The Acid Test

In rugby terms, there are few contests to get the juices flowing quite like a tussle with Warren Gatland’s Wales. We know that Wales’s irascible coach loves to beat the Irish, that he values nothing more than wiping the smirk off contented Hibernian faces. No matter about gaining the upper hand over historical foe, England, Wales’s favourite Kiwi apparently prides putting the uppity Irish in their place above all else.

There’s history here you see, a bit of previous. Gatland, it seems, has never got over his 2001 deposition, when as an Irish head coach who’d just overseen a sterling campaign that saw his side defeat both England and France in a championship campaign for the first time in aeons, Ireland’s main man was abruptly sacked and replaced by his ambitious assistant, Eddie O’Sullivan. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of that dismissal (Gatland has certainly gone on to have a wondrous coaching career post Ireland), the future Welsh supremo’s unfortunate demise left a sour taste for his many admirers within and without these shores.

That’s before we even get to the Grand Slam game in 2009 and Gatland’s dropping of you know who for the final Lions Test in 2013. Sean O’Brien’s recent incendiary comments add another layer of intrigue to an already fascinating encounter. Given the palpable history and baggage attributable to Ireland-Wales matches, therefore, Irish fans are approaching Saturday’s fixture with a weary mixture of excitement and apprehension. You see, Gatland’s recent record against his former paymasters is bloody good and his Wales team always rolls into town supremely well prepared.

And Ireland, despite nominal favouritism with the bookies, are vulnerable to upset this time. As well as the aforementioned O’Brien, the hosts are without Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson for the seminal game of the tournament thus far. Chris Farrell will ably deputise for the magnificent Henshaw but Furlong’s replacement, Andrew Porter-despite considerable promise-looks as green as the Incredible Hulk on the tight-head side of the Irish scrum. As certain as the day is long, the visitors will target the rookie prop with an orchestrated ferocity that’ll test every inch of the youngster’s considerable mettle. As we know, Gatland teams are rarely shy about identifying weaknesses in opposition ranks and exploiting them for all they’re worth. Welcome to Test rugby, young man!

And yet if Ireland withstand the inevitable onslaught, Joe Schmidt’s men possess the class and experience to shade a close call. As Ireland’s wily head honcho reminded the press corps a couple of weeks ago, he’s yet to taste championship defeat in the Aviva as Ireland coach. It’ll take a mammoth performance to shatter that proud record. As ever, much rests on the health and well-being of Ireland’s imperious half-backs.

If Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray dodge Gatland’s bullets and stay on the field, Schmidt’s chief play makers have the intelligence and composure to steer the green ship home. If either gets lost in action, though, it’s good night Irene. For Wales undoubtedly have the class, game-plan and firepower to inflict serious damage on Schmidt’s team. This is make or break. Lose on Saturday and precious momentum is lost. However, if Ireland vanquish a familiar enemy, the boys in green are another step closer to silverware. Forget the preamble, this is the acid test.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey;

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Stalemate in Auckland

It all felt a bit flat, didn’t it? The Lions and the All Blacks tied up an enthralling series yesterday in a tense and gripping final showdown. 15 points apiece meant the protagonists couldn’t be separated in both yesterday’s game and the overall series. The acute sense of anti-climax and dissatisfaction was seen in the body language of the players at the end. Nobody was sure how to react.

A draw is indeed the most unsatisfactory outcome in rugby. Even if your side loses, the contest has been a success and the other team can celebrate their win. However, when the contest has been rendered obsolete by frustrating stalemate, neither side can take anything from it. Quite simply, there’s nothing to celebrate. If the Lions had lost yesterday, we’d still have witnessed scenes of delirium, as victorious All Blacks celebrated a hard earned victory. Similarly, if the Lions had prevailed, the players and fans would be celebrating a truly historic win. What we saw instead was something much more hollow and empty.

Despite the palpable sense of disappointment, the 2017 Lions can look back on this series with immense pride. In the midst of regret over a series win that got away, it’s easy to forget just how universally written off  the Lions were before they started their odyssey six weeks’ ago. Prior to kick off, most pundits and commentators were predicting a 3-0 whitewash for the All Blacks. Even the most optimistic of Lions’ fans-myself included-argued that the best Gatland’s tourists could hope for was a 2-1 series defeat. A drawn series is actually a phenomenal achievement, therefore.

Head coach Warren Gatland has been completely vindicated in his selections and decisions. The unfortunate “Geography Six” episode aside, the Lions’ coach has been brilliant throughout this unforgiving tour. It takes a certain type of character and personality to succeed in something as complex and onerous as a Lions tour. There are few enterprises in life where virtually everything is set up for you to fail. A  Lions tour to New Zealand is one such arduous and relentless task. The first thing the tourists had to win, therefore, was the respect of their merciless hosts. They did that and then some. The Lions’ coach was depicted in the New Zealand press as a clown, but the Waikato man has proved yet again what a formidable and smart operator he is.

And how his players have blossomed. The likes of Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly have delivered in exhilarating fashion on this tour. What’s more, in Maro Itoje, we’ve seen the emergence of a genuine superstar. Others will feel aggrieved and hurt at their lack of involvement, but that’s the nature of it. You see it on every tour. However, the perception, from the outside at any rate, is that this has been a happy, well managed tour. Gatland’s squad has got the balance right between paying respect to the locals, enjoying their surroundings and getting serious about the rugby when it really mattered. There were very few rumbles of discontent-a sure sign of a happy touring party.

But Gatland’s achievement is about much more than a drawn Test series. The under-fire Lions’ brand has been strengthened and renewed to an almost immeasurable extent. For this much cherished concept to remain relevant in the professional era, the team has to win Tests. The entire viability of the concept is questioned otherwise. Given the fact that everything is set up for the Lions to fail, consider this. Of their last seven tests, the tourists have won four, drawn one and lost two. That’s a remarkable record!

It must be remembered that this was an organisation in dire need of revival following Clive Woodward’s misadventure of 2005. The recovery in the ensuing 12 years has been nothing short of amazing. And the primary architect of the turnaround has been Warren Gatland, head coach for the last two tours and Ian McGeechan’s chief assistant in 2009. He should be extremely proud of his efforts. More than anything, the 2017 tour proves that the Lions are in great shape.

In recent times, the Lions have been subjected to selfish attacks from ignorant charlatans who care nothing for history, tradition and respect. Sadly, there are many vested interests who’d be more than happy to see the Lions retreat forever into the history books. While that can’t be allowed to happen, the attackers are picking a fight they can’t win. Anyone who’s watched over the last six weeks has seen a brand that is vibrant, modern and ultra successful. An organisation that cherishes its wonderful history but is wholly relevant in the elite world of modern professional sport. From strength to strength. Roll on South Africa. The British and Irish Lions are alive and well!

By Dyfsunctional at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Green march on road to Glory

The waiting is almost over. On Wednesday, Warren Gatland will put players, pundits and arm chair fans out of their collective misery by announcing his squad for the upcoming Lions Tour to the land of the long white cloud. A Lions expedition is always greeted with feverish expectation by rugby fans and the sense of anticipation is more acute when the touring destination is New Zealand. You see, a Lions Tour to New Zealand is the closest thing to mission impossible in international rugby. The scratch representative side has only managed one successful series win in New Zealand: 1971. Other tours to the country have been met with heartbreaking, inevitable, inglorious failure.

Expectations are marginally higher this time on the back of the magnificent series win mustered in Australia last time and the abundance of talent that Gatland and his coaching team currently have at their disposal. Still, no-one is under any illusions about the magnitude of the unenviable task at hand. This is indeed the toughest assignment in rugby. In order to prevail, the Lions need to upset not only one of the greatest rugby squads ever selected but also rugby history in the process. From an Irish viewpoint, there are several certainties for the plane, while others face an anxious, nail-biting wait. In terms of the safer prospects, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jack McGrath, Robbie Henshaw and skipper Rory Best seem virtually guaranteed to make the trip; deserved recognition for their consistent and imperious form in recent seasons.

Where it gets interesting is consideration of the possibles and bolters. One imagines that Simon Zebo, for all his faults and mercurial nature, is likely to travel on account of his versatility, while Iain Henderson’s recent return to form and fitness should see him land one of the keenly contested second row berths. Similarly, Sean O’Brien’s physicality and dynamism could see him grab one of the back row slots, but as with the engine room, the competition there is frighteningly fierce and few will be surprised if Gatland includes a liberal sprinkling of Welshmen to contest what is going to be a mouth watering battle at the breakdown.

O’Brien’s fortune could come at the expense of CJ Stander, as it’s unlikely Gatland will accommodate them both given the bountiful back row resources at his disposal. I notice that many of the preview squads in today’s papers include Peter O’Mahony as a nailed on Test starter. O’Mahony is undoubtedly a tremendous rugby player, but my hunch is that he’ll be lucky to make Gatland’s squad let alone the Test team. The Cork man is certainly a thoroughbred, but may suffer due to the aforementioned competition for back row places and a season frustratingly curtailed by injury. Unjust as it seems, the Munster warrior might have to settle for a place on the standby list.

As regards the captaincy, Sam Warburton appears to be earmarked for the role and seems certain to be named squad skipper provided his recent injury can be shaken off on time. Although it would do my heart good, I can’t see Ireland’s Best landing the cherished accolade. A Lions captain must be not only a supreme leader of men but a guaranteed Test starter. As impressive as the Ulster man has been in recent seasons, he’s far from a certain starter even if he is fortuitous enough to make Gatland’s squad. That said, everyone in Irish rugby will wish Best well in his bid to oust the indisciplined and controversial Dylan Hartley. Cardiff stalwart Warburton is indeed a fine player and trusted captain. If the captaincy predictions are correct, he deserves the opportunity to reprise his leadership role from 2013 when injury deprived him of the chance to lead the pride in the decisive third Test.

As fun as the guessing games are, they will soon be academic as Gatland finally reveals his hand. In terms of composition, England are sure to have a sizeable contingent and history tells us that a Gatland coached Lions squad will contain a formidable Welsh presence.  After all, the Lions’ Kiwi coach will want as many players as possible already schooled in the ways of “Warren Ball.” The smallest contingent will probably come from Scotland, but players of the calibre of Stuart Hogg and Johnny Gray have plenty to contribute if called upon.

However, despite a mixed bag of a Six Nations, there is every indication that there’ll be a strong green tint on the perilous road to potential Lions glory. While that’s wonderful to see, one of the best features of the Lions tours is the manner in which they transcend national and regional rivalries. A unifying force that brings together sports men from Britain and Ireland in common cause. United. Where else would you see it? The task is as tough as ever but no less tantalising for that. To paraphrase the great Jim Telfer, this is their Everest. New Zealand are in a virtually unassailable position atop the rugby world but the 2017 Lions are about to roar.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: By Kiwi Flickr (Kiwi Flickr’s photo on Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/license

 

 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

 

 

The Lion King: Part 2

Where does the time go? I remember writing a piece four years’ ago about the appointment of Warren Gatland as British and Irish Lions head coach. In a very cliched way, I called it “Gatland: The Lion King.” Well, we’re all set for the sequel. This week’s reappointment of the Wales coach was as predictable as the rising of the sun. Gatland joins Ian McGeechan as the only coaches to lead the Lions on consecutive tours in what is undoubtedly the toughest assignment of them all: a tour to New Zealand. It’s not a coincidence that only one Lions squad has won a Test series in the land of the long white cloud (the 1971 side coached by Carwyn James was one of the greatest rugby teams of all-time). New Zealand is a fiendishly difficult touring destination-as seen in the Lions last visit there 12 years’ ago, when Clive Woodward’s tourists were whitewashed 3-0 by Graham Henry’s irrepressible All Blacks side. The Lions committee has deemed the irascible Kiwi as the right man to take on mission impossible-the withdrawals of Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt from the race meant that Gatland’s ratification was a mere formality. That there wasn’t a host of viable contenders shouldn’t detract from Gatland’s achievement, though. This appointment is as meritocratic as it gets. The New Zealander’s record is second to none: a Lions series victory, two Grand Slams, and a Heineken Cup speaks for itself.

Despite having amassed such unimpeachable credentials, the Wales coach remains a polarising figure in this part of the world. Much of the animosity was generated by the infamous dropping of Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll for the third Lions Test against Australia in 2013. The fact that the Lions handsomely won the encounter failed to vindicate Gatland’s controversial selection in the eyes of most Ireland fans. As I wrote at the time, while I understood Gatland’s rationale in jettisoning the Irish icon for the decisive Test, I felt nevertheless that the Wales coach missed a trick. Although changes were undoubtedly needed for the series finale, there wasn’t a compelling enough case for O’Driscoll to be omitted from the match-day squad. Gatland has complained repeatedly (as elaborated last week) that the hostility generated from dropping the Irishman tarnished the greatest achievement of his coaching career. I believe firmly that the Kiwi could have had his cake and eaten it. By making key changes, but keeping O’Driscoll in situ, the Lions supremo could have enjoyed his historic achievement without the unnecessary controversy that emanated from his contentious third Test selection.

That’s all ancient history now, but the episode tells us much about the Kiwi’s character:tough, uncompromising, ruthless and stubborn. That’s why Gatland’s a winner. Although Wales’s main man is universally respected, it’s hard to think of the former Waikato hooker in terms of affection. Yes, Gatland and his achievements are roundly admired, but liked? Probably not. Winners are rarely likeable characters in sport, though. Look at Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho as cast-iron proof of that! Prodigious winners both, but they wouldn’t be obvious candidates for the diplomatic corps. I think Gatland falls into that category too. The Wales coach loves to win and he isn’t too bothered who gets offended or affronted along the way. When push came to shove, therefore, you can see why the Lions’ blazers opted for the incumbent to take on their latest crusade. For a mission as challenging as the New Zealand tour, you have to be led by the best man available. That man is Warren Gatland.

The scale of the Lions’ challenge is underlined by the lengthening achievements accrued by the world champions. The current All Blacks are majestic, a class apart. I rose early yesterday to watch them in the Rugby Championship. The best team in the world was playing Argentina and struggled initially to find its rhythm. The Pumas played extremely well for the first 50 minutes or so, competing ferociously at every breakdown and contact area. New Zealand, on the other hand, looked sluggish and lethargic for large portions of the match. The final score? 57-22 to New Zealand! The All Blacks pulled away in the second half, impressively routing the Argentinians with a barrage of late tries. It was the world champions’ 14th consecutive victory-incredibly, the All Blacks haven’t lost a home match since 2009! The win was instructive and tells us much about the relentless New Zealand juggernaut. This team knows how to win in virtually any circumstance. They invariably find a way, even when subjected to fierce pressure throughout the pitch. When they’re good, they’re sublime, but even when not playing well, the All Blacks usually get the job done. Just ask Ireland about November 2013. This is the size of the task facing the 2017 Lions, then. In order to make history, the tourists must outwit and outplay one of the greatest teams ever to play the game. Mission impossible indeed. There is a glimmer of hope, though, for the Lions have got their first big decision right by appointing the correct coach. Things are about to get very interesting. It’s time for the most eagerly awaited sequel in rugby: The Lion King, Part 2!

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey