NEW YORK, NY – It hasn’t been enough time since the 2017 iteration of the British and Irish Lions Squad was announced, for agitated on-lookers such as myself to be free of some level of anger/discontent. The anger stems from looking at the squad and seeing a roster that fails to live up to the mystique that the Lions have. But since I don’t want this to be taken as just another whine-fest, I will breakdown my issues into three parts:
1) The Fall of the Lions Ethos
2) The Ire of the Scots
3) Tactics & Players.
The Fall of the Lions Ethos
The idea of the Lions being the pinnacle of a player’s career has long since ended. With the advent of the Rugby World Cup, the Lions have taken a back seat. It used to also feature the best players from the Northern Hemisphere but the growth of the game and development of France and Italy over the past few decades means it is now limited to the “best” players from the 4 home nations (as they are called). Unfortunately, the coach selection has become hugely defining. When you consider egos like Warren Gatland, whose is as large as any coach, his style now defines the selection rather than the other way around. This perhaps may result in a better chance of winning a series, though it doesn’t look that way yet. Essentially, this is the Warren Gatland’s Lions and several players (not just Scots) would do well to remember that. I think that will harm the Lions over time. It already has, some would argue, but if it’s not the pinnacle of a player’s career, how long before he sees his club’s summer tour as being more important?
Furthermore, when a team finishes higher in the standings in the most recent 6 nations, yet has their starters ignored for substitutes from the side that finished fourth, or a player that is the back-up of the top side and has had limited minutes, it means that it is about the coach’s version of winning. If that is the case, then the idea of it being 4 nations coming together to play as one – and all that romantic idealism – can just be ignored. It becomes no different than that of a very good touring side; not an All-Star squad or best of the home nations.
In 2005, Sir Clive Woodward‘s Lions were filled with so many over the hill English players from his 2003 World Cup winning side that the tour was a shambles. Welsh fans, whose team had won the 2005 6 Nations, were livid. In 2009, Sir Ian McGeechan was able to return the honor back to the Lions brand and could have won a series if not for the most horrible substitute appearance ever by Ronan O’Gara. In 2013, Warren Gatland took over as head coach and though he stacked that team with Welsh players, there was minimal outrage because Wales were defending 6N Champions – so they deserved the Lions share (if you will). However, this time they finished fourth yet have the second highest amount of players. What does this have to do with the Ethos? It is clear that a more neutral coach will be needed in order to bring back the prestige of the Lions badge. At this point, it doesn’t live up to any of its mystique.
The Ire of the Scots
Full Disclosure: Not sure if this is necessary info, but I am of Scottish ancestry. It is where my last name comes from and can be traced back to my dad’s grandfather (my great-grandfather) a Scotsman, that made his way to Ghana, for some type of opportunity during the colonial era. So I always root for Scotland in the 6 Nations.
Fullback Stuart Hogg and wing Tommy Seymour were the only Scottish players named. making this the first squad in over 100 years that didn’t contain a Scottish forward. It’s got even less than the 3 who traveled in 2013. I direct your attention to the chart below for a breakdown of the make-up of the last 7 British and Irish Lions tour.
Even during Welsh Rugby’s darkest days during the 90s, they were still afforded 5 players on a 30 man tour. Now with a 41 man tour the Scots can only get 2?! This is outrageous. Even more outrageous are some of the excuses that have been brought up:
- No Scottish coach in the coaching set-up – Apparently because Gregor Townsend turned down the opportunity to be assistant attack coach to Rob Howley, there was nobody to advocate for the Scots. This is only further proof that the Ethos is dead. It is okay to select weaker players because they don’t have a Rabbi? Townsend has just been appointed head coach of Scotland and he takes charge this summer, should he forgo that rare opportunity to see his team come together and work with them for a low-level position on the Lions and to assist a man, he is clearly the better coach than? Also Vern Cotter the most recent Scotland Coach should more than be available to add his thoughts to the selection team, if a Scotland voice was needed.
- The massive Scotland loss versus England at Twickenham and the Glasgow Warriors loss to Saracens in the European Champions Cup were considered proof that Scotland overachieved and the players aren’t up to scratch when it comes to the cauldron of big games. – When you consider the injury tally to Scotland in that road game it is ridiculous. Scotland lost their first and second choice FB, lost a center, had to play a scrumhalf on the wing, lost two backrowers so that a lock had to play 6 and was on the road and still scored over 20 points despite losing by 40 points. Meanwhile Wales was at home to England and couldn’t break 20 points. Yet that is failing to perform in a big game, meanwhile the Warriors have done more in the Pro12 and ECC than any Welsh side the last 5 years but unfortunately they couldn’t beat the reigning ECC and Aviva Champions. These decision making factors are a little more than convenient. It seems the team was decided and the reasoning was created as to why later.
- Finally all these lovely points by Halde Pottinger brought to my attention.
- Highest ever WORLD ranking…THREE places above Wales and just one below Ireland!
- Whatever way you want to look at it, Scotland finished fourth in the Six Nations or joint second…Beating Ireland and Wales in matches they never looked like out of control in.
- Scotland had the third highest points tally, 20 more than Wales and only 4 less than Ireland.
- Scotland Scored fourteen tries…joint second top try scorers only two behind England and SIX more than Wales who only scored two more than wooden spooners Italy.
- Scotland had the player of the tournament, Stuart Hogg, who is one of the 2 selections, to be fair.
– Lost by only six points to France after losing our captain in 24th minute and Hardie within minutes of being a impact sub.
– Beat Wales by sixteen points, three clear scores…in terms of tier one rugby…that is a demolition!
- Scotland was the only team to have a clean-sheet.
- Finally, it appears that the squad was going to be 37 players before an 11th hour decision was made to add four more players. One of those four was Tom Seymour. So essentially we were a hair’s breathe away from 1 Scot in a team of 37.
Tactics & Players
Before we begin lets look at the full list of players broken down by position, country and club – courtesy of The Guardian and Sky Sports:
The attrition inherent in rugby means 41 players is a fair number, especially with 7 substitutes now available… so there is no problem with the size of the squad. The issue is with Gatland ball – or the style Warren Gatland likes to play. He likes big, powerful runners in his backline at center. That is why he took a large fullback named Jamie Roberts and moved him into the role of inside center so that he had would have a hard-charging line breaker to get over the gain line. Front foot ball is key to the Welsh attack under Gatland (rumor has it). It has plays designed for the rucks to occur in particular areas, so the next phase can begin. Gatland’s premium on defensive ability has shown that he will pick a limited player over those with attacking abilities, unless that limited player is a favorite… see the international career of Dan Lydiate for reference. With this in mind, it meant that no matter how well certain players played they were not going to be in the conversation. So lets look at the call for each position and issues with some.
Hooker – Ken Owens is a Gatland guy so he goes but it is a head scratcher that Jamie George, the back-up to the captain of England goes but not the starter Dylan Hartley or Scotland’s starter Fraser Brown, who had a solid 6 nations. No issues with Rory Best selection, easiest decision in the forwards.
Props – How does Zander Ferguson, the 21 year-old tight-head for Scotland that went 80 minutes in most of the 6N matches get overlooked for yet again an England substitute in Kyle Sinckler. I guess Ferguson is one of those that needed a Scottish coach to make his case for him. Also Scotland’s normal loosehead WP Nel would have been in contention had he been fit.
Locks – This really grinds my gears. The best lock in the Northern hemisphere based on form is Joe Launchbury but because he doesn’t call the lineout he is not wanted. Meanwhile Courtney Lawes who is a lock but at scrum time is moved to flank because Launchbury and Maro Itoje are seen as better scrummagers is added? Not to mention Geroge Kruis is selected despite not playing this 6N due to injury (though to be fair, he played outstanding last year). Iain Henderson has played well but essentially it was his performance against England that put him over the top, so yet again when needed international performance can justify a dodgy call. Furthermore, Henderson was added as a 4/6 type player along with Itoje and Lawes, which begs the question, how many 4/6 players do you need? The top tackling locks, Launchbury and Johnnie Gray, who played 80 minutes were left at home in favor of mobile ball carriers that are line-out callers. Apparently scrumming and making your tackles is overrated to this coaching staff. I left Alun-Wyn Jones out because despite his form, he is a strong veteran lock, though I won’t defend arguments against him.
Backrow – 4th place Wales gets their starting backrow and sub named, while 2nd place Scotland got no one. Scots John Hardie and Hamish Watson have a right to be spitting nails right now. Sam Warburton is named captain but he had to move to 6 because he was not the best 7 in Wales, that’s Justin Tipuric, and he is not the best 6 in the Isles. Taulupe Faletau is slowly rounding into form but he is there on reputation meanwhile Ross Moriarty is there because he is Dan Lydiate MK2. Chris Robshaw and James Haskell of England were never in the discussion despite their performances last season and this season up until injury. CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahoney both are 6s but O’Mahoney can play 8 so yet again, I guess this will work but combined with the three locks that can play blindside, it makes you wonder how many guys that play 6 do you need? As mentioned Faletau is not in great form but somehow he was selected over the more in form and Irish Captain Jamie Heaslip.
Scrum-halves – Three scrumhalves, three different styles of play. There is no debate that Connor Murray is the most complete scrum half in the Northern Hemisphere right now and Rhys Webb had a great tournament. The inclusion of Ben Youngs is odd because he is not a quick service scrummie like Webb and he is not as well rounded as Murray. Scotland’s Ali Price may have been a better like for like fit for Webb, if a 3rd option similar to one of the top two was really considered.
Fly-halves – There is no argument about Johnny Sexton‘s selection but Owen Farrell who is not good enough to displace George Ford at 10 for England is brought along. Farrell normally plays 12 but has a well deserved, if not at times over-inflated, reputation for being a big game kicker. The selection of Dan Biggar over Scotland’s Finn Russell is an example of Gatland’s bias. Biggar was outplayed the last two 6 Nations by Russell but Gatland is unfamiliar with Russell so he will ignore form and go with the guy he trusts.
Centers – Jonathan Davies has played poorly, the 2017 version of Davies is nowhere near in as good a form at the 2013 one that went to Australia. He is yet another example of a guy getting in because the Lions coach is his national team coach. Scotland’s Alex Dunbar or a fit Huw Jones would have been far better choices. The face that Jonathon Joseph was one of the four last minute additions is insane considering he was arguably the in-form outside center of the tournament. Also with a right to fell aggrieved is Ireland outside center Gary Ringrose because somehow starting for a ECC semi-final side and a perennially top 4 (more like 2) side in the Pro12 makes you not as wanted as the a guy that plays for relegation strugglers and is a reserve back for England in Ben Te’o. The love of hard charging backs means Ringrose was not in contention.
Back 3 – The selection of Elliot Daly as wing is not a shocker since he can also play center and fullback. Wing is not his best position but his versatility is a positive. Jack Nowell and Tommy Seymour are not speed merchants but they are quality and reliable players, again no issue with their selection. The selection of Leigh Halfpenny is what is curious. He has not been in good form and with all the other players taken that are quality goal kickers, what is the use of Halfpenny? England’s Mike Brown must be wondering what more must he do besides become Welsh to be considered.
Last summer Wales had a three-test tour of New Zealand and they were swept. In the first two games, Wales were able to keep pace and be within a try for the first 50-60 minutes before the Kiwi’s put them away. Warren Gatland is convinced that, that display meant he was on the right track with his tactics, he just lacked the necessary firepower to win. So this year he has picked players to fit his system, regardless of their form for club and country. However, New Zealand has moved on from that squad in 2016, one that was finding its feet after losing 500+ caps as 5 stalwarts… and has reloaded. They have their tactics improved against the world’s best scratch side.
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