When it was announced two weeks ago that Warren Gatland called up an additional six players to the Lions squad, there was considerable outrage. The reason for this was largely due to the players who were chosen. Gatland chose Kristian Dacey, Cory Hill, Tomas Francis, Gareth Davies, Alan Dell and Finn Russell due to their proximity to New Zealand.
In fact, the Welsh players were already in New Zealand, while the two Scots were in Australia. People felt that these call ups devalued what it means to be a Lion. Representing the Lions is supposed to be the pinnacle of a professional rugby player’s career, if they represent either Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales.
However, this decision was based on the apparent ease it would take to implement these players into the squad. The players would be able to train almost straight away and wouldn’t have to get over the fatigue issues associated with jetlag. As much as it proved to be a bee in the bonnet for many commentators on the game, Gatland didn’t care – these players were chosen to protect the frontline and if called upon, would make the transition into the team with minimum disruption.
In a way, you can respect the decision. Gatland isn’t here to make any friends or go down in Lions history as a likeable coach – he is here to win a Test series against the All Blacks and he believed that calling up these players would give him the best chance of doing so.
Now let’s look at what transpired at Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Tuesday. The Lions players were absolutely gassed in the second half. Leigh Halfpenny had already entered the fray in the first half to what looks like a serious shoulder injury to Robbie Henshaw and George Kruis came on for Courtney Lawes early in the second half, reaffirming the likelihood that we will see the Saints man in some capacity on Saturday.
What we were left with then, was the ‘Geography Six’ on the bench. The Lions were seriously struggling in the last quarter of the game and were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their physicality on their opponents and were continuously on the back-foot. Now, this was the perfect opportunity to bring in the rest of the players to add some much-needed freshness and vitality to the team – however, this never transpired, those six players remained on the sidelines and the Lions conceded two tries in the time Iain Henderson was in the bin.
A curious decision when every man and his dog could see that substitutions needed to be made but most people decided to park their impending criticism until Gatland offered his reaction in the post-match press conference.
Gatland sensationally admits that reaction to "geography six" and devaluing of shirt caused coaching team to rethink playing them.
— Nick Heath (@nickheathsport) June 27, 2017
So Gatland’s explanation was that the original reaction to calling them up made him reconsider his views on playing those aforementioned players. You could perhaps be forgiven for thinking – “Fair play to Gats, he finally saw sense.”
Not quite – let’s think about this for a moment.
What the 53-year-old is essentially saying to these players is this: “Lads, I apologise, public opinion has made me change my mind, sorry for cutting short your summer holidays.”
It’s basically telling the players that they aren’t good enough for the Lions – how do you think that makes them feel? Especially after the public outrage which greeted their inclusion – what you would want in this instance is for your coach to back you – but unfortunately, that has not happened.
And what about the players who remained on the pitch for 80 minutes when it was clear they should have left the fray at least 15 minutes beforehand? It’s rare in modern professional rugby that you see your starting front row complete 80 minutes each. I can’t imagine they or their club coaches are too happy with that – as we all know, the likelihood of picking up soft-tissue injuries increases with fatigue.
Gatland isn’t doing himself any favours here. The personal attacks from the New Zealand media have been deplorable and frankly, have no place in rugby but Gatland is only adding fuel to the fire in this regard with generating controversy such as this.
With the All Blacks looming large on Saturday – the pressure, the unwanted attention, the criticism and sharpening of knives are all going to increase over the coming days.
An almost impossible task just got more difficult.