Is Gat­land’s use of a Welsh ‘spine’ such a bad thing for his squad?

Satur­day Comment

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - GAVIN RICH

O who do you think will win? And what of the War­ren Gat­land de­ci­sion to leave out Brian O’Driscoll – wasn’t that de­spi­ca­ble?

Some peo­ple in Dur­ban, Bloem­fontein, Cape Town, Pre­to­ria and Port El­iz­a­beth might dif­fer, but there’s been only one re­ally big de­bate hov­er­ing around rugby this week.

I won’t use that old cliché that “all roads lead to Syd­ney”, for they clearly don’t.

If I got into my car and drove down the West Coast road to­wards Lange­baan, I most em­phat­i­cally wouldn’t end up in Syd­ney.

And the N2 def­i­nitely takes me to Knysna and the Oys­ter Fes­ti­val, which is where I would have been to­day had San­zar ac­qui­esced to my re­quest for this to be a univer­sal bye week­end in Su­per Rugby.

There again, if they’d done that, I’m not sure I would want to do any­thing that might risk me not be­ing able to sit in front of the TV at noon to watch what is shap­ing up as the match of the decade.

The Wal­la­bies against the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions with it all square and both games so far be­ing de­cided by the nar­row­est of mar­gins and with late missed penalty kicks be­ing a fac­tor – what more could a neu­tral fan ask for?

But back to those ques­tions – when it comes to who is go­ing to win, I haven’t the fog­gi­est.

It was the Aus­tralian rugby colum­nist Spiro Zavos who once an­swered the ques­tion on who was go­ing to win by say­ing “I don’t know, that’s why we’re hav­ing a game.”

I’m with him on that one, cer­tainly in this in­stance.

On the O’Driscoll omis­sion let me ad­mit that when I first heard it I was as­tounded.

But then as time has passed since Wed­nes­day’s team an­nounce­ment, the reaction of Ir­ish fans to his ax­ing from the match 22 has started to re­mind me of the ti­tle of the Shake­speare play, Much Ado About Noth­ing.

Much is be­ing made of O’Driscoll’s past achieve­ments and also his miserly de­fen­sive record so far in the se­ries.

And if this was 2009, the out­cry would cer­tainly be jus­ti­fied. It was when O’Driscoll was con­cussed – Bryan Ha­bana ran right through him for one of the cru­cial sec­ond­half tries – that the Lions ef­fec­tively lost their way in the de­ci­sive sec­ond Test against the Spring­boks in Pre­to­ria.

But this is not 2009 and much time has passed since we last saw O’Driscoll re­ally ask big ques­tions of an op­pos­ing de­fen­sive sys­tem.

Danie Ger­ber, the finest cen­tre I ever saw, was the same when he was 34.

What the Lions lacked last week was pen­e­tra­tion at the back.

There’s no ques­tion about that, and we wouldn’t be go­ing into a de­cider to­day had they had it.

Jamie Roberts can pro­vide it, and the 2013 ver­sion of O’Driscoll isn’t likely to be able to make the same im­pact

Soff the bench as Manu Tuilagi could.

Look at it like that and it sud­denly looks a no-brainer. Gat­land has a Test se­ries to win, and there is no space for sen­ti­ment in that quest.

See­ing 10 Welsh­man in a 15man start­ing side does ad­mit­tedly sit un­com­fort­ably, par­tic­u­larly when there are still fresh mem­o­ries of Wales go­ing to Aus­tralia last year and not be­ing able to win a Test.

But then load­ing the Lions teams with play­ers from one na­tion does seem to be the way it is th­ese days, and maybe it’s just an ac­knowl­edge­ment that times have changed and the game has be­come a lot more com­pli­cated than it used to be.

Old timers must won­der what Storm­ers coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee is on about when he keeps re­fer­ring to the length of time a new player has been “in the sys­tem”.

When the Spring­boks made their re­turn to in­ter­na­tional rugby in 1992 against the All Blacks at El­lis Park, coach John Wil­liams had only three days to pre­pare his team.

But that was the way of it back then. It isn’t any more.

Th­ese days if coaches don’t have months rather than weeks to work on the moves and “the sys­tems”, they feel dis­ad­van­taged. And for good rea­son.

The li­ne­outs are just one area that have be­come way too tech­ni­cal for the rank and file earth­ling to un­der­stand.

Speak to a good de­fence coach about how his sys­tem works and I guar­an­tee there’s a chance you will end up with the same look on your face and thoughts go­ing through your brain as you would if you were dis­cussing the in­tri­ca­cies of an A340’s hy­draulics sys­tem with a man­u­fac­turer from Air­bus.

The mod­ern Lions aren’t helped by the tour matches build­ing up to the Test matches be­ing played by un­der-strength teams.

A few weeks is just not enough time to bring four dif­fer­ent na­tions to­gether into one team and ex­pect them to beat a top side that has a set­tled core that has played to­gether for a few sea­sons.

At least it isn’t un­less you’re pre­pared to make one na­tion the spine of your team, which is what Gat­land has done.

He’s a prag­matic man as much as he is a brave one and good luck to him for if the Lions lose he’s never again go­ing to be able to drink a pint of Guin­ness with­out be­ing flooded with mis­er­able thoughts.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.