A Lions tour holds unique and testing demands for the head coach. Foremost among them is combining the talents of the various players into a cohesive and successful team. Warren Gatland has attempted to do that by imposing a rigid game plan on his squad. In theory, that makes utter sense. These players don’t normally play together, so telling them exactly what to do and where to do it simplifies things and prevents confusion on the pitch.
The oft-repeated notion that the cream of four countries should always beat one ignores the fact that the Lions usually have somewhere in the region of six weeks to prepare for the Test series. In rugby, it’s often not about who has the most talent in their team, but rather who is best organised to use that talent. Gatland has certainly arranged his players to play a distinct way and everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, but at what cost?
By imposing so strict a game plan and demanding his players stick to it, Gatland is denying much of their ability to judge situations for themselves on the pitch. The Lions’ patterns were getting to the point of predictability on Saturday, and the Wallabies defence is starting to look very comfortable with what is being thrown at them.
Gatland’s insistence on smashing the ball up the middle from set piece means the Lions are not even looking for opportunities to attack out wide. When the Lions receive kicks in back field, they’re not even scanning for the possibility of counter-attacking, it’s safety first and launch the garryowen. None of the Lions appear to be even thinking about offloading out of the tackle. This is low risk rugby.
It’s similar to 2009, when the Lions also stuck firmly to their pre-rehearsed game plan of working all the way out to one touch line before coming back the other way. It was certainly anticipated that the Lions would set up in the same manner this time around, but the hope was that Jonny Sexton would be the key difference.
The Irish outhalf is definitely an upgrade on Stephen Jones in terms of attacking spark, but we haven’t seen any evidence of him being backed to display that. His role has been limited to kicking garryowens and popping the ball to his midfield runners.
In attack, the Lions’ game plan is largely based on smashing through the Wallabies defence, but there has been a key man missing. Jamie Roberts is the one guy who consistently gets over the gain line and he has been sorely missed. His return in midfield should improve the Lions’ attacking effort. If Gatland is going to continue to use the same tactics, then his decision to omit Sean O’Brien from the starting team will surely come to an end. Those two guys could make all the difference.
On Saturday, the Lions were six minutes away from winning a Test series for the first time since 1997. They lost by one point and they certainly have a good chance of winning the third Test. Those are the facts and Gatland will not be losing sleep over complaints about the Lions’ playing style. He is there to win a test series, and he feels that this game plan gives them the best chance of doing so.
It’s tempting to call for Gatland to remove the shackles, allow Sexton to fling the ball into wider chanels and ask Halfpenny to counter-attack every time he fields a kick, but it’s not a realistic hope. We should expect more of the same. That said, Gatland needs to allow his decision makers to play what they see. If he is not going to remove the shackles completely, then at least loosening them a little would make the Lions more dangerous in attack.