HE may have explained himself with all the clarity of a man three-quarters of the way through his stag night, but there was a kernel of common sense to British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland’s musings about the wisdom of taking too many Englishmen to Australia in the summer.
His thoughts on the popularity or otherwise of the boys in white were inappropriate and facile – Clive Woodward may have gone down like a mug of cold vomit in New Zealand eight years ago, but the last two Lions series wins in 1989 and 1997 would not have been achieved without the side’s hard core of English players – but his main point remains undoubtedly valid.
Of course Gatland is right to say that any Lions squad needs to be selected on the basis of form, but form cannot be the only criterion when you’re looking at selecting such a group. Personality and adaptability are also important, and, historically, the Scots and the Irish have proved to be good Lions tourists while the Welsh have tended to become a bit introspective and clannish. I still remember the 2001 Lions, when the Welsh players clustered together in one corner of the gym, working out together while speaking in Welsh. This is perhaps why the country with the most successful and popular Lions captains is undoubtedly Scotland (with the exception of Mike Campbell-Lamerton in 1966, at least when it comes to success), while the country with the least successful skippers is Wales (with the notable exception of John Dawes in 1971).
The three Lions destinations are also very different places, and there are important differences in the qualities that would have stood a tighthead prop or openside in good stead in South Africa from those they will need in Australia.
The blend of players in the squad is also important. Gatland won’t choose five athletic second rows, he’ll go for a mixture that includes the sort of muscular type who likes to get his hands dirty and will traditionally shore up the dirt-trackers.
The style of rugby Gatland wants to play will also inform his squad selection.
Most importantly, however – and I think this is the central truth that Gatland was trying to express – Lions squads which contain too many players from one nation invariably come a cropper.
Flushed by the success of the triumphant 1971 and 1974 Lions, plus the dominance of Wales in the mid-1970s, the 1977 Lions, coached by Welshman John Dawes and captained by Welshman Phil Bennett, had 17 Welshmen in the 30-man squad, including three uncapped players. Three of the four subsequent replacements were Welshmen, too. Notoriously badly managed and with rifts forming almost immediately along national lines, the series was lost 3-1 thanks to a last-minute try by All Black Lawrie Knight in the final Test.
But what really did for the talented but unhappy tourists, who had justifiably started the tour as favourites, was a surfeit of Welshmen exacerbated by a selection policy which seemed to be biased towards one particular nationality.
In a rugby environment as unrelentingly hostile and gruelling as New Zealand, the national faultlines of Bennett’s team were cruelly exposed.
The same was undoubtedly true of the 2001 tour to Australia, when Graham Henry now admits that much of the destructive tension between the Test side and the midweek team stemmed from his much-criticised decision to take ten players from his Welsh team, several of whom weren’t reckoned to be up to it by the rest of the squad. It turned out that the rest of the squad was right.
Ditto Sir Clive Woodward’s disastrous tenure of the 2005 Lions, when 23 Englishmen were named in the ridiculously bloated squad despite Wales having just won a Grand Slam and England having performed poorly in 2004 and 2005. The result of including English journeymen such as Ollie Smith and Andy Titterrell (not to mention dragging Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back out of retirement) was a tour from hell, with a Test whitewash in which the cumulative scores from three emphatic defeats were 107-40.
Not only was the game in the Home Unions brought into disrepute just two years after a Northern Hemisphere team had won the World Cup for the first time, that tour almost finished off the whole concept of the Lions.
By contrast, not only do those tours in which there is a preponderance of players from one nation tend to go badly, those in which there is a good smattering of players from all four countries are the ones which tend to go best. If you don’t believe that, then just take a look at the video of Living With Lions from the last time the tourists won a series, back in 1997.
All four countries are properly represented, and seen to be so.
Fortunately, Scotland have already done enough to give Gatland some food for thought and the option to include a number of Scottish players without resorting to tokenism.
Before the Six Nations began, he asked, almost plaintively, for some Scots to stick their hands up and, on the basis of form so far, the whole back three will come into contention, as will Richie Gray, left, Euan Murray and a handful of others. Gatland can’t say he doesn’t have options.
Besides, we’re only two matches into the Championship. England may have looked very good against Scotland but they didn’t blow Ireland away and, despite the usual guff from the fans with typewriters in the Twickenham press box who have already mapped out a triumphant procession to an England grand slam, neither France at Twickenham nor Wales at the Millennium Stadium are shoo-ins. Neither, lest it be forgotten, could England beat the Wallabies at Twickenham in November so, despite one of my London-based colleagues suggesting that “there could yet be an entire team of red rose players wearing the red of Britain and Ireland”, there is still plenty to be run in this race.
And that is something for which, I suspect, Gatland remains eternally grateful.