Lions tour: Warren Gatland risks division in his ranks with replacement selection policy

Lions coach Warren Gatland has called in six replacement players to his squad.

Lions coach Warren Gatland has called in six replacement players to his squad.

OPINION: So much of team sports, rugby in particular, is founded on the notion of committing to a cause and being willing to put your body on the line for those around you.

What happens, though, when some in a team don't believe others deserve to be there? That's the risk Warren Gatland has taken.

Coach Gatland will be asking the Lions to spill blood for each other; for the prestigious Lions jersey.

Lock Maro Itoje scores a try and it's a happy Lions team on the way to a convincing win over New Zealand Maori.

Lock Maro Itoje scores a try and it's a happy Lions team on the way to a convincing win over New Zealand Maori.

But actions speak louder than words.

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It was telling in Rotorua on Saturday night when Gatland was peppered with probes from the travelling press pack about his decision to call in six Welsh and Scottish reinforcements based on proximity rather than form or calibre of players.

England's tour of Argentina and Ireland's in Japan apparently ruled them out of contention.  

Sure, Gatland had a belated pop at Steve Hansen after convincingly beating a strong New Zealand Maori side, but by no means had it all his own way despite the Lions' best performance of the tour.

That's exclusively because Gatland has undermined his key message and the ethos of the Lions. You could go as far to say he has let down the legacy of the jersey.

Just like those in the Southern Hemisphere wait 12 years for a crack at the Lions, those from the Home Unions circle these tours as the pinnacle outside World Cups.

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Imagine how England's George Ford, Joe Launchbury and Dylan Hartley feel. First, they miss selection. That you could eventually come to terms with. But to then be overlooked again, purely because they are not close at hand is a real smack in the face no matter how it is spun.

The Lions are supposed to be the elite of the elite. Scotland first five-eighth Finn Russell was unlucky to be passed over for Dan Biggar and Welsh halfback Gareth Davies is promising enough.

Gatland made it clear he picked them all - South African-born Scottish prop Allan Dell, Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey and Tomas Francis the others - to protect his test 23 and sit on the bench for the mid-week team. That's exactly what they'll do after being rushed in for the Chiefs match in Hamilton on Tuesday.

On that note, it also devalues the status of the mid-week matches. 

The main issue is these players are not the next best. Not even close. Four of them also just happen to be Welsh, opening Gatland up to claims of bias again. At the very least he has set himself up to be a lightning rod in some quarters.

Whatever Gatland says, behind closed doors this decision threatens to create divisions.

Loyalties don't die. England players will feel for their team-mates and heed Eddie Jones' gripes. Irish mentor Joe Schmidt was initially unimpressed too.

The Lions test team may be going well at present, having knocked over the Crusaders and Maori. But tensions may grow if things don't go so swimmingly against the All Blacks.    

Gatland could have seemingly avoided all this by selecting a larger squad containing the best players from the outset. Why wait until now to call in more players?

Injuries are a lame excuse. Gatland has only lost two - Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg and Welsh blindside Ross Moriarty. His touring party has now hit 45; the same number as Sir Clive Woodward's 2005 edition.

Maybe he was worried about carrying bloated numbers or looking disingenuous after criticsing Graham Henry for the way he split his mid-week and test squads.

That will be of little comfort to those Ireland and England players left out, and perhaps their team-mates in the Lions squad.

 - Stuff


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