Warren Gatland cannot win, certainly not from a fans point of view. The Lions were expected to win this series, even go unbeaten; the strongest Lions squad versus the weakest Australia team for generations – that was how it was supposed to be. Gatland with his two grand slams and numerous club trophies was in a position to enhance his considerable reputation. But rugby is a fickle mistress, where the vagaries of fortune and momentum extinguish dreams. Now Gatland stands alone, knowing that whatever happens his will not be a story of triumph – that is the loneliness of leadership.
Leadership in rugby is like cupping water in your hands, the smallest crack allows confidence and assurance to seep away. Martin Johnson, so excellent as the only double captain of the Lions as well as world cup winning captain, found the challenge of being head coach a far trickier thing. Gatland cannot win. If the Lions lose then it will be Gatland’s fault, if they win it will be in spite of him as they were expected to win the series. Is it fair? No. Sport and life so rarely are. You do not get to where Gatland has without understanding that.
In a previous add-victor blog Peter Winterbottom said that a Lions Tour is not the time to gamble because it smacks of desperation. Gatland cannot win but he can certainly lose and now he has made some very big calls and only history can judge a gamble as madness or genius, desperation or courage.
With Paul O’Connell and Sam Warburton both injured the easy thing would have been to make Brian O’Driscoll captain…instead the great Irishman is omitted completely. The easy thing would have been to stick with Tom Youngs, who has played excellently…instead Hibbard comes in despite obvious questions about his lineout ball. With Warburton injured surely the excellent and in form Tipuric would come in? No. Gatland has made his stand – the Lions will go forward with power and a core of Welsh players he knows and trusts. Expect a battle, this is not going to be pretty. O’Driscoll has not done anything wrong, his leadership and mind still world class, his defensive play nothing short of excellent. As much as leading the Lions to a series win would have been fitting epitaph to a great career the decision is now made. Look forward, move forward, Lions do not go back.
I hope that with a more powerful front row (and a French referee…) the scrum will once again provide a platform; that the presence of Roberts will mean more gain line breaks, more phases, more possession, more territory. Go forward ball. I hope. Maybe this is the time to gamble…
The bottom line of the first two tests? The Lions have been a Kurtley Beale slip away from disaster. It is easy to forget that, particularly following the relief of the first test win, and the heartbreak of the blameless Halfpenney’s final failed kick in the second test. The result? The initiative and momentum is with Australia, a dangerous thing in any sport, and when Australia are in the ascendancy they will twist the knife. Robbie Deans has made his views clear on Gatland’s game plan.
‘You’ve got to push the envelope in order to win,’ said Deans. ‘We’ll never beat a side as able and experienced as this Lions side without chancing our arm…They’re a pressure team, they play a pressure game. They look to put you under pressure, they look to put the referee under pressure, in particular. That’s something we’re aware of so we’ve got to deny them the things that they seek. They like to play a territory-based game. That probably sums it up, I think.’
And so pointedly summed up.
The Lions gameplan for the second test was a study in the fear of losing not the desire to win. Australia are a running team, they even have a winger at fly-half! One of the key functions of sport is not to play to the opposition strengths. The Lions kicking game was abysmal, and there was little in the way of phases, even the line out and scrum faltered. So Gatland is going to play attritional rugby, built around the pack and Jamie Roberts (and probably also George North) pounding up the gain line.
Gatland has been forced to make a change and like any leader he has made bold choices. That’s what a leader has to do, make the big calls not the popular or easy ones. Gatland cannot win but the Lions still can.