Watson's Words - Wisdom on the Lions’ Tour

Warren Gatland relishing the huge challenge against his native All Blacks
In sport, the waves of public opinion can sway pretty quickly.

After 59 minutes of the second test between New Zealand and the British and Irish Lions yesterday, the knives were being sharpened by both our rugby loving public and media alike because The Lions, through ill-discipline and an inexplicable failure to attain good possession against a side with 14 men, were set to waste a glorious chance to level the series.

Do these tours have a future? Is the ‘clueless’ Warren Gatland now finished as an international coach? Will the northern hemisphere sides ever get close to their vastly superior southern counterparts again?

Speedy shift of opinion

All the familiar and often volatile arguments were set to reverberate around the pubs, papers, and social media.

Of course, come the final whistle, and most were instead hailing a phenomenal show of late character, that saw the Lions famously inflict a first home defeat on the All Blacks since 2009.

Suddenly, the decision to reinstate captain Sam Warburton to the starting line-up became inspired, the Sexton/Farrell combination was the most potent sporting pairing since Torville and Dean, and if Superman wasn't wearing Marie Itoje pyjamas to bed, then he certainly should have been.

All Blacks show their frailties

Of course, most of the above is spoken in jest, but the connotations are clear.

Sure enough, amidst all the 'we are going to a decider' euphoria, doomsayers have been quick to point out the mitigating circumstances attached to an already famous Wellington win.

And with some justification. New Zealand played for more than hour with just 14 men, following the brain-freeze of influential centre Sonny Bill Williams. And for all his mercurial talent, the one perceived weakness of New Zealand No 10 Beauden Barrett rang true, as he botched three kickable penalties over the 80 minutes that would have sealed his side the series.

All part and parcel

Those really looking to dampen the celebrations, could even argue Kyle Sinckler's inspired tactic of leaping into a collision, that led to referee Jerome Garces awarding the decisive match-winning penalty for a tackle in the air, was questionable.

Yet dismissals, missed kicks, and close refereeing calls are all part and parcel of rugby union, and focussing on such factors bypasses far bigger points.

Yesterday, nothing else mattered but a British and Irish Lions win. To state the blindingly obvious, anything less and another series would have slipped by, with the next generation heading to South Africa in 2021 on the back of just one 'success' in 24 years.

Prior to kick off, just how the win was obtained, whether it be through glorious 15-man rugby or a 6-3 borefest, was irrelevant.

Don’t underestimate The Lions

But the manner in which the Lions did eventually secure victory, should not be underestimated.

At half time, the contest was on a knife edge, and Gatland's side were admittedly poor and uninspired in the early stages of the second period as they trailed 18-9 with 21 minutes to go. A man down or not, the All Blacks scarcely lose from there.

And yet from the brink of defeat, the Lions rose, and dug deep to turn matters around against a team perceived as nigh on invincible.

Their intensity was ferocious, the passages of play leading to both tries defined accuracy and quality, and call me old fashioned, but as a side they displayed two of the most obvious but necessary characteristics in the game – team spirit and desire. And they did so in abundance.

Showed ability to finish

Furthermore, we've all pointed to a lack of finishing ability on this tour, a failure to convert dominant phases and line breaks that has underlined our inferiority to the best in the World.

And yet yesterday, the Lions had two try scoring chances at critical points, and you don't need me to remind you if they took them or not.

Had the All Blacks been able to boast that ratio, this morning we would all be lauding a killer instinct and clinical edge that ensures their rightful status as the planet's best side.

Gatland again defies his critics . . .

The point would not have been lost on Gatland, which brings me conveniently on to the subject of the so often maligned coach.

I have been one of many outspoken critics of the 53-year-old in recent times.

With Wales, I feel approach has become stagnated and predictable, and his insistence on a seemingly settled selection policy has denied caps and opportunities to in-form players who deserve them.

Even this week, I severely questioned the non-inclusion of Justin Tipuric, the decision to omit Ben Te'o, and the continued preference of the conservative Connor Murray at scrum half, over the more dangerous Rhys Webb.

Yes, that would be the same 'conservative' Connor Murray whose blindside break and try yesterday proved so crucial in the glorious outcome.

. . . And deserves respect

Hard to believe I know, but even journalists are not always 100% right.....

Furthermore, his press conferences and attitude to the media are both often signified by ignorance, and you sense a lack of tolerance to those not within his immediate circle of trust.

And yet, he deserves great respect.

After all, a man who has led Wales to two Grand Slams, a first World Cup semi-final in 24 years (in 2011), and most significantly of all at this moment in time, has a winning Lions series on his CV, probably tends to know what he's doing.

In the modern day where professional sport is accompanied by a mass hyperbole of opinions on social media and beyond, criticism and cynicism is unavoidable. But those arguing that defeat yesterday would have ruined Gatland's reputation and credibility as a coach for evermore, defied belief.

80 minutes from ‘rugby immortality’

Whatever his perceived drawbacks, unlike the then highly-heralded Sir Clive Woodward in 2005, he has come to New Zealand and created a test match squad that is competitive, unified, and most importantly of all, now stands 80 minutes from cementing legendary status for evermore.

And all that from a Kiwi who supposedly didn't 'get' the brand of the Lions when he dropped Brian O'Driscoll for that final Sydney test in 2013.

Just a reminder, the Lions won that test by a record 41-16 margin.

Very much his own man

Indeed, one of Gatland's most frustrating traits, is at the same time one of his strongest qualities.
He cares very little, for the opinions of you or me.

And he will treat this week like any other. By doing things his way, by picking his side, and by refusing to let public opinion or sentiment sway what could be some of the most critical decisions of his coaching career.

And should he and his players pull off what 59 minutes into the second test appeared an insurmountable challenge, and secure a test series win in New Zealand for the first time since 1971 - then even his most fiercest critics will have little choice but to accept his place in history as the only Lions head coach to have back to back winning tours to his name.

Overdrive expected

So for the next seven days, expect the fervour both in New Zealand and back in the UK to go into overdrive.
Proof of the captivation of the Lions will again come to the fore, as everyone from the local landlords to the morning bin men debate who should come into the final test XV.

Grown men who barely witness daylight prior to midday on a weekend will be readying alarm clocks, whilst pubs will be arranging extra staff and seating facilities to satisfy the sea of red that will engulf them come early Saturday morning.

And finally . . .

All the while, those of us in the UK will feel pangs of jealousy, as photos of thousands upon thousands of Lions fans emerge from Auckland, all having the time of their lives with little regard for annual leave allowances or bank accounts.

And wherever people choose to watch, for the last time for another four years at least, supporters from all four home rugby nations will disregard national allegiance in place of collective pride.

But of course, should the incredible happen, perhaps a sobering thought for the many who have chosen to take their criticism of Gatland to vicious and personal levels.

Next time you wish to publicly denounce his tactics, it might just be 'Sir Warrenball' to you.