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Much to ponder for Gatland as Aus looms Posted about 4 years ago

Warren Gatland will on Wednesday announce his coaching team for next year’s Lions tour to Australia. He will do so in Scotland, a country not expected to challenge the selectors much when they sit down at the end of the Six Nations to choose the 35-man squad.

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It may, though, look different in April. The autumn series, if that can be said of a sequence of matches that spilled into December, ended with England exceeding their performance against Australia at Twickenham in 2010 and condemning the All Blacks to their first defeat 21 Tests.

The manner of England’s performance was even more surprising than the result. The uncertainty that bedevilled them against Australia and South Africa, together with the discomfort some players felt at being asked to show more ambition than their clubs asked of them, disappeared at the very point New Zealand looked to have taken the initiative.

When the All Blacks, so insipid in the opening half, went 15 points down, having been given few opportunities to force turnovers because England played a territory game, and then scored two tries in three minutes to draw within a point of the home side, it seemed that form would prevail.

There was a moment in the first-half, after Ben Youngs had kicked turnover ball away, when they scrum-half seemed to look at his coaches sitting in the stand and give them a quizzical look as if the gameplan really meant not running such prime possession, even in his own half.

England’s failure to run turnover ball had cost them against South Africa and it may have done against New Zealand, but for the intervention of Manu Tuilagi. England’s strategy had been based on minimising mistakes, but a missed tackle by Ben Morgan and a poor relieving kick by Owen Farrell had resulted in two tries for the World Cup holders.

England’s response was to run and they scored three tries in seven minutes. If it was not quite a repeat of France’s 43-31 victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham in the 1999 World Cup semi-final, there were similarities. The French came back from 14 points down to win, initially with drop goals and penalties and then with three tries in quick succession.

New Zealand, as then, were caught out not so much by the element of surprise as one of amazement. England had tried to rise to the level of Australia and South Africa, just falling short, but they succeeded against the All Blacks.

Their head coach, Stuart Lancaster, responded by saying that, as a down-to-earth Cumbrian, he would not be getting carried away, even if the performance did amount to a vindication of his appointment, made by the Rugby Football Union despite a clamour for someone with extensive international experience to be put in charge.

Lancaster appreciates that since England won the World Cup in 2003, they have had victories which suggested a return to prominence only to prove to be one-offs, Australia in 2010 being a case in point. Like his predecessors, he is battling against the system but the 2015 World Cup hosts have an opportunity.

It is only eight months since Wales were talking about breaking into the top four of the world rankings and staying there. They had won the grand slam and reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, losing to France by a point after playing for an hour with 14 men.

Defeat to Australia last weekend in the final move of the match was their seventh successive Test defeat, a run that leaves Gatland, who is taking a sabbatical during the Six Nations to allow him to focus on all four home unions, not just Wales, in a quandary.

Wales have not beaten one of the Sanzar nations for four years and their approach that has proved successful under Gatland against the countries in the Six Nations, based on a physical approach and conditioning, is not enough against the best teams in the world.

Wales lacked guile in Australia earlier this year and again last month. James Hook has become a peripheral figure, no longer considered a second-five, and Gavin Henson looks to have had his final chance, but they need more than size and stunts.

Sam Warburton has led Wales five times against Australia and all the games have been lost. He is one of the candidates to captain the Lions but, although he remains the leading open-side flanker in the home union sides, Gatland will have to consider the depth of the scars inflicted by the Wallabies.

The last time the Lions were led by a player on his first tour was in 1989 when another seven, Finlay Calder, oversaw a 2-1 series win against Australia. With England’s captain, Chris Robshaw, not guaranteed his place in the Test side with Gatland having a wealth of back rowers to pick from, Brian O’Driscoll, the captain of the 2005 Lions whose series against New Zealand only lasted a few seconds, is looking an increasingly likely candidate, fitness permitting.

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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