Another win this morning in Hamilton and the British and Irish Lions are starting to build momentum ahead of this Saturday’s first test at Eden Park in Auckland; a ground at which the formidable All Blacks have achieved a 37 game winning streak spanning some 23 years.
The win, against one of the leading New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, will give further ammunition to coach Warren Gatland in his defence against the tidal wave of criticism he has faced at the hands of the New Zealand media after they lost 2 out of the opening 4 matches.
Inclement weather has allowed the Lions to rely upon their dominance up front and in the set piece and this is starting to reap benefits as the team gels and banks more crucial minutes playing in each other’s company.
The New Zealand media, always quick to pick up on the shortcomings of other teams (slower when it comes to their own), have questioned Gatland and his favoured style of play and proclivity for the power game dubbed “Warrenball” but are they right to criticise a style of play suited to the conditions, players and a desire to move forward over the gain line?
In this respect Gatland is simply playing to his strengths and indeed the perceived weaknesses in an otherwise dominant All Blacks team. As World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward recently highlighted:
“If you have a world-class forward pack that can ensure quality possession and win the collisions, you are in business.
If you have a world-class kicker behind that pack you always have a chance, and the Lions are likely to field two in Owen Farrell and Leigh Halfpenny.”
Gatland has defended himself in similar terms pointing to the undeniable success he has achieved coaching various teams around the globe.
Gatland has also come into criticism at home for calling up players to the squad based on their location as opposed to their ability. Former players and coaches have questioned this decision saying it devalues the Lions shirt and what it should represent, namely the pinnacle of a player’s career.
Others defend Gatland saying it is simply another sign of the professional game and the need to have players used to the same time zone and able to train immediately as opposed to those who are recovering from test match rugby and a long-haul flight as would be the case with any English player called up from their current tour of Argentina.
These mind games, played out publically in the media, may in fact aid the Lions. Despite all their shortcomings in the opening matches the fact remains that they appear to be peaking at the right time and, having been written off by the New Zealand media, have little to lose in the 3 test series.
If the All Blacks lose a test, or even worse two, we will no doubt see an outcry of a different kind. In the current status quo of world events, stranger things have happened…
Separately, Sports Shorts was very sorry to learn of the diagnosis of Scottish rugby and Lions legend Doddie Weir with motor neurone disease. We wish him all the best on the long road ahead but have no doubt that he will deal with this as he does everything else – with a great deal of humour, determination and a not inconsiderable amount of tartan.