Warren Gatland’s three-tiered British and Irish Lions selection done with match-day 23 in mind
The challenge for Cian Healy, Seán O’Brien and others is to convince the coach their impact should start at kick- off
Rory Best regathers after blocking down Dan Biggar’s kick in the lead-up to Cian Healy’s try against Wales. Just one example of the Ulster hooker’s skill, ambition and selflessness.
According to author and business consultant Jim Collins, greatness is not a function of circumstance; greatness is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline. This week many of our good players are soon to become great players.
What a few months it has been for Conor Murray, on the cusp of this greatness. He is the first British and Irish Lion to hail from my old alma mater, Scoil Íde in Corbally, Limerick.
Some weeks back I pondered Warren Gatland’s selection methodology. Would he select the best 15, adding the next best 15, with some spares thrown in to make 37?
He appears to have selected three tiers of players, made up of Test starting players, followed by possible Test starting players, with the third tier most interesting: definite impact bench players. This three-tier system may have led to the exclusion of the likes of England’s Chris Robshaw.
England have proven the importance of the bench in winning matches in the closing quarter. Clearly at 27-3 down in Cardiff after 66 minutes the English bench were unlikely to effect a positive change. In tighter fixtures such as those the Lions will face the bench impact is crucial, so I am convinced he has selected his squad to best fill the match-day Test 23.
Many impact players jump out, and the challenge for Cian Healy, Seán O’Brien and others in that bracket is to convince Gatland their impact should start at kick- off.
One way or another Healy and O’Brien will play Test rugby. From this remove it would appear Gatland will go for a powerful scrum to loosen up the Wallabies with an intention to maximise that fatiguing affect late in the game.
Can you imagine the damage Healy and O’Brien would do to the Wallabies with 20 minutes to go?
Although both can equally claim a starting position, Tongan Makovina Vunipola will have a harder time to convince he is a starter, regardless of his impact off the bench.
That said, I struggle with the idea a player can be parachuted into international rugby and subsequently travel with the Lions. Where does this end?
However, they are selected, and have a great chance to impact, a chance stolen from Rory Best and Simon Zebo.
On four year cycles timing is huge. I recall the 2001 Lions tour and having played with him at Leinster, was amazed Denis Hickie wasn’t selected. He was on fire and ready for a Test slot, which evaded him when he did travel four years later.
Collins notes that whether you prevail or fail depends more on what you do to yourself than on what the world does to you.
Except for Best. I’m particularly disappointed for him, not just because he’s much older than Zebo but also because while the lineout dipped in standard (shared responsibility) his overall game has been exemplary. He has been extraordinary in his hunger, defence, leadership and never-say-die attitude of team above self.
But his value to the offence is rarely recognised, subsumed in ways by moments of outrageous skill such as Zebo’s ridiculous back flip. Moments before that flip, it was Best who blocked down Dan Biggar, gathered the ball in heavy traffic and fired a beautiful left-handed pass out to Jamie Heaslip who hit Zebo’s left foot!
As Zebo was dragged to the ground with now Lions captain and breakdown specialist Sam Warburton about to steal, it was Best who carried his run to seal off the ball, leading to Healy’s try.
Ambition and selflessness
In all the rugby I’ve watched over the seasons, I’ve yet to witness Dylan Hartley approach anything like that level of skill, ambition and selflessness for the team.
Like the Lions tour of 2009, big matches late in the season appear to have carried huge weight, such as that famous Munster hammering of the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup propelling a huge number of them into the squad.
What then impacted on Zebo who as an international fullback and winger with the X factor could have travelled?
The make-up with just two outhalves is also interesting. Many have plumped for Jonny Wilkinson. I’m not sure his style is good enough for the Test series and would discount his value, regardless of his physical state.
Outhalves invest huge effort with coach and captain in designing team tactics, even more so on a tour of limited preparation. The captain and coach create the vision for the players to follow, but the outhalf makes it so; witness Ronan O’Gara last weekend.
With only two in the squad they will be on their feet throughout – physically demanding but emotionally draining.
Test match preparation does not start on the morning but weeks out. For the outhalf this is even more demanding; they must be on constant high alert regarding the opposition and their own team.
PS As for Jim Collins and our new national coach, I think of how Michael Cheika made a disjointed team a good one in winning the Heineken Cup in 2008, but Joe Schmidt made it a great one in not just winning two more but in pushing the standards and cultures to a place where success has been replaced by something higher: significance. Exciting times ahead! firstname.lastname@example.org