‘Here come the cavalry’ but it’s not who you’d expect. On the 19th of May this year, fans and players alike were watching and listening intently to their radios, phones, laptops and tv’s to find out who would have the honour of being chosen by Warren Gatland and his coaching team to represent the British and Irish Lions in 2017. Their opposition, current back-to-back winning Rugby World Cup Champions New Zealand. It would be a monumental task that would require [all] the best players available to them from Britain and Ireland.
With some players going down, and a high concentration on the three tests (obviously) decisions this weekend to bring in new names, has poured gasoline on prior concerns.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) June 18, 2017
Gatland received criticism from many for originally selecting a large number of Welsh players in his squad despite their poor form in the last year. 12 Welshmen were selected compared to the two from celtic compatriots Scotland, who had beaten both Wales and Ireland in the recently passed Six Nations. The Scots; felled only by a physical French side and tournament winners England, had right to complain then.
Despite this, most were happy in the knowledge that taking on the All Blacks would take the best team composition possible and if these were the players needed to complete the task, then the British and Irish isles would be fully behind them, getting up to watch the games at 8:35am on both weekends and midweek, in support of their beloved Lions side.
But selections then, and these new ’emergency replacements’ only add to the conversation.
Lions Selection Rumblings Right Up Until First Tour Games
Debate of possible injury replacements came thick and fast at the very whisper of injuries to the squad that travelled to New Zealand, with replacements Greg Laidlaw and James Haskell called up to replace Ben Youngs and Billy Vunipola respectfully; before the tour has even begun.
Names such as Scotland’s Finn Russell, England’s Dylan Hartley and Ireland’s Keith Earls were just some of the most popular names discussed by the many Lions supporters at home and in New Zealand. With 41 players, would the squad depth be tested by injury?
However, a week before the first test was to kick off, rumblings began of a possible call up for five players to act as squad fillers for the midweek games against the Super Rugby sides the Chiefs and Hurricanes. Thus ensuring the players involved in the tests were not required to play two games a week.
However, the names rumoured did not include any of the aforementioned debated call ups. Warren Gatland and his coaching colleagues chose a Welsh contingent already in New Zealand, having played Tonga in Auckland a day before the Lions game against the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua.
Emergency Call Ups Made Saturday
Kristian Dacey, Thomas Francis, Cory Hill Gareth Davies were the players able to join the prestigious group of players that can call themselves British and Irish Lions. Hours later Scottish pairing Finn Russell and Alan Dell were added to this list, having played in Australia earlier than morning.
— British&Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) June 17, 2017
A tactic that makes sense logistically, as the Lions first game came within 3 days of landing in New Zealand. Many players were still affected by jetlag and the end of an already long regular season. Resulting in a lacklustre win against a New Zealand Barbarians side.
Four years ago during Gatlands last Lions tour to Australia players were also called up late. Gatland defended his selection of nearby players, pointing out the struggle to acclimatise in Australia. The suggestion was that jet lag an influence over the loss against the Brumbies in 2013.
A ‘Black Mark’ on the British and Irish Lions Tradition
Selecting Welsh and Scottish players already adjusted to the Southern Hemisphere time zone would allow Gatland to eliminate the risk of another performance hindered by jetlag. But that did not settle the supporters who felt aggrieved. In the early hours of the Maori All Blacks game, outrage ensued online and in TalkSport channels. Many fans declaring the selection of players based on geographical convenience and not merit, a ‘black mark’ against the Lions tradition.
Legendary Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan himself criticised Gatland’s decision. Claiming that geographical factors should not supersede form in the selection of Lions representation.
Logistical Efficiency or Ruined Traditions?
Many feel this logistical decision devalues what it means to be selected for the Lions. With first choice international players losing out to a Welsh contingent of players unable to break into an out of form Welsh 23. This compared to Scottish, Irish and English players in their respective countries starting line-ups, including a national captain in the shape of Dylan Hartley.
Should logistical convenience prevail over form and merit? Is the tradition of the Lions so sacred only the best players should be selected or should coaches pick players based locally to eliminate the risks of jet lag? The choice seems obvious to both coaches and fans, however all are not in agreement. Warren Gatland may have placed a huge emphasis on winning over the hearts and minds of the New Zealand public, he may now have to work in the same vein to the home nations comprising the Lions.
“Main photo credit”