Allan Massie: I owe Warren Gatland an apology

Warren Gatland celebrates after the Lions draw the final Test 15-15 to tie the series with New Zealand.  Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Warren Gatland celebrates after the Lions draw the final Test 15-15 to tie the series with New Zealand. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
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Well, the Lions did better than many had expected or feared, and those of us who were critical of Warren Gatland, pictured, for his selections and approach probably owe him an apology. I for one thought that, on account of their form in the Six Nations, Jonathan Davies and Alun Wyn Jones were very fortunate to be on the tour. Clearly I was wrong.

Both were outstanding successes, Wyn Jones partly perhaps because he knew that he would have to last for only 50 minutes or an hour rather than the full match, Davies because he was playing outside Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell, both good passers of the ball who attack the line, rather than Dan Biggar, who for Wales habitually stands very deep.

Much of the credit for the Lions’ achievement must go to Andy Farrell as the defence coach. He organised an aggressive defence that often smothered the All Blacks and forced them into mistakes. They scored only five tries in the three Tests, instead of the four or five a match which they usually manage.

Much was made of their lost or wasted opportunities in the third Test when they several times came very close to crossing the line, but it was the intensity of the defence that forced them into attempting chancy off-loads and knocking on what might have been scoring passes. Only Julian Savea’s knock-on when he had the line at his mercy owed nothing to the pressure exerted by the Lions.

The Lions themselves offered little in attack last week, only once in the first half coming close to crossing the try-line. Evidence of their unambitious mindset was provided by the decision to ask Elliott Daly to attempt a penalty goal from inside the Lions half. He did indeed kick a magnificent goal which made the score 9-12, but from that position on the field Owen Farrell might have kicked deep into the New Zealand 22, giving the Lions an attacking line-out and the opportunity to score a try. “Take the points” is often good advice, but, even granting Daly’s exceptional length off the kicking-tee, there was at best a 50-50 chance of three points.

Talking of penalty goals, it’s irritating to find experienced journalists, themselves former international players, counting missed penalty goals in a hypothetical score.

For instance, remarking that Beauden Barrett had missed one penalty and one conversion, Stuart Barnes said that the All Blacks might, or should, have been 17-6 up at half-time rather than 12-6. This is nonsense. It’s fair to count in a missed conversion, because the game restarts from the half-way line whether a try is converted or not. But if Barrett had kicked that first penalty, with the score at 0-0, everything afterwards would have been different, because the game would have been restarted from half-way rather than from the 22.

It may be tiresome to labour this point, but then it’s tiresome to find people talking or writing nonsense.

We grumbled a good deal – perhaps too much – about the poor Scottish representation on the tour. Certainly it is disappointing that, for the first time ever, no Scot took the field in any Test of a Lions tour. Stuart Hogg might well have done so but for his unfortunate injury, though not certainly because Liam Williams did pretty well, and Tommy Seymour, with limited opportunities, was the Lions’ top try-scorer on the tour. But really it’s hard on reflection to conclude that any of the Scots one thought unlucky to have missed selection would have made a significant difference.

Nevertheless it’s understandable that many of us here found it difficult to give whole-hearted support to Gatland’s Lions, even in some cases any support at all. Perhaps there is something to be said for the horse-trading that reputedly went on in the amateur days.

It’s not only Scots who were harshly treated. Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony was named captain for the first Test, taken off after 50 or 60 minutes, and never seen again. This reflects the diminished role of the captain and indeed of senior players in team selection. The head coach and his assistants decide these matters now, with no direct input by senior players even if there may still be some informal consultation.

Much is made of the need to have a number of “leaders” on the field, but assistant coaches frequently come on as water-bearers, no doubt also issuing instructions from on high. Ken Scotland once remarked to me that , since there were no coaches in his day, players had to think for themselves, and were perhaps all the better for this.

Still, enough niggling. It was on balance a successful tour, and so apologies to Warren Gatland, and hats-off, even if some lift them only with reluctance.