Last night, Warren Gatland pulled up his sleeve slightly to hint at what tricks may be hiding up there when he revealed the squad to face the All Blacks in the first test of the 2017 tour. There’ll certainly have been a few eyebrow raisers; most contentious of all, O’Mahony captaining the first test. A fair few will have seen it coming, Will Greenwood included.
The former Lions and England centre, speaking on the phone with the Auckland rain audible in the background, told me that he nevertheless could feel for Warburton. He doesn’t doubt the tour captain’s credentials or his calibre, but injuries are a sportsman’s nightmare; capable of chopping you down in great form which Sam has lacked of late. Having said that, Greenwood didn’t underplay Warburton’s role within the team, “He’s a big fixture sort of guy and he’ll be out there at 60 minutes”.
The selection of Alun Wyn Jones over Maro Itoje may be another surprise inclusion. It is very much a case of experience over youth, and whilst the more ardent English fans will bemoan Gatland’s bias, for Greenwood it comes as no surprise. “He’s [AWJ] brilliant and excellent but you need to consider Itoje’s impact on England and their unbeaten run”. It is precisely for that impact that Greenwood thinks Itoje’s introduction at the 50th or 60th minute, will go some way to quelling the All Black game plan of piling pressure on in the third quarter, particularly from a player who’s hot in form and well feared in these parts.
The Gatland effect
Greenwood also pointed to the winning squad mentality and Lions’ ethos that Gatland has created and its impact on squad selection.
“Gatland, with a very experienced group of coaches and winners, has decided that the backs’ attacking threat is stronger with Williams, Watson and Daly. There’s a theme of rewarding players who are at the top of their game… He gives guys plenty of opportunity to play in a game four days before the first test, and still play in the first test”.
Daly was one of those players, and according to Greenwood, he could not have done much more to be selected. Williams is another inclusion based on merit:
“There’s an element of luck, you need to play in those games that propel you forward. Sometimes you get an opportunity to run, and the coaches think, remember what Liam [Williams] could do, let’s get him in”
The victory against the Chiefs certainly was a great performance from the soon-to-be Sarries utility back but it also goes some way to revealing Gatland’s thinking. Firstly, it means kicking duties return to Farrell but also that Gatland has a good memory. Williams was the only silver lining of the Welsh tour to New Zealand last year and his recent performance could give him confidence to cause a few headaches. It’s a remarkable turnaround from the player who was sin binned in the first game, but Greenwood reckons it’ll act as a lesson for Williams:
“He’ll look to get high, knee or boot first, and as soon as he’s up there he’ll know he has the law on his side. The laws will help him, when Ioane, Sonny Bill and Kieran Read are coming down chasing those high kicks”.
Rain, rain, please stay, win a game for the Lions today
The debate over selection can rage on all that it likes, but ultimately, as Greenwood puts it, “so many of these calls could have gone the other way; Saturday morning, you’ll know if he’s got these 50/50 calls right”. Indeed, even though we now know the starting XV we still don’t know how the Lions will respond on the day. Despite the All Blacks’ 23-year unbeaten run at the Auckland ground, Greenwood warns against completely writing the Lions off with the weather favourable to northern hemisphere rugby:
“The Lions head to Eden Park with a chance of winning, no question… It’s chucking it down and that’s the forecast for the weekend which means it goes to the wire. It’s certainly not 5/1 odds”
That still remains to be seen, but we can hope for a thrilling encounter between the best of North and South. We can hope for a near perfect Lions’ performance but above all, we can hope for an upset.
Will Greenwood was speaking on behalf of Canterbury ahead of the British & Irish Lions first test this Saturday. To find out more about Canterbury’s work in rugby, visit canterbury.com/training-hub.
By Dave Beach