t seem to stop anyone, though.
Gat had almost a full house of being right in Saturday’s first test against South Africa. He skilfully set a public agenda in the days leading up to the game that may – possibly – have got the Lions off with a couple of marginal decisions.
Any selection for the Lions is highly contestable, and Saturday’s was no different. Yet despite the difficulties of the first half Gatland was proved right in just about all the options he took. A simple “stop giving up bloody stupid penalties” instruction at half-time was all that was needed.
Nobody reasonable – in incredibly short supply among Lions watchers – could have complained if he’d sent out the same 23 for Saturday’s second test. But Gatland likes sailing close to the wind, he seems to relish being proved right, even when he’s been right already.
Gatland easily winning the public battle as well
In the public arena, Gat continues to play a canny game. Rassie Erasmus – who, let’s not forget, is not actually even head coach of the Springboks anymore – appears on the verge of going completely gaga.
This week’s Twitter intrigue about whether he is posting video under a nom-de-plume to further his agenda with officials is hilarious. The Lions have wisely stepped well away from that fray.
But during his team announcement on Tuesday, did we see an infinitesimal slip by Gatland? Answering a question about players left out of the first two tests, he said, win or lose on Saturday, the Lions would make changes for the third test. Those players left out would therefore still get a shot at the test team, he said.
All reasonable on the face of it. But why give even a hint or inference that you’re thinking of handing out Lions test caps to previously disregarded squad players before the second test has even been played? If I were the Springboks, I’d be pinning that message – inferred or not – to the dressing room wall.
I have no real issue with the second test team. Chris Harris probably should have been in at 13 for Elliot Daly on Saturday, and it’s a fair assumption that Gatland overruled his assistants on that one.
Successes against a tiring team
I also get – sort of, because it’s brutally tough on Ali Price – the other changes.
My only caveat is that Conor Murray and Mako Vunipola played well as replacements against a Springbok team whose energy levels were low if not expired entirely.
It’s certainly likely South Africa won’t be able to maintain those energy levels again. But if so why not have the quicker and more dynamic Price moving them around for the first hour, and let Murray’s experience bring the Lions home in the last 20 minutes?
Perhaps there is devil in this detail. A Lions side anchored by the brilliance of Maro Itoje and the resilience of captain Alun Wyn Jones might just be too strong anyway.
But I’m nervous that Gatland and the Lions may have given the Springboks just the inch or two they need to break out of Saturday’s second half torpor.
We’re all it, really
My friend James Corrigan of the London Telegraph is a proud Welshman. He’s also probably Warren Gatland’s greatest fan (you would be too after all those Slams). But James’ assertion that the Welsh “get” the Lions ethos more than fans of other nations is, well, fork-tongued Dragon-speak.
Only two starters in the first test when Six Nations champions? Yet no moaning from Wales like in Ireland, England and Scotland, because the Welsh understand the concept, tweeted James.
Yeah. I don’t know what he was reading or scrolling, but many of the Welsh I saw were horrified that Josh Adams, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and others were omitted.
Welsh twitter went almost apopleptic when Williams was left out of the 23 for the second test altogether. A large constituency seemed to think that Faletau should come in ahead of first test starter Jack Conan.
Gatland was forced to defend Conan at his press conference, saying he did a lot of essential “unseen” duties. Actually, the Irishman did more than enough “seen” stuff to rival Itoje and Courtney Lawes as the Lions’ best forward, to my eyes.
Truth is despite the great ‘all for one’ ethos of the Lions, it’s still four rival nations pitched uncomfortably together. For the fans at least, whatever their nationality, our guy is always better than their guy.
Even, it seems, if their guy was a big part in a historic first test victory.
Blair’s rise a natural progression to Edinburgh…and beyond?
Part of the most successful @Scotlandteam coaching team in the professional era.
🤝 Get to know your new Head Coach. pic.twitter.com/svu1vuvgZH
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) July 23, 2021
Mike Blair was so obvious a choice for the new Edinburgh head coach that it actually looks kind of pre-planned.
Maybe I’m being a bit conspiracy theorist. But Richard Cockerill’s abrupt departure on the first day of pre-season was just too convenient.
I think it was always certain that Mike would end up with one of the pro-team jobs. The sudden switch was familiar to those who recall Gregor Townsend’s appointment at Glasgow.
That of course worked out well in the end, even if the change was clumsily handled. The same might happen here. Blair has definitely had an influence on Scotland’s more fluent back play since the 2019 World Cup. He’s a smart operator, no question.
Who knows, if Edinburgh keep moving forward with a more attacking mindset to the belts and braces style imposed by Cockers, then the natural progression might have Mike as a potential successor to Gregor himself.