The British and Irish Lions Tour 2017 is nearly upon us, kicking off on the first weekend of June this year.
As with other traditions associated with the Lions, such as the youngest player in the squad having to look after the Lions’ mascot for the duration of the Tour, selection of the Lions squad seems to cause controversy no matter what the outcome is and it is almost certainly impossible to please everyone.
Warren Gatland had a tough job on his hands for the 2017 squad selection and, thankfully, much angst and speculation came to an end on 19 April 2017, when Gatland revealed the names of the individuals tasked with taking on back-to-back World Cup winners New Zealand on their home turf.
Unsurprisingly Gatland received immediate backlash for the obvious lack of Scottish players selected, despite Scotland’s most successful Six Nations in a generation. Even Brian O’Driscoll conceded that Scotland was unlucky not to have more players in the touring party: “Beat Ireland, beat Wales—if I was Scottish I would feel hard done by. It’s the first time since 1908 they haven’t had a representative in the pack”.
But Gatland denied any suggestion of bias, attributable to his position as the Head Coach of the Welsh national team, stating that: “Look, we understand they (Scotland) are going to be disappointed but it wasn’t about what nation you come from. We put together what we thought was the strongest possible squad”.
It may not be purely about nationality or calibre of individual players (not least given Wales’ overall poor performance during this year’s Six Nations) that has driven Gatland’s decision-making. Pulling together a cohesive and collaborative team for the daunting task of attempting to topple arguably the greatest Rugby Union side (ever?) is not just about each individual player’s skill on the pitch.
What Gatland has demonstrated is that a team needs to comprise, in equal measure, talent and character: they need to be the right players and the right people.
Personally I don’t profess to know everything (or even very much) about Rugby Union – realistically does anyone always know why every penalty is awarded? If they say they do, they are lying – even England’s James Haskell needs clarification on the rules every now and then.
However, Gatland’s method, controversial or not, in selecting his Lions squad seems to be translatable to the workings and success of any kind of team, whether it’s your Saturday morning five-a-side squad or even your legal team – often made up of individuals at different levels of seniority, with varied skill sets and distinct personalities.
It falls upon a good leader to make sure that their team is not assembled solely on technical skill and breadth of knowledge but also the ability to learn and assimilate ideas under pressure, to understand and apply “collective intelligence” by sharing insights and perspectives and the ability to be a role model when necessary and at any level. Perhaps Gatland has attempted to do just that – assembling the strongest squad over selecting the best individual players.
The last few months of British and Irish rugby have been extraordinarily exciting. If the rumpus around this selection is anything to go by, the Tour itself is probably going to be one to watch and the expectation on Gatland and his select few run high. The recent news that one of Gatland’s key forwards, Billy Vunipola, has had to pull out of the Tour with a shoulder injury, only serves to add to our collective anticipation.
Luckily for us, Tour enthusiasts and spectators, the Lions arrive in New Zealand next week on 31 May 2017, just three days before their first match against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on 3 June.
British and Irish Rugby Union fans will be hoping that Gatland’s calculations on the chemistry of his squad are correct and that the tourists will be able to start the Tour with a bang.