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By Brian Moore (The Telegraph, UK)
There is never a non-contentious Lions squad – unless, like Sir Clive Woodward in 2005, you pick nearly every player who played in the year’s Six Nations – and your view of it depends squarely on which team you support.
Warren Gatland’s intention is clearly evidenced by his choice of a predominantly Welsh squad and Sam Warburton as his captain. Of this selection Gatland made the illuminating reference to the recent Grand Slam decider and the way the referee reacted to Warburton. “Steve Walsh allowed Sam Warburton to go to him three times to question that decision, to get some clarification ... you’ve got to be pretty special to be able to do that because knowing Steve Walsh, he normally gives it the old ‘get away’!”
This ability to talk to referees puts Warburton into a very select club headed by Richie McCaw and the fact that Gatland went on to mention that one of the Test referees, Craig Joubert, had referred favourably to his captain should help the Lions.
However, the very fact that this point has now been highlighted shows what some of us, particularly the French players and media, have known for a long time – that some players and teams are given more leeway than others.
Whether this is conscious or not, it is wrong. What this open admission may also lead to is another urgent ad hoc meeting of elite referees and a determination not to be seen to be influenced by this tactic. On balance, it might have been better to keep this one quiet.
The tactical questions that also go with Warburton as captain have already been covered in this column and they are real. Hopefully the Lions will not have to face them, but Warburton has to be able to take his place in whatever position he is chosen, on merit of his play alone. If not, Gatland faces having to leave out better in-form players, such as Justin Tipuric or one of his blindside flankers, because the tour captain must be in the Test side.
It was inevitable that the Welsh would make up the preponderance of the squad because of the way they ended the Six Nations, but along with the spoils comes the responsibility for ensuring success Down Under. As this is ‘Wales plus others’ it has to work out better than the principality’s last seven games against the Aussies or questions will rightly be asked.
Some have disavowed any link between Wales’s recent winless record against Australia and the chances of Lions success. In terms of the Lions’ psyche they may be right, but they are wrong when it comes to the minds of the opposition.
Any player will tell you that knowing you have previously beaten your opposition is a distinct comfort; knowing how they will play is greater comfort yet.
The composition of the Lions’ squad leaves no real room for argument that it is picked to play the power game so fully expressed in the Wales v England match in March. The choice of power is evidenced by picking Conor Murray over Danny Care, to back up the powerful Mike Phillips at scrum-half.
Of the four centres only Brian O’Driscoll can be described as guileful and without his dexterity fly-half Johnny Sexton is going to have limited options out wide. The wings are fashioned to get over the gain-line against organised defences rather than excite through counter-attack in open space.
The decision to only take two fly-halves means an injury to either will force a late replacement or Stuart Hogg being press-ganged into covering the position; which would be fair on neither team nor player.
Had a utility back such as James Hook or even Greg Laidlaw been chosen, this potentially serious problem could have been avoided and it is made more curious still because for every other position there are at least three alternatives.
What is certain is that Australia will be markedly better than the team who faced the Welsh last summer. You only have to look at the form of their players and provincial sides in the Super 15 to see that their players are fit and ready; they have been planning for the Lions for some time.
Power is something this Lions squad has in abundance and if it gets everything right it could blow the Aussies off the field. We all hope for its success but if ‘one last push’ does not work there have to be doubts about whether it has the pace and panache on hard grounds.
The result will decide whether Gatland goes down as Field Marshal Montgomery or Field Marshal Haig.