As the British and Irish Lions reflect on the last seven weeks, they can take immense pride in what they have achieved.
Many people didn’t give them a prayer when they left home soil at the end of May but they came together brilliantly and played a key role in a truly epic series. They may not have managed to enter Lions immortality but a drawn series against the world’s best is an exceptional achievement.
For this, the players and assistant coaches deserve a great deal of credit.
But perhaps one person in particular deserves an extra mention is Warren Gatland. Taking on a tour dubbed as ‘mission impossible’ by many and a schedule dubbed as ‘suicidal’ by former All Blacks supremo Sir Graham Henry, Gatland deserves huge credit for securing a series draw against his home country.
Here are three reasons why he deserves lots of credit for his efforts:
1. He brought together four nations – and moulded them into a quality team
The lack of preparation time the Lions had before the first Test cannot be downplayed. The 41-man squad had only two weeks preparation before leaving for New Zealand, with only 14 players reporting for the first day of training in Wales.
That first week of training saw the Lions short of the likes of Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Sexton, Jamie George, Tadgh Furlong and Sean O’Brien as they were involved in domestic semi-finals.
Domestic finals meant that Connor Murray, CJ Stander, Elliot Daly, Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies and Ken Owens didn’t join up with the squad until the day before they flew out to New Zealand.
Only three days after arriving, they took on the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians. They had only five games and just over three weeks to prepare for the first Test against the All Blacks on the June 24.
But despite some bumps along the way, defeats to the Blues and Highlanders come to mind, he was able to put together a team which went toe to toe with New Zealand and which generally stopped them from playing their free-flowing game.
2. He was willing to take some risks
After a 30-15 first Test defeat, where the Lions backs created some chances, Gatland decided that a 10-12 partnership of Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell would offer the Lions more of a creative spark, with the impressive Ben Te’o being dropped.
Conservative by nature, Gatland’s decision to opt for two playmakers at 10 and 12, especially as they had only played together for around 70 minutes up to that point, came as a surprise to many.
But the move paid off as Sexton and Farrell worked well together, asking questions of the New Zealand defence, especially debutant Ngani Laumape, brought on following Sonny Bill Williams’ red card. The exciting Hurricanes centre was caught out a couple of times through the Sexton-Farrell combination as the Lions earned a thrilling 24-21 win in Wellington.
And despite having less opportunities in the third Test, the pair showed some glimpses of the attacking threat they possess.
The selection of the pair was an acknowledgment that you have to attack the All Blacks and score tries against them to beat them.
3. He generally got his selections right
The former Waikato coach generally got his selections right. Choosing the creativity of Liam Williams ahead of the dependability of Leigh Halfpenny was definitely the right call.
Despite making some errors under the high ball including one in the first Test which led to a try as well as some other mistakes, Williams offered a constant threat in attack and made some crucial tackles. His try-saving tackle on Jordie Barrett in the dying moments of the third Test was absolutely critical.
It was the Saracens-bound flyer who sparked the try of the series when he stepped Kieran Read in his own 22, starting off a move that would see Sean O’Brien cross 90 seconds later for one of the great Lions tries.
He topped the metres made charts for the Lions in both the first and third Tests notching up 80m and 72m respectively and worked well with Anthony Watson and Elliott Daly in a Lions back three which caused the All Blacks some problems.
Picking the versatile Daly ahead of the out of form George North for the first Test was another wise call by Gatland. Daly played a key role in the Lions’ wonder try in the first Test, was dangerous with ball in hand, and with the exception of Cody Taylor’s try in the first Test where he was caught out of position, was generally assured in defence.
His siege gun boot saw him land a key second half penalty from 54m in the third Test as he enjoyed an impressive series.
Starting Sam Warburton in the second Test and restoring the captaincy to the Welshman was another shrewd move by the Wales coach. After being dominated at the breakdown in the first Test, Warburton ensured the Lions earned parity at the breakdown in the second game and edged the breakdown battle in the third.
Competing ferociously at the breakdown, the former Wales skipper regularly managed to slow All Black ball down and also led him team superbly.
Yes Gatland made some mistakes. Not starting Itoje in the first Test was an obvious one, as the 22-year-old Englishman was superb in the second and third Tests.
And not going with a Sexton-Farrell combination from the start of the tour was another one as well.
But on the whole, Gatland got it right.
And as he takes a well-earned rest before going back to Welsh duty, Gatland can be very satisfied with a job very well done.
Hefin Jones, Pundit Arena