Lions tour: Defiant Warren Gatland has gameplan to deliver victory
OPINION: Warren Gatland is comfortable in his own skin, just as his teams are comfortable with his style of play. The two are inter-linked.
Focus too much on simplistic 'Warrenball' observations, that punching-up rhythm over the gain-line (just as, er, Sonny Bill Williams does for the All Blacks) and you run the danger of missing the true essence of Gatland sides. There is a gameplan but, more than that, there is a core, an identity. Wasps had it (four league titles, two Heineken Cups), Wales have had it (two Grand Slams) and the Lions had it in Australia four years ago, in the days when the Wallabies actually were high-end opponents.
Prior to that clinching third test in Sydney, Gatland made one of the most contentious selection decisions in the history of the Lions, dropping the 2005 captain and Irish icon, Brian O'Driscoll. There was outrage. Gatland merely saw it as a logical selection decision and remained steadfast in the face of plenty of flak. Much the same is happening now following the call-up of the 'Geographically-favoured Six', the half-dozen Welsh and Scottish players summoned to fulfil bench duties against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Tuesday.
Gatland thrives when under siege. That hardness, that inner fight, that defiance and toughness, is an integral part of the Gatland make-up. It is the product of many influences but perhaps the fact that he had to endure 29 All Black tests performing back-up duties to Sean Fitzpatrick in an era when there were no replacements allowed for tactical purposes, only for injury, might have sharpened his desire to prove others wrong.
Understand that and you understand more completely what is meant by the style of a Gatland team. It is a holistic thing. And there is a real sense that it is present in these 2017 tourists.
On the field of play it is already clear how the Lions will approach the contest stylistically. The Saturday side, albeit with a changing cast, have come together well to defeat the two leading sides in New Zealand outside the All Blacks, the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks. Those victories have been forged on the back of fast-hitting defence, shrewd kicking from the halfbacks, vigorous chase, all brought into play by a solid foundation up front.
And do not believe that the All Blacks are just a Harlem Globetrotter side, throwing the ball around at random. They are not. But, boy, can they run, and time a run, when the opportunity arises. But none of it would be possible if Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick did not win their line-out ball and anchor the scrum, or Jerome Kaino and his back-row mates, Kieran Read and Sam Cane, did not boss the breakdown.
Therein lies the nub of the confrontation. The Lions are well equipped to deal with that part of the challenge. What they cannot hope to do is match the brilliance of the All Blacks' sweeping, lancing attacks. That is not a matter of style as much as it is a matter of skill.
That is why Gatland's approach is the right one. He cannot match fire with fire so he is intent on doing what he did against the Maori: deny the opposition ball, make it tight, keep it close, kick intelligently and accurately, then strike. That is what the Springboks used to do so well, several times defeating the All Blacks. That is what has brought Saracens success.
There is no reason for Gatland to divert from this course even though his record as Wales coach against the southern hemisphere 'Big Three' using this strategy is abysmal. Self-evidently the Lions are better players than the Welsh on their own. They have come together. And they have bought into the Gatland way of doing things. It is good enough to succeed.
- The Telegraph, London