Gatland’s Three Big Challenges Posted over 3 years ago

Warren Gatland has selected a fine Lions squad, but then we would say that at the Rugby Site, given how close his selection is to our own. But there are three big issues that Gatland must address if the Lions are to be successful.

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Firstly the issue of the back row. Gatland’s selection has come down heavily in favour of the Welsh back row and entirely ignored the English unit that were outstanding in the first 40 minutes of the Championship. Gatland may regret leaving out Ben Morgan who is the best ball carrying eight available, Chris Robshaw is definitely unlucky, but the omission of Tom Wood is a mistake.

Over the Championship Wood was consistently the best back row forward. His reading of the game is first class and he is the sort of bloke who makes tackle after tackle when his side is up against it. There will be times in Australia when the green and gold will be coming in waves and that is when the Lions will miss Wood.

Gatland has only made one bald error of selection and that is to leave out Wood. By taking five locks, the cover Croft gives in the second row becomes a luxury, Jamie Heaslip had a shocking Championship and the Wales back row has struggled against Australia in the past. Wood’s absence is a gross injustice and the omission of the entire England starting back row gives Gatland a problem in finding a balanced trio good enough to outsmart Australia.

The second big issue Gatland must overcome is psychological. Wales have 15 players in the party, but they have an appalling record against Australia. This counts for something in close matches, which Australia tend to be rather good at winning.

Wales last beat Australia in 2008 when only Jamie Roberts, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones and Alun Wyn Jones played a part. Men like Stephen Jones, Shane Williams and Lee Byrne had a big influence that day, but will not be playing a big part this summer.

Wales have a habit of making poor decisions down the stretch against Australia and that can become habit-forming. Will Genia knows how to niggle at Wales’s insecurities and weaknesses. And if Genia, on Wales’s recent tour down under, could still fashion three victories with a terrible backline outside him, imagine what he might do with the players who are shaping up to represent Australia next month.

The final issue is one of power. If Gatland thinks he will thump Australia into submission he is only reading half the story. The Lions beat Australia in 1989 when the forwards took over the game plan and ditched Ian McGeechan’s more fanciful notions. England, in recent history, have also beaten up Australia in the forwards.

But grunt alone is not enough. Winning the forward battle and then just smashing it up in midfield, tends to fall short. Australia tackle and tackle, eventually turn over the ball and then hurt you down the pitch. Just ask South Africa who always find them awkward. Australia have won seven of the previous nine matches between the countries.

Gatland will have to find something subtler, more imaginative, more expansive to break down Australia after the forwards have bashed away. Australia don’t like being moved about. That is how New Zealand bother them, that is how Samoa beat them, even Argentina tried to play rugby against them recently. It is also how Wales beat them in 2008.

That is why I would like to see a backline of, say, Youngs, Sexton, Halfpenny, Roberts, O’Driscoll, Bowe and Hogg. It offers a bit more than bash and crash, and bash and crash is rarely enough to beat Australia. You have to dare just a little more than Gatland has in the past.

Where do you see potential weaknesses in this Lions squad and do The Wallabies have enough to exploit them? Comments below…

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Mark Reason has been a sports journalist for over 25 years. He currently works for Fairfax Media and will also be part of the Telegraph's World Cup team and a regular panellist on Radio New Zealand during the World Cup. He has covered every Rugby World Cup since 1991, the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, over 40 golf major championships, the FA Cup final, the Epsom Derby and a lot of other stuff he can't remember. Mark emigrated to New Zealand in 2010 having spent over 20 years covering sport for the Telegraph and Sunday Times in Britain.

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