The NFL draft, which was finally completed last week, is a less a media circus than the entirety of five Disneyworlds.
Their season is somewhat brief by sporting standards – September to the first week in February, usually. Something has to be done to engender interest when no-one’s playing.
The annual draft of the best college talent more than fills the void. It’s now become a year-round thing. Whole industries seem to be geared to predicting which team will draft which prospect and whether he’ll be the “future of the franchise” (95 per cent of the time, they’re not).
“Experts” and analysts – some of whom are employed by media giants like ESPN to do nothing else – run “mock drafts” predicting who will pick whom. They’ll do three or four of these in the lead-up to the actual draft, changing their opinion despite no additional data other than blind gossip.
Each “mock” is treated like a massive media event, debated and dissected, ridiculed and lauded.
It’s madness. The morning after the draft I looked to see who my favourite team (the New Orleans Saints, not that it matters) had picked when I happened upon a link to “First Mock Draft for 2022”.
Surely not, I thought, and on clicking, mercifully it was not. The link redirected you to a blank page with the words “Buddy, what the hell is wrong with you?” in large print.
A massive modern media circus around the squad
I’m torn with exactly the same feeling about the British and Irish Lions squad to be unveiled, along with the captain for the tour to South Africa, by head coach Warren Gatland on Thursday.
There’s been an attempt this spring by some to turn the squad announcement into rugby’s version of the NFL draft. There’s intrigue, endless gossip, a weekly travelogue of which game Gatland and his assistants are attending.
In the meantime, all over modern media pundits and punters alike are listing their 36 names. No-one is even-handed, no-one immune from their own bias, pre-conceptions and reading far too much into isolated instances.
There’s actually solid and relevant evidence from which to select
Unlike the NFL draft, however, there is surely solid and recent evidence to make a valid judgement. The Six Nations just passed was the highest level of play any Lions candidates were exposed to in the last year. There were even actual one-to-ones between rivals for the same slot on the touring party.
But we have the usual “form is temporary, class is permanent” brigade. It’s apparently unthinkable that past tourists who served Gatland well in New Zealand and Australia on the last two tours can possibly be left out. Even if they’ve been dreadful since the New Year.
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, when asked about the Lions throughout the entire season, said that he trusted Gatland to make his definitive judgement on players based on form in the current season.
Had Gregor already been tabbed as Gat’s chief assistant when he was saying that? If so, you can expect a squad that would fulfil an erstwhile colleague’s greatest dream – a Lions team consisting entirely of Celtic players with no Englishmen at all.
Because England played like a drain in the Six Nations. There wasn’t a single player who really advanced his cause for a Lions test berth.
In addition, there has been no English voice in the selection meetings with Townsend, Steve Tandy and Robin McBryde joining Gatland and Neil Jenkins. We were always told that was crucial when Scots were being largely ignored on the last three Lions tours.
(An aside: as Welshman McBryde coaches with Leinster, he’s the Irish voice. Sort of.)
Furthermore Opta, the stats company, ran the figures from the last Six Nations through their super-analytic computers for The Times. The results indicated no English back should tour. Not one.
Despite the Anglophic dreams, it’s not happening
But of course, an English-free Lions is not going to happen, and neither indeed should it. Touring without Maro Itoje, for example, would be daft. Anthony Watson, who was okay during the Six Nations, is probably going to get one of the wing berths.
The disproportionate attention given to the Gallacher Premiership will also ensure that several English candidates get the nod with the benefit of the doubt.
But everyone? What about Owen Farrell or Billy Vunipola, who are apparently considered absolutely unexpendable for Lions purposes.
Why? Both were awful in the Six Nations. That was their sole form guide at the top level, as they’ve been playing Championship rugby for Saracens.
Vunipola didn’t tour in 2017 because of injury. Farrell did, and really didn’t have a great tour. Look at his first 15 minutes in the third and final test, for example. Missed tackles, basic kick out on the full, telegraphed pass intercepted in the All Black 22 and returned 80 metres the other way.
Form is temporary, class is…really?
Gatland’s right as head coach to pick who he wants
Picking a Lions squad is full of marginal calls. Gatland will have a gameplan stowed away that works to his preferences. It’ll demand certain selections he knows will do the job he wants done.
That’s why we can probably expect that Alun Wyn Jones will be captain (absolutely justified) and more Welshmen than is probably appropriate.
Which nation’s candidates are going to get the squeeze? Surely it should be England?