Who would be a Lions coach?! After the Champions Cup Semi Final in Dublin, Andy Farrell’s face was wreathed in an unfamiliar smile as Saracens withstood the Munster fire and progressed to the Final in Edinburgh. It wasn’t because we had suddenly agreed on how the backs should play! No, it was due to a clean bill of health for all the Lions on the pitch, mainly wearing Saracens colours. The only thing Andy cares about is getting his players on the plane. He was right to be worried as it took a mammoth effort to take down Munster in front of 50,000 fanatical supporters and it was indeed a brutal match.
People have asked me why I haven’t discussed the Lions selection yet so here goes – but frankly 90% were guaranteed and it was the 10% which created the chatter; why so few Scots, not enough English, too many Welsh are the main cries. I also wanted some time to think about the player mix and the off field management – I now detect a distinct approach.
I was myself a backs selector for the 2001 Lions tour to Australia and remember calling time on the Scott Gibbs debate when I saw that Rob Henderson would clearly complement the excellent Brian O’Driscoll much better than Scott, who had seen his best days. Releasing BOD’s creative genius, not to mention the young Jason Robinson, was a key objective of the Lions on that tour. This tactic worked until the cynical Aussies took Jonny Wilkinson and then Richard Hill out of the 2nd Test through some cheap shots. Justin Harrison’s line out steal from Martin Johnson is also well remembered as the final clinching moment of the deciding Test.
So, the conservatism of Gatland is strongly apparent whatever anyone says – the marginal picks such as Biggar, Te’o, Halfpenny, Youngs, Davies and Seymour could all have been replaced by more creative options but it tells you what the Lions coaches think may make the difference as well as the likely style. We shall see.
Meantime there can have been no better warm up than the Champions and Challenge Cup Semi-Finals. The Saracens contingent of Lions tourists were in crushing form, and no surprise that Munster could not make headway against the Vunipolas, Kruis, Itoje and George. Add the indomitable Farrell and they drained the Munster machine, which was malfunctioning already and way off the pace in terms of worrying a team like the defending Champions.
In sunny Lyon, 42,000 chanting Clermont fans and 3,000 intrepid Leinster travellers kept noise levels way above international wavelengths. It was a truly great match of skill, power and pace. The Lions will wonder that they can afford to leave Ringrose at home as he was the player of the match, scoring a try which will live in the memory and containing every skill in the book. He compared rather well to Henshaw who will probably start against the All Blacks. Sexton was also on prime form, but unable to reel in the multi national Clermont team after giving them a quick 15 point lead.
Elsewhere Toby Faletau continued his exceptional form for Bath in their dramatic last minute defeat to Stade Francais, and his man of the match performance against Gloucester last weekend shows one benefit of mid season injuries as he is fresh and pacey. He must start for the Lions, Vunipola or not.
More thoughts to come as we approach the business end of the season and, of course, the Edinburgh Finals loom large.