The Lions have named their squad for their final pre-Test game, against the Chiefs on Tuesday. It includes four Welsh players on the bench who happened to be in the same country. Graham Thomas reflects on Warren Gatland’s controversial call-ups.
The Lions are special. Everyone says so. People like Standard Life, Land Rover, QBE Insurance and kit manufacturers Canterbury who produce a replica match day Test jersey for £120.
People like Gullivers, the tour travel specialists, who will take you all around New Zealand to follow the tour for between £3,000 and £9,000 depending on your choice of package.
People like Warren Gatland, who spoke warmly, repeatedly and convincingly about how “special” the Lions are in a series of lavish, fund-raising corporate dinners in the months before he and his squad stepped onto their plane.
Yet it’s hard to be fully certain how special Kristian Dacey, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill and Gareth Davies feel as they prepare to sit on the bench for the Lions against the Chiefs in Waikato on Tuesday night. All four have been abused and maligned on social media after their call-up to the squad along with Scotland’s Allan Dell and Finn Russell.
All six have done nothing wrong. This should be the high point of their rugby careers, the most hard-earned representative honour they could gain. But fans aren’t fools and even Gatland himself has admitted geography has played a bigger part in their selection than merit.
They are not so much Lions as paper tigers.
You can only guess how the six feel. But imagine being told by your boss you’ve been chosen to represent your employer at an industry conference, only to discover it’s because you’re the only one who answered his phone.
The former England cricket captain Keith Fletcher used to tell a story about how he was once asked for his autograph by a Yorkshire fan when he was playing at Headingley. As he was signing, he was told, “Of course, I really wanted Geoffrey Boycott’s autograph, but he’s not playing today.”
Gatland has said that he always intended to lean on the nearby Wales and Scotland tours for the first midweek match before the Tests, which is slightly true. He actually used the word “might” in a throwaway line on the day the squad was announced.
It was a coded message that geography might trump talent for selection, but it was never spelt out in the manner Sir Clive Woodward openly declared his controversial and ill-fated two squad strategy to take on the All Blacks in 2005.
But there plenty of other messages that Gatland has sent. One is to England players like Joe Launchbury. The Wasps second row might have imagined months ago that his best bet in getting picked ahead of Cory Hill as a Lions replacement was to perform well with a red rose on his chest in Argentina.
In fact, he would have been better off swerving his country’s call and booking into an Auckland hotel for a few weeks instead.
Gatland’s claim that England players would not have had time to make the Chiefs game, or would have been jet-legged, is disingenuous. If all this was planned, he could simply have asked for them a week earlier.
Launchbury would have missed England’s first Test against the Pumas, but Eddie Jones would not have denied him – and probably would have shaken his hand before he left for the airport.
After all, that’s what Woodward did with Martin Corry in 2001 after the Leicester player was summoned by Graham Henry to become a Lion in New Zealand.
Corry was picked because he was the best player available, regardless of where he was. He went on to make the Test team. The same went for Ryan Jones who took a call to join the 2005 Lions tour, shook off the jet lag to become the best player on the field against the Highlanders, and played in all three Tests.
That has always been the Lions way, the ethos. When reinforcements are needed, you go for the next cab off the rank, often players who just missed out on original selection.
Of course, there have been times when those players were not available due to time constraints. Andy Nicol famously put down his pint in 2001 and crossed from being an ex-player on the pop in Australia, to an emergency bench scrum-half in place of Rob Howley.
But that was to replace an injured player at short notice before a Test, an entirely different circumstance to Gatland’s long-held plan to augment his squad.
Only Lions fans who handed over their wedge for their replica shirts can decide if their jersey has been devalued. But the tradition and ethos – something the coach stressed in those recent dinners – has always been to go for the best, not the closest.
Over the years, Wales has provided some of the greatest Lions. Sadly, these most recent four are simply some of the nearest.