Belfast Telegraph

Time for Lions to deliver the goods

By Conor George

The phoney war is finally over and what Warren Gatland had desperately sought to avoid happening has come to pass — the Lions squad is now in two distinct camps.

This squad hasn’t been split into the traditional Test and ‘’dirt-trackers’ side. The Brumbies match which the Lions lost on Tuesday exposed the lines of division — the squad has now split in terms of ability.

There are those who are good enough to be considered contenders for the Test team and then there are the majority of those who played against the Brumbies in Canberra on Tuesday night. It’s something the coaching were cognisant of during last night’s deliberations ahead of today’s Test team announcement.

Avoiding splitting the squad into two distinct groups was the reasoning behind the initial selection of just 37 players. This has proven to be ill-advised and inadequate with the travelling party of players now at 42.

Indeed so bloated is the squad from the original selection that Lions’ Chairman Gerald Davies and his wife volunteered to give up their seats on the team flight from Canberra to Brisbane yesterday morning to make room for the extra players!

Davies was up at pre-dawn to make get a flight earlier than the squad’s 11.05am departure time.

A squad of 37 players was never going to be enough for an end-of-season tour and is something Brumbies and former South Africa coach Jake White was incredulous about in the build-up to Tuesday night’s game in Canberra.

“I would have brought two full teams and replacements,” said White. “Maybe 44 players in total. That way you have a Test team and you have a second team you are challenging to become Test players.

“What is wrong with saying to Owen Farrell ‘you are second choice to Jonny Sexton?’

“That’s the reality of it and I don’t think anyone, including Farrell, thinks otherwise. You say to one team ‘you are my Test players, prove my judgement right’ and you are saying to the other team ‘prove me wrong’.

“It’s a win-win for the coach,” White added.

Gatland acknowledged that he erred in his initial selection when he opted for Dylan Hartley over Rory Best – Best’s lack of accuracy out of touch notwithstanding – and his suggestion that a larger squad will need to be selected for the tour to New Zealand in four years’ time was a subtle acknowledgement of another error.

Gatland decided that 37 players would suffice for this tour.

He was under no restrictions and, as he suggested soon after the squad landed in Hong Kong, there was no specific reason for deciding on that size; “37 seemed a good number, it could have been 38 or…,” he said at the time.

Somethings the Lions had no control over. Western Force coach Michael Foley’s decision to rest a number of his players in preparation for a relatively meaningless match, for example, was beyond Gatland’s influence.

The insistence to pay the ARU a reported STG£360,000 to play only nine matches in Australia so as to facilitate a game run by the Lions against an appalling Barbarians team in Hong Kong was an exercise the coach could have resisted.

And is one he should have. Whether the preparations and build-up to the all-important Test series were adequate and effective will only be known after the Series is decided, of course.

So what state are the Lions in just days ahead of the opening Test in Brisbane?

What is the Lions’ state of readiness ahead of first test?

They are undercooked. It is not arrogant to suggest that four of their five warm-up games were below standard. Lions’ Tours must also include games against provincial sides to keep the spectacle alive and engaging but proper preparation for the Test Series should never be compromised.

As a consequence the quality of the relative training and conditioning programmes as well as the intensity of that work will be what separates the sides.

The Aussies have played no games so the Lions do have an advantage in this regard even allowing for the dearth in quality of some opposition.

What mistakes have been made?

The initial squad was too small in number. The reasoning behind the smaller squad was laudable as it was an attempt to ensure squad unity. After a hard season with their clubs and their countries it was too much to ask that size squad to undertake an arduous seven week tour.

Despite the lack of quality opposition, the wear and tear of matches and the force of the collisions have taken a massive toll on players, as the injuries have shown.

Also, the decision to play a game in Hong Kong so as to boost the Lions’ coffers was wrong.

The Lions should also have insisted that the ARU include a game against an Australian A side in their schedule. Their game against an A selection in 2001 was the toughest of their warm-up games.

The Lions had bargaining power here because the ARU desperately needs the revenue from this tour to drag them out of debt.

Should they have done anything different?

Moaning about the opposition showed an arrogance on behalf of the management that will fuel the Aussie fires for the Test Series. If they go on a nine game tour of Australia then they can expect to play against weakened teams, especially when it’s during the local teams’ season.

A bigger squad should have been selected to travel. The tourists now number 42, which includes some injuries, but they are looking somewhat lacking in the depth of quality in some positions when you scratch too far below the surface.

A third out-half should have travelled. The folly of shoe-horning a full-back into the most important and most specialised position was exposed against the Brumbies. .

Insisted on playing an Australian A side and lobbied to play the Brumbies on a Saturday. They are the best team in Australia and were always likely to provide the strongest challenge.

What are the worries now?

The large body-count in terms of injuries is concerning. The performance against the Brumbies exposed some players as being out of their depth. The Lions cannot afford any more injuries to key players.

There is also the question of how the players’ clubs and countries will integrate their players back into their systems. Those in Wales and, especially, Ireland will be given time to recover.

You can assume that Racing Metro will want Jonathan Sexton starting the first game of their season…if not their pre-season. The other French and the English clubs will be as demanding.

What are the positives?

They have been playing matches. Australia haven’t. Also, the combinations seem to work well and key connections are looking strong.

The front five forwards are a solid unit. The back-row mix is strong, even allowing for Sam Warburton’s inclusion. The half-backs are working well and the 10-13 combination, be it Brian O’Driscoll (pictured) or Jonathan Davies at outside centre, is impressive.

The scrum plays are coming together and defensively they were very good against Queensland, as were the line-outs. The Test team should be happy and rearing to go.

Should they lose is it over?

If the Lions don’t win the brand will certainly take another hammering and the whole concept of the Lions will come up for debate. Lions’ Tours are great but can they afford to go 20 years without a win. The cost of the Lions is huge and big business is ruthless. Will sponsors stay with them in this environment?

Losing the Test Series might not result in the Lions coming to an end but it could spell the beginning of the end…the prospect of facing into a tour of New Zealand in four years’ time without a Series win in 20 will not be appealing.

What’s the probable Test team to be announced today?

Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Davies George North, Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips, Manu Vinipola, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Tom Croft, Sam Warburton, Jamie Heaslip.

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