Dear Warren Gatland,
I expect you’ve enjoyed your four month break from what must be an extremely tedious, testing job. Hopefully you’ve been able to acquaint yourself with some sunshine, and have experienced the joys of civilisation before your imminent return to the neanderthal territory of Wales [I’m kidding, of course].
I’m writing to you today with some recommendations concerning the difficult decisions you find yourself facing as regards the upcoming Lions tour to Australia.
I know you probably think you’ve seen it all before, and that your tenure as head coach of a national team makes you an authority on the matter, but – please – stretch an ear my way on this matter! I’ve probably watched more rugby than you this year [I catch at least 4 games every weekend], and I once represented my school at Second XV level. Now that’s what I call an impressive CV.
Allow me to educate you.
1. It’s important to remember that just because you are the Wales coach, it doesn’t mean you are obligated to pick Welsh players. Yes, they beat England by a considerable margin at the end of the Six Nations, but which team had performed better overall in the previous four games? Which team showed more character and ability against the Southern hemisphere teams in the Autumn internationals? Obviously, it was England. Wales beat England by winning the power forwards battle [and by dodgy binding at every single scrum], but Australia’s strength lies in the mobility rather than the power of their pack so to pick a tight five based on scrummaging power alone would be a futile exercise. Look for ball winners and ball carriers, players who will do the job in the scrum and excel in the loose. I’d also like you to not select your back row on the basis of one or two recent performances, but rather on sustained form.
2. Pick quick. Given the quality that Australia’s back line possesses, it would be fair to say that they have under-performed in the last two or three years. With players such as Quade Cooper, Will Genia, James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale and Digby Iaone, they have ability and pace in abundance. Don’t be conservative with your selections, Warren, because Australia definitely won’t be. Enjoy and take the opportunity to display the best that British and Irish rugby has to offer, and please don’t embarrass us with park-the-bus tactics.
3. Don’t be afraid to take a few uncapped players with you. Just because their national coaches haven’t put faith in someone’s ability, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. If you see someone who is clearly performing well for their club, then call them up! I’m afraid I can only comment on English players here as I don’t watch that Pro12 nonsense, but here are a few suggestions:
Christian Wade. He’s been the most exciting player in the Premiership this season, and would be the quickest player in either team were he to play for the Lions against Australia. His vision is superb, and his ability to score from seemingly impossible situations is reminiscent of a certain Jason Robinson. Whilst he may not have the dancing feet of Robinson, he’s certainly got the pace.
Lee Dickson. The Northampton scrum half featured heavily for England in last year’s Six Nations, but has since inexplicably fallen out of contention for the white 9 jersey. I say “inexplicably” because he has been one of Northampton’s stand-out performers this year. The manner in which he dictates the pace of the game with such authority is exactly what a mashed-together Lions XV should be looking for in a 9, and the incredible accuracy of his passing from the base of the ruck often goes unnoticed.
Ben Foden. Another England player who appears to have slipped off the radar somewhat. Whilst Alex Goode has defended, kicked and marshalled solidly for England over the past 6 months, he has hardly set the world on fire. Foden brings something different to the table. His ability to spot gaps in defenses is valuable, and his slaloming running style often causes defenses to lose their shape, opening up space for second phase runners to exploit. His kicking game has also vastly improved in recent times, and the fact that he’d comfortably fill in at scrum half if required could, should you choose to go down that route, open up another space on the bench.
Matt Kvesic. There’s an obvious vein of bias running through this letter, and I think it’s just reached its heart, but Matt Kvesic has been in sublime form all season for the Premiership’s most exciting team, Worcester. The number 7, aged just 20, earned himself a call-up to the senior England training squad for the Six Nations. Whilst he didn’t feature in the tournament, many have touted him as a future England star and even captain. His exploits on the field have earned him a contract with Gloucester next season, a move that many would consider a backwards step but one that shows Kvesic’s charitable nature and heart for those less fortunate than himself.
I hope you take these suggestions into consideration, Warren. I have many more suitable candidates up my sleeve, please let me know if you’d like me to send you my 60-page report on the matter. I’ll leave you with my recommended Lions XV.
1. Cian Healy. The “big boy” of the scrum, his form has been one of the few silver linings for what has been a poor two months for Ireland. Healy will be a reliable cornerstone in a very exciting pack.
2. Dylan Hartley. If you’d asked me before the Six Nations, Tom Youngs would’ve been wearing number 2, but both Italy and Wales brutally exposed the Leicester man’s weakness in the scrum. Hartley has been impressive when coming off the bench for England, although Rory Best is nipping at his heels.
3. Adam Jones. It really was close between Jones and Dan Cole, but Jones nicked it for me on the back of a strong performance against England. Whoever gets picked at 3, it’s fantastic to have such healthy competition at tighthead.
4. Geoff Parling. Jim Hamilton was a strong contender for the 4 jersey, but Parling has formed a strong partnership in the second row with Joe Launchbury and will be a vital lineout operator. I can’t recall the last time Parling played poorly.
5. Joe Launchbury. A vital component of England’s recent success. Still very young and inexperienced, but with that comes an adventure and commitment which, added to his good mobility and ball handling sills, makes Launchbury a nightmare for opposing teams.
6. Tom Croft. I’ll probably be maligned for proposing such an England-heavy pack, and Croft might seem a particularly strange choice at 6 – he has, after all, barely seen a rugby pitch in the last 12 months. However, Croft is more than a ball-winner; he is a match-winner. He’s one of those special players who can turn a game in the blink of an eye. Yes, Lydiate probably wins more turnovers and makes more tackles, but Croft has got the X Factor and the Lions will need the X Factor.
7. Tom Wood. The Northampton man has been played out of position for much of the Six Nations, but is a brilliant 7. Wood is the first man on my team sheet; his dominant performance against New Zealand earned him man-of-the-match, and his all-round game [carrying, tackling, breakdown] has been consistently world-class over a six month period. If he doesn’t make your team, you clearly haven’t been watching him.
8. Toby Faletau. The Welsh supremo completes a very exciting back row. Faletau has been the standout 8 amongst the home nations for a while now – his ball carrying has been vital in giving Wales the go-forward that their game requires, and he is the master of sucking in defenders to create space for his teammates. Toby will be a really key player for you, Warren.
9. Greg Laidlaw. The Scotsman has been the only consistent performer throughout this year’s Six Nations, and has really developed into a fine all-round 9. His distribution has been excellent, and anyone who is able to get tries out of a very ordinary back line is clearly doing something right.
10. Jonny Sexton. I’d prefer to put Owen Farrell at 10, but I’ll be accused of bias so I’ll play Switzerland and recommend Sexton at fly half.
11. Christian Wade. Why not? Everyone likes to see a flyer, and every team needs one in my opinion. We need a Plan B when crash ball stops working after the third minute, so why not have Wade on the wing? With powerful runners inside him, there should be plenty of space on the wing for Wade to work his magic and score millions of tries.
12. Manu Tuilagi. At a position where the Lions lack any real depth, Tuilagi seems the obvious choice. Yes, I know he normally plays at 13 but I’ve reserved that jersey for someone rather special…
13. Brian O’Driscoll [c]. Clearly O’Driscoll is past his best, but he simply has to start for the Lions. He can still run unbelievable lines and unlock the stingiest of defenses, even when the pressure is on. I can think of no-one better suited for the role of captain, and his experience will be crucial in an otherwise fairly inexperienced back line.
14. Alex Cuthbert. I don’t know whether Cuthbert plays 11 or 14 for Wales, but either way he was the best winger in the Six Nations. A great finisher, and his power will complement Wade’s pace perfectly. If his fine form continues, I think he’ll be a contender for “player of the tour” come July.
15. Leigh Halfpenny. I toyed with the idea of putting Halfpenny on the wing and sticking Hogg at fullback, but chose Halfpenny on the basis that whoever plays at 15 will be contending with a lot of high balls from the likes of Cooper, Beale and O’Connor and the Welshman has proved himself to have the safest pair of hands in the world in that regard. Then again, that flipping scrum cap does annoy the heck out of me so Hogg may yet have a chance…
England : 7 players
Ireland: 3 players
Wales: 4 players
Scotland: 1 player
So there you have it, Warren. I strongly suggest you act upon my recommendations if you’re looking for a winning Lions formula. I once captained my schools Under 16 basketball team to victory against local team Perdiswell Pacers so I know what I’m doing when it comes to big sporting decisions.