Credit to bold Gatland for picking a Lions side on form not reputation
The secret of top-level selection is to heighten the sense of pre-game anticipation. If the team sheet can not only energise your own players but also make the opposition feel faintly uneasy, so much the better. Warren Gatland has ticked both those boxes; now we must wait and see whether it will trick the Boks.
South Africa will certainly be scanning Gatland’s selection warily. Not since Jason Robinson skipped thrillingly around Australia’s Chris Latham at the Gabba exactly 20 years ago has a Lions side looked better equipped to make a more proactive start to a series. Gatland has been bold – eye-catchingly so in some cases – and has put together a team that looks specifically primed to take the game to their hosts.
It is a classic glass half-full or half-empty situation. There will be some, in particular, sucking their teeth at the absence of several reliable Test veterans who might normally have expected to start. Conor Murray, Taulupe Faletau, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola … all featured prominently in the 2017 Test series against the All Blacks. If nothing else, they would have known what to expect.
But Gatland, to his credit, has picked largely on form not reputation. After three previous Lions tours he knows that winning this kind of series is about getting ahead of the curve. There is no point in playing safe until the final Test, when all may be lost already. In recent days he has spoken frequently about gut feeling: if the 2021 Lions are going to fall short they are not going to do so with a whimper.
And so he has gone for it, hoping some unfamiliar but potentially exciting combinations will click. Ali Price and Dan Biggar, for example, will be expected to shape a Lions Test together despite not having previously started a single game together on this tour. It is the same with the front-row, second-row and back-row combinations, as well as the back three. For South Africa’s analysts it will almost feel like doing battle with an army of unknown warriors.
Those elements of surprise and unfamiliarity can work both ways, of course. But Gatland is nobody’s fool. Why wait to be monstered by the Springbok pack as England were in the 2019 World Cup final? Better, surely, to try and run the big beasts around and not allow them to settle.
It will also require a solid set-piece but this looks a Lions side well-equipped to contest the aerial battle that is bound to ensue. Biggar is outstanding in the air, as is Anthony Watson, while Elliot Daly and Stuart Hogg – more so than some of their rivals – possess raking long boots which will assist the territorial cause.
And, if in doubt, Gatland has gone for a little lead piping as well. Everyone knows what a brilliant player Cheslin Kolbe is but how much will he relish the thundering locomotive that is Duhan van der Merwe bearing down on him? If the Lions do find themselves with a tap penalty five metres out from the opposition line, who in world rugby would you most like to see with the ball? The answer, at least in the northern hemisphere, is either Luke Cowan-Dickie or Sam Simmonds, both so adept at crashing low and hard beneath bigger men. Eddie Jones does not seem to much like the way Exeter play but Gatland, another ex-hooker, is clearly a fan.
Fearlessly nailing his colours to high-profile masts, of course, is Gatland’s speciality. Just as the great Brian O’Driscoll was ultimately treated exactly the same as any other player prior to the final Test in Australia 2013, so Murray, Faletau, George and Farrell have discovered there are no sacred cows in this environment.
In the cold light of a Cape winter’s day, though, have any of them done enough on this tour to make Gatland’s mind up for him? Murray may have been nominated as the stand-in captain after Alun Wyn Jones dislocated his shoulder but he has largely been sluggish in South Africa. Faletau and George remain outstanding international forwards but both have now turned 30. Maybe Gatland has detected more raw-edged hunger in his slightly younger first-time Lions, Jack Conan and Cowan-Dickie.
He has also trusted the evidence of his own eyes with Daly, who has not started at 13 for England since November 2016. The Saracens back has looked infinitely happier in his old preferred position and has the range of skills to complement his midfield partner Robbie Henshaw’s feisty all-round attributes. If Chris Harris and Josh Adams have reason to feel slightly aggrieved at missing out, their chance may well come at some stage.
Perhaps Gatland’s biggest punt of all, though, is on the man set to lead the Lions out on Saturday to meet their destiny. What a story it would be if Alun Wyn “Lazarus” Jones could guide his team to the promised land of a series victory; how desperately disappointing, on the other hand, will it be if his tender shoulder buckles again beneath the full force of a pumped-up Springbok pack.
It is just one of any number of calculated gambles made by a head coach who long ago came to realise that rugby history seldom favours the indecisive selector. Gatland, accordingly, has given the dice a vigorous roll and now it is down to his chosen men to repay that faith.