Talking points: Gatland’s sub policy back under microscope

Reluctance to utilise his bench not only denied Lions a win, but could have cost them defeat

Bench warmers

Warren Gatland's 'geographical Lions' selection policy - to use a phrase for the four Welsh and two Scottish players brought into the squad on the basis of the proximity of national summer tours - cost the Rory Best led side a victory at the Westpac stadium in Wellington this morning.

The collective bravery of the players allowed them to cling on tenaciously for a 31-31 draw and the group deserve enormous credit for that achievement.

It beggared belief that the Lions coach sat on his hands and watched the energy sap from his side in a hugely physical contest against the Super Rugby champions, the Hurricanes. The only player who was replaced for a reason outside injury (Robbie Henshaw) and a Head Injury Assessment (Dan Biggar, who returned to the pitch) was Courtney Lawes, withdrawn after 53-minutes presumably with one eye on Saturday's second test.

The fact that England's George Kruis, an original Lions tour member, could replace him must surely have been a factor. The odds on the entire starting Lions frontrow staying on the pitch to the end in normal circumstances would have been astronomical, yet that's exactly what transpired. Gatland explained when questioned after the game about his replacements policy that the players he brought in after the party arrived in New Zealand were only as cover.

Maybe he just doesn’t want history to judge him in an adverse way for his original decision/folly (delete for preference) that has been roundly criticised. Otherwise why would a coach watch his team limping physically towards the final whistle during the final quarter of the match in which they were reduced to 14-men following Iain Henderson’s yellow card.

During that 10-minute numerical mismatch the Lions desperately needed fresh legs and energy to try and stifle the resurgent Hurricanes; yet the potential reinforcements watched on in tracksuits. The Lions conceded 14-points and, but for some magnificent goal-line defiance, might have incurred a defeat they didn’t deserve.

It’s about having the courage of your convictions. Gatland didn’t and it has backfired calamitously.

Heroic Henderson

Gatland’s post-match assertion that a reversed penalty and Henderson’s yellow card, during which time the Hurricanes scored 14-points, struck a discordant note based on the 80-minutes. Factually the Lions coach was correct, as the home side in Wellington scored two converted tries before the Irish international rejoined the fray. But to base his summation of the game on one incident was being economical with the truth.

It was also unfair. Henderson had a magnificent game, in every facet, tackling, carrying, turnovers, lineout, clearouts and counter-rucking and the primary post-match narrative might have centred on what he was still doing on the pitch. His last three appearances in a red shirt have broached a level that only Maro Itoje can lay claim to and should have ensured Henderson a place in the test match 23.

Instead, Gatland took off Courtney Lawes, offering perhaps an insight into the pecking order at secondrow and blindside flanker. The coach might also have been a little more charitable in his assessment given that there was some mitigation in the yellow card incident.

Unknown to Henderson, and at the precise moment he lifted one of Jordie Barrett's legs to clear him out at a ruck, Jonathan Joseph lifted the other caused the Hurricanes fullback to topple onto his shoulder. The letter of the law was applied, Henderson accepted his punishment with a nod, having apologised to Barrett. It was a marginal call, if correct.

Romain holiday

There were a couple of interesting moments from an officiating perspective during the match. Romain Poite became an inadvertent accomplice in the Hurricanes first try when he blocked a couple of Lions defenders in their efforts to get to the eventual try scorer. He was poorly positioned for once and with his back to the defending team didn't realise that he'd partially blocked a couple of Lions players from getting a good shot on the ball carrier.

The television match official, George Ayoub, didn't intervene then but was happy to suggest to Poite he reconsider his original assessment of the Henderson yellow card. The French official watched a number of replays and then indicated to the TMO that he was happy to run with the original penalty to the Lions. Ayoub invited Poite to watch another replay.

Poite then revised his opinion in what become a three or four handed conversation and having decided to penalise Henderson with a penalty and a card, asked Ayoub if he agreed, which the Australian did. Ayoub appeared to basically change Poite’s mind – in fairness at no point did Ayoub suggest any course of action one way or another – after the French official had indicated one way by inviting him to look at other replays. It’s an interesting dynamic going forward.

Breaking down the breakdown

The Lions were so much better at the breakdown against the Hurricanes than they had been in last Saturday's first test, particularly for the first 60-minutes of the match. They managed to insinuate their way into rucks and slow ball down, surviving many of the first attempts at clearing out by the home side. It meant they were able to stifle, to some degree, the Hurricanes desire to play a fast, expansive game. The frontrow of Joe Marler, Rory Best and Dan Cole were excellent in that respect, so too Justin Tipuric.

The Lions also cleared right past the ball when they were in possession and this gave scrumhalf Greg Laidlaw some additional comfort and space.

The contenders

Iain Henderson, Rory Best, George North, Jack Nowell, Courtney Lawes, Justin Tipuric and CJ Stander deserve to be part of the dialogue about who makes the second test 23. Henderson, Best and Lawes should be shoo-ins but the likelihood is that Lawes and Nowell may be the ones promoted.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer