Peter Stead regrets the loss of creativity in a side which has been dominated by Warren Gatland’s antipodean power play
The notorious Victorian Encyclopaedia Britannica entry read “For Wales, See England”. And so things have come full circle and tomorrow the whole prestige of the British and Irish (they were as much part of it as the Brits) Empire will rest on the formidable shoulders of ten Welshmen and their five assistants.
I think I saw this coming. Watching all those Tuesday and Saturday morning games, with the infuriating pattern of suddenly drafted in players, injuries, substitutions and errors, one suspected that ultimately it was going to come down to a shoot out at the OK Corral and that, as at Agincourt, it would all depend on Welsh marksmen. Even earlier, when Warren Gatland named a touring party dominated by Welsh players, one anticipated that if the series were won it would be ‘a British victory’ and if lost the Welsh would be there to carry the can.
The last few weeks has seen controversy aplenty but we could never have anticipated the hysteria of the last few days. Even on a day of profound crisis in Egypt and with a tough Murray contest looming at Wimbledon the Today programme was dominated by a furious Ian Robertson riff which seemed to be building up to the suggestion that Gatland be sent to the Tower.
Then those sombre Irish and English veterans, the deacons and elders of the game, lambasted Gatland for offending all the gentlemanly codes of rugby by denying them the opportunity to polish their favourite clichés in match reports they had already written. O’Driscoll was due to score the winning try, and Johnny Wilkinson, straight off the plane, would be there if a last-minute kick was needed.
Personally, I fully understand Gatland’s selection, although I would have been tempted to play Tipuric, Ian Evans, and Cuthbert as well. On this strangely disrupted and unsatisfactory tour the Welsh players have given their all and they deserve every plaudit. However, there is the wider question that always needs to be asked when one is a little lost and that is, “Should we be starting from here?” For two decades now the northern hemisphere nations have faced the dilemma of how to succeed against the physically powerful southern hemisphere sides. Antipodean coaches have been recruited and they have insisted on their European charges toughening up and playing the power game.
Under Gatland Wales have come on in leaps and bounds. As the whole world has now been reminded, they have lost their last eight games against Australia, but in general they have been strong enough to beat European teams. In selecting Gatland as their coach the Lions had opted for the power approach for the current tour. In Wales we knew precisely what this would mean. There would be no place for creative players like James Hook. Moreover, there would be slow delivery from the scrum-half and no real mid-field creativity. The pack would dominate and then power in mid-field and especially on the wings would surely win the day.
The Tests have been close and Gatland would have got away with it and secured his knighthood if Gethin Jenkins, Jamie Roberts, Paul O’Connell and Sam Warburton had been available for all three matches. The comings and goings have seriously disrupted Gatland’s master plan but he has compounded matters with some strange mid-week selections and untimely substitutions. Nevertheless, one has a degree of sympathy for Gatland. Certainly the parochial English, Irish and Scots attacks of the last few days have been utterly unprofessional.
But there is an underlying sadness with which we have to come to terms. It is unbelievable that we have a Lions squad lacking a pair of half-backs capable of dominating a series. How sad, too, that with O’Driscoll clearly ageing that there is no centre capable of genuine breaks. Then there is the fact that what is clearly not a great Australian side is still capable of exciting back-play. Rugby-league has taught them how to run at each other’s elbows, to place the ball into the hand and to loop around in support. These are skills rapidly being forgotten in our islands.
Last week’s winning Australian try was inevitable. Their backs had never stopped moving the ball. Only twice did the Lions look like scoring and they were let down by basic back-play errors. Tomorrow someone has to find the rhythm, flair and poise to convert the Lions power into class. There will be scepticism in three home nations. For Wales and one Kiwi it is a time for prayer.