Warren Gatland has already chosen his Lions captain for this summer’s tour to Australia, or so he claimed in an interview back home in New Zealand.
But he has yet to inform the lucky leader, so the post may not be nailed down quite as firmly as Gatland would have us believe. In the same interview, the Kiwi also oozed tough love, insisting he’d drop his skipper like a hot potato if his form did not merit inclusion in the Test XV.
Gatland, right, insisted that perhaps two-thirds of his 36-37-strong squad was already selected, leaving the opportunity for another 12-14 players to put their hands up, which is a surprise as many thought the head scratching would have been done and dusted by the Six Nations finale.
While back in his native land, Gatland took the opportunity to pick the brains of Sir Graham Henry, who led the last Lions squad to tour Australia, in 2001, and lost a nail-biting series 2-1 but only after a raft of off-field issues hogged the headlines.
“I spoke to Graham about his experiences and what he said to me was that he’d learnt a lot from that Lions experience,” Gatland said. “It was just a matter of picking his brains, and he makes a really valid point that the Lions is as much about getting things right off the field as it is on it.
“Players are coming from positions where they’re used to being number one but, in a Lions team, they are number two or number three. It’s natural for them to be disappointed but it’s how they respond to that disappointment.
“When it comes down to finalising the last positions, we definitely will be talking about personality and, if they aren’t selected, how they are going to respond to that disappointment. Are they good team people, how do they get on with others? Personality is going to be huge for us.”
In which case, a few Englishmen might be nervous since their former skipper Will Carling noted recently that some of Stuart Lancaster’s side still see themselves clad in Versace rather than sackcloth and ashes.
“A number of England players still have over-inflated views of their ability and their worth,” Carling wrote in a recent column for the Huffington Post.
But, if Gatland still has work to do, spare a thought for his opposite number Robbie Deans, who must be silently cursing the fates who have already robbed him of his poacher-come-gamewinner David Pocock. The Zimbabwe-born flanker ruptured knee ligaments earlier this month and the injury will keep him sidelined long after the tourists have returned home.
In searching for a replacement, Deans has several options including two players at either end of their careers, 21-year-old Michael Hooper and veteran flanker George Smith, who turns 33 just eight days after the final Test in Sydney. The latter has been signed on secondment from the Japanese club Suntory by Brumbies boss Jake White and you can bet your bottom dollar that the phone lines under the Pacific are red hot as the Australian Rugby Union frantically attempts to extend the Suntory deal to ensure Smith is available to face the Lions. The flanker played all three Tests in 2001 but Smith needs to sort out his contractual conundrum before Deans can pick him this time.
Elsewhere, the Wallabies are weighed down by their perennial disciplinary problems, with Kurtley Beale, one of the trio known as “the Three Amigos”, suspended indefinitely by his club, the appropriately named Melbourne Rebels. Despite losing 64-7 to the Sharks last weekend the Rebels still sampled the Durban nightlife and Beale took his shirt off in the bus on the way back to the team hotel and punched skipper Gareth Delve when the Welshman suggested he cover up. Cooper Vuna also landed one on Beale which, in turn, landed the winger a one-week suspension. The two were sent home “on separate planes”.
Sir Alex Ferguson was reportedly asked some months back by British cycling chief Sir Dave Brailsford the secret of his continued success and the Manchester United boss is said to have replied succinctly: “Get rid of the c***s.”
Deans has already been advised to ditch at least one of the three amigos (Quade Cooper and James O’Connor are the others) by former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones, who insists that the three together are a liability, despite that fact that all of them are potential matchwinners as Beale proved at the Millennium Stadium in November when his last-minute try earned victory for the Wallabies over Wales.
It may be easier than anyone imagines since Cooper and O’Connor are both competing for the same stand-off shirt. Admittedly, O’Connor is highly versatile and equally happy in the back three but the Brumbies’ young No.15 Jesse Mogg is coming up fast on the rails, which is the only speed the blistering full-back boasts. In fact, Wallaby legend Steve Larkham suggested that Deans could do worse than pick the Brumbies back line en masse although, as Brumbies backs’ coach, he may be biased.
At least the Canberra-based team is playing well, which is more than you can say for most of the Australian franchises with the honorable exception of the Queensland-based Reds. The Waratahs, Rebels and Western Force were all clustered together in the Super Rugby basement at 11th, 12th and 13th place ahead of this weekend’s matches. With some old faces struggling to make an impact, Deans may turn to some of the younger, unheralded players that have pushed the Brumbies to the top of the table.
At least they know how to behave.