Monday, July 08, 2013

Compromised leadership

The politics around the coaches’ table defined the way the Lions series went, says Hywel Davies…

Rugby Opinion

As any watcher of TV’s “The Apprentice”  knows, there is an age old battle between compromise and leadership, teamwork and self belief, inclusivity and an individual's desire to succeed.

Nowhere was this battle more keenly fought than on this Lions tour.

The committee who make these decisions looked at their options and went for the most successful national coach in post; Warren Gatland.

Gatland though brings an unique way of doing things. Gatlandball or Warrenball. A new sport which is distinct from classically held notions of what rugby union is. They knew that.

What was their answer? Checks and balances. Shaun Edwards had been with Gatland since Wasps, they were seen as the force behind Wales. They were also seen as a danger to the cohesion and spirit of inclusivity of the Lions. If Gatland used the same defensive patterns for the Lions and Wales his team would be dominated by Welshmen. All very logical, but we can't be having that.

So. These former Lions players with huge reputations thought they could cherry pick the parts of Gatlandball they wanted (the wins) and moderate it in style and selection by mixing in coaches from England.

The fans, who are ignorant of these things having not been British Lions themselves naturally assumed that Gatlandball would out. The team would be dominated by the Welsh and they would (hopefully) grind out scrappy wins by an endless procession of scrums.

Then there was a shock. Gatland was compromising. There were far more Englishmen in the squad than anybody dreamt possible as their Grand Slam was shot to bits in Cardiff. Half were Welsh, but people had feared a lot more. Paul James, Ryan Jones, Dan Biggar, James Hook, all absent. Would Johny tour? Yes if he wanted to apparently.

Then there was the Barbarian game and the early warm ups where Gatlandball seemed different, even absent as the tries were ran in.

It was a cruel deception. Gatland was making the compromises he deemed politically expedient. That first test team looked nothing like the Gatland teams Welsh fans had come to recognise since 2008. Heaslip and Croft, in the same team. Not Gatlandball at all. But they won.

This meant that it remained expedient to compromise with Rowndtree and Farrell. The second hash of a team was no closer to Gatlandball. If Halfpenny's kick had that little extra in legs then I suspect the third test would have seen as balanced and inclusive a team as any non Welsh fans could have hoped to have ever seen.

But It didn't.

Gatland, the master political operator weighed it up. It was his neck on the line, he wasn't going to be popular and if they lost he could kiss goodbye to the one he really wants, the All Blacks job. If he compromised again then they would lose. So, hang being popular, he and Howley could manage to prepare the boys for one test, even if it meant 13 Welshmen so they knew Shaun's defensive drills. He picked his own team.

Being the master politician he also managed despite this refusal to compromise to keep Rowndtree and Farrell on board. He will one day reap the whirlwind of dropping Saint Brian of Blackrock, but so be it.

The rest as they say is history.

Looking back its almost incredible that the Lions would turn to Gatland and his set game plan and selection policy and give him the job with one hand whilst hamstringing him with the other. Such is the roll of the Kingmaker I suppose. Their paragraph in the history book often starts "Those men who had suffered most soon got their revenge against So And So with the change of regime..." Will Andy Irvine manage a Lions tour again? I don't think so.

But Gatland had one or two more tricks up his sleeve. He gave Irish fans the guilt trip over O Driscoll and a nod to New Zealand. No he didn't say he would like that job, just the opposite, he would like to coach the Lions in 2017. Expert reverse psychology, an early move in the game of chess that is the race for the All Blacks job.

Winning this tour is hardly of itself going to make BNZ give him the job, but the display of knowing when to compromise and when to lead must surely have seen him given a big tick by them in the positive column.

If only Robbie Deans could have got that balance right...

Hywel (@HywelV2) is head Rugby writer on the v2 Journal. A bundle of contradictions, he is a Solicitor and Farmer, a Scarlets supporter and a "conservative, forward orientated typical blydi prop".


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019