‘and lo, the last shall be first …’

WE ARE – AT THE TIME OF WRITING – SIXTEEN DAYS AWAY FROM ‘THE ANNOUNCEMENT’, THE BREATHLESS MOMENT WHEN WARREN GATLAND – FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING – WILL REVEAL ALL AND GIVE US HIS SHORTLIST FOR THE ALL-IMPORTANT LIONS’ FIRST TEST AGAINST NEW ZEALAND. AND CERTAINLY, AS HE PUTS THE FINISHING TOUCHES TO HIS TOURING SQUAD, SATURDAY 24TH JUNE IN AUCKLAND WILL BE UPPERMOST IN GATLAND’S MIND.

Are you a Murray Man? Can you see any way past Launchbury and AWJ or – student of the game that I’m sure you are – have you lit a small candle for Itoje and Gray? Will you be going the whole Hogg or the Halfpenny? Jonny or George? And where do you stand on the relative merits of Stander, Warburton and Faletau vis-à-vis – for example – O’Mahony, Tipuric and Vunipola, assuming, of course, that you’ve drawn a red line through Robshaw, O’Brien and Heaslip or, indeed, Henderson, Haskell and Moriarty? Yes, well, welcome to Warren’s World.

Indeed Warren, right now, is the bloke at the corner table in Mayfair’s ‘Le Gavroche’ who’s rolling a quaff of Chateau La Gasparde ‘Cuvee Prestige’ 2008’ round his gills and trying to decide whether to go with the ‘Filet de Maigre Parfumé au Ras-el-Hanout Fenouil et Riz Rouge de Camargue’ or the ‘Râble de Lapin et Galette au Parmesan.’ And while the rest of us press our greasy snouts to the window and envy him his linen tablecloth, his sterling silver ice bucket and his sagging menu, his choice will be an agony. Why? Because whatever he orders and however good it tastes, someone somewhere will be damning him as a fool for not going with the ‘Homard Sauté et son Jus à la Citronelle et Coco’ or – alternatively – for wilfully overlooking the ‘Côte de Veau aux Morilles et Pommes Mousseline.’

But the truth is it doesn’t matter who’s picked to start the First Test of the Lions’ Tour, largely because there are so many good players at Gatland’s disposal only a complete chump could get it wrong. For example, he could go with just about any combination of GrayJ, GrayR, Swinson, Jones, Toner, Ryan, Henderson, Kruis, Launchbury, Lawes and Itoje in the second row and still give New Zealand food for thought; likewise, Maitland, Visser, Seymour, Williams, North, Watson, Daly, Nowell, Earls, Zebo, Byrne, Ashton and Solomona on the wing. They’re all outstanding.

Which is why when you sift opinions and you weigh up RTE’s starting selection and then cross-reference it with the Scottish Herald’s Readers’ Poll to take on the Kiwis and then double-check that with the postman, the plumber and the dog, each fifteen will be perfectly plausible, however many split hairs there may be on – for example – a McGrath, a Marler or a Mako. What matters – and what will decide the series – won’t be the main course but the dessert. Indeed, where Warren Gatland urgently needs to make the right call is on his Crème Coco Ivoire, Mangue et Citron Vert’ and his ‘Sablé aux Fraises, Mousse Vanille de Madagascar et Sorbet.’

Bench. Finishers. Closers. These will be the key selections yet, strangely, they’re the players absolutely no one mentions. ‘Who’s Your Lions’ Fifteen For The First Test?’ is the great British and Irish parlour game right now when what we should all be haggling over is ‘Who’s Your Lions’ Twenty-Three For The First Test?’ or – to be even more specific – ‘What’s Your Test Bench For The Lions?’ because that’s where the series will be won or lost.

Why? Well, take a leisurely look at the table below; this being the quarterly breakdown of Wales’ three-Test Series in New Zealand last summer. It’s a bit of a blizzard of numbers, I’m afraid, but I think it makes sense.

FIRST TEST

0-20 20-40 40-60 60-80 FT

NZ

15 0 3 21

39

WALES 5 13 3 0

21

61 MINS – WALES LEADING 21-18 – SHIPPED THREE TRIES IN FINAL QUARTER

SECOND TEST

0-20 20-40 40-60 60-80 FT

NZ

0 10 14 12 36
WALES 3 7 0 12

22

AT 51 MINS 10-10 – AT 73 MINS 36-10

THIRD TEST

0-20 20-40 40-60 60-80

FT

NZ

3 15 14 14

46

WALES 3 3 0 0

6

28 UNANSWERED SECOND HALF POINTS

TOTALS

FIRST HALF

SECOND HALF

43-29 (POINTS DIFFERENCE +14)

78-17 (POINTS DIFFERENCE +61)

The pattern here’s not hard to spot. Going toe-to-toe with New Zealand for forty, fifty, even sixty minutes is by no means impossible but closing out the game in the final quarter is like driving southbound on the northbound M1 on a Friday evening. And if these numbers don’t convince you, take a long, hard look at the World Cup Final two years ago when – sixty-four minutes in – the score was 21-17 with Australia having just scored two quick tries and looking ominous. On trundled Barrett, Mealamu, Vito, Kerr-Barlow and Cane and, hey presto, it finished 34-17 to the Kiwis.

You’d think that fourteen months of Eddie Jones and England would have alerted folk to the power of the bench or, as he calls them, his ‘finishers’. But seemingly not, despite the fact that – I reckon – Jones’ England reserve has closed out seven games that, otherwise, the team might have lost. And Eddie isn’t exactly inventing the wheel here. Had Blucher not come steaming over the horizon at Waterloo in 1815, then Wellington would have been – French – toast and James Haskell would – instead – have been a pupil at Napoleon College, Berkshire; motto, ‘Virtutis Fortuna Comes’ or ‘Fortune Favours The Brave.’

Indeed, Lions-wise, Warren’s almost got to let the tail wag the dog; namely pick numbers sixteen to twenty-three and pull together a starting fifteen from who’s left. I’m serious. Take – for example – shirt numbers eight and nine, which – right now – look set to be keenly contested by Vunipola, Faletau, Murray and Webb. Given you can’t go wrong with any of them, Warren’s sole consideration here has got to be who’s going to give him maximum grunt and/or gears off the bench, which, to my mind, suggests Vunipola and Webb in reserve, giving you Faletau and Murray to start. And you suspect, Warren’s got to do this across his team: cavalry first, infantry second.

But even now, as he selects his thirty-seven for the tour as a whole, Gatland has to be thinking Test Bench. If – as he seems to believe – Itoje’s not a six then who’s going to bring some devil and menace into the second row/back row midway through the First Test? You’d imagine that the likeliest lads there would be Ian Henderson or Courtney Lawes and you can bet the ranch that (a) only one of those two will make the trip and (b) it’ll be for that very purpose.

Tight-head prop’s another fascinating call. The best three – you’d assume – would be Furlong, Cole and Nel – apologies to John Ryan at Munster – with Tadhg – rightly in most people’s eyes – in the box seat as the most eye-catching of the three. But which of those lumps is going to come on after forty-three minutes and put the fear of God into the Kiwi front row? Surely that’d mean Furlong for the final furlongs – given you’d rather have him wreaking havoc at the business end of the match – with Nel or Cole to start. The other seductive option – of course – is to take just one of Cole or Nel, open up with Tadhg and bring on the bull in the china shop that is Kyle Sinckler, or ‘kitchen’ as Eddie Jones calls him. Either way the Lions have to be thinking ‘who’s my closer?’

Of course, much of this depends on how Gatland wants to shape his bigger picture; tight, hopefully; which means a big, bomb disposal back three, a well-toned whippet at thirteen – my deepening man-crush on Gary Ringrose is beginning to unsettle my wife – Farrell at twelve with Sexton and Murray at ten and nine to provide some serious rounds of mortar fire together with eight gorillas up front, the uglier the better.

What’s also required is a bucket of attitude, which means Warren should be picking as many players from Munster, Leinster and Saracens as he can fit on the bus. England lost to Ireland in Dublin in the Six Nations largely because they couldn’t match the Irish for intensity on the day and Ireland lost to New Zealand in Dublin in the autumn for much the same reason. Gatland urgently needs the likes of O’Mahony, Stander, Sexton, Furlong, Farrell and Itoje; players who – like Retallick, Read and Barrett – view losing as a mortal sin.

So lots of territory, please, lots of leg-sapping set-pieces, lots of sledging, lots of niggle and nudge, some serious line-speed on the defensive; all of that for an attritional fifty minutes and then bring on the hussars to cut loose. Indeed what’s fascinating about this series is that the Lions – potentially – hold trump cards in the very area where New Zealand are at their strongest, namely the bench and the final quarter. But if they’re to make the most of that crucial advantage, they need to start thinking back to front. So never mind the ‘Côte de Veau aux Morilles’, Warren; just concentrate on the ‘Sablé aux Fraises avec Mousse Vanille.’

03 APRIL 2017

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