Allan Massie: A ‘Warrenball’ win would be a travesty

Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach. Picture: Getty
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach. Picture: Getty
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I HAVE never warmed to Warren Gatland, and the style in which his Lions have played in the Tests hasn’t made me any readier to do so.

His dumping of Brian O’Driscoll won’t have won him many friends. His reason is understandable, if questionable, but, even if I had agreed with it, I would have deplored this self-regarding remark of Gatland’s: “Brian was very disappointed, but he appreciated that he was spoken to before the team announcement.” So that’s all right then. Gatland does the right thing and gives himself a public pat on the back.

The Lions’ performance in the second Test resembled a number of Scottish ones over the last decade: very committed defence, huge number of tackles made, complete absence of ambition or attacking flair. It was a bit like our win over Australia at Murrayfield two years ago, except that this time the Australian kicker converted the try to win the match, while Matt Giteau missed his. But the point is that such a performance may be acceptable, sometimes even welcome, from Scotland, all things considered, but rather more is expected from the Lions.

Several readers rebuked me when I wrote a column a few weeks ago in which I said that I didn’t feel any great enthusiasm for the Lions. A few of them may now be agreeing with me, and not only on account of Gatland’s evident disinclination to pick any of his four Scots for the Test XV. His team’s style of play has been dismal. He has the cream of four nations and his side is as exciting and nutritious as watered-down milk. The old cry of “Boring England” has been amended to “Boring Gatland”. If the Lions are to have any point, it should be as an advertisement for adventurous rugby. I’m
not suggesting Barbarians-style, running everything, but there should be a bit of swagger about their play. Instead, what do we see? A forward standing as first receiver in the No 10 position, taking the ball into the tackle, again and again and again. What the Australians are calling “Warrenball” is tedious and tactically timid stuff. If the outside backs make the occasional error, like O’Driscoll’s loose pass which was intercepted by Israel Falau, it may be because they are bored.

Perhaps the Lions will snap out of it today, and play rugby as they should play it, and are surely capable of playing it. If so, I shall happily eat my words. But if they continue to play Warrenball, then I hope the Wallabies will thump them, because that’s what Gatland will deserve. It’s not his selection of ten Welshman that I object to. It’s just the style he imposes. If his Welshmen played as JPR, Gerald and JJ, Barry, Phil and Gareth used to, we’d all be happy.

Gatland says he doesn’t think the captaincy that important. If the captain isn’t important, it means the coach is. Well, there was only one of the four winning Lions series in which you might cogently argue that the coach was a more influential person than the captain. That was in 1971 and the coach was the sublime Carwyn James who believed in letting the players express themselves. This year’s captain Sam Warburton has played well, even though he has been outshone in both Tests by the Australian No 7, Michael Hooper, but he has evidently been subservient to the coach – which is doubtless the way Gatland likes it. This thought allows me to indulge in fantasy: if, with Warburton injured, the captaincy had been given to O‘Driscoll, might he have said, “let’s tear up the script and just play rugby”? In both Tests Australia have been the better, bolder side. Few would think it unjust if Australia had won both matches. Unlike Gatland, Robbie Deans has trusted his backs. They’ve made mistakes, a few passes going astray, but at least they are playing 15-man rugby as teams should and as the Lions used to.

Admittedly this doesn’t always bring results, especially if you don’t have a reliable goal-kicker. There was a famous, or infamous, Test in 1959 in New Zealand, which the Lions lost 
18-17*. They scored four tries, one conversion and one penalty; Don Clarke, the All Blacks’ full-back, kicked six penalties. With modern scoring values the Lions would have won 25-18, but a try was worth only three points then. Even New Zealanders were ashamed. The All Blacks won the series 3-1, but in the four games the Lions won the try-count 9-4.

The All Blacks learned a lesson, changed their approach, moved away from ten-man rugby, and have never returned to that sterile approach to the game. Who knows? If the Lions lose today, we may heed the message in like manner. If they grind out a victory, playing Warrenball, it will be bad news.

More about the farce of the scrum later. Probably much more, I’m sorry to say.

* It is a matter of minor, though relevant, interest, that XV was made up of 5 Irishmen, 3 Englishmen, 3 Scots, and 4 Welsh.