Warren Gatland said after he was named as the Lions coach for next year’s tour to Australia that he would judge players more by how they played in this month’s tangle of Tests in Europe than next year’s Six Nations.
It was hardly a seismic statement given the Six Nations championship’s lowest common denominator affliction, but as Gatland watched Ireland’s tussle with South Africa on Saturday and Scotland’s bid for a first victory over New Zealand the following day, receiving reports from Wales-Argentina and England-Fiji, his thinking will have been undermined by injuries, not least his own.
Gatland fell off a ladder while on holiday in New Zealand earlier in the year and last month had an operation on his left foot. That mean he was not able to appoint his coaching team before the start of the European Test series; an announcement will be made on December 12, leaving Gatland and the tour manager Andy Irvine as the only two officials in position – and Irvine has a voice rather than a vote on selection.
Several of the players who are in the probable rather than possible category for the tour will see little or no action this month, including Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Ben Foden, Chris Cusiter, Dylan Hartley, Rory Best, Adam Jones, Courtenay Lawes, Paul O’Connell, Dan Lydiate, Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien and Tom Croft.
In terms of positions, only right wing, given that Foden was chosen by England on the left wing rather than full-back on this year’s tour to South Africa, outside-half and open-side flanker have not been blighted by the high number of injuries just two months into the season.
The right wing, where George North, Chris Ashton and Tommy Bowe make it one of the richest positions in terms of quality for Gatland; there are numerous contenders at outside-half and breakaway, but few are nailed on to go to Australia.
Sam Warburton, Wales’s captain and 7, is an exception, but his relatively short international career has been constantly interrupted by injury. What he does offer, unlike O’Brien and England’s Chris Robshaw, is a natural foraging instinct and an ability to force turnovers.
O’Brien started his career on the blind-side, but his value to Ireland is greater as a 7 to operate in tandem with Ferris, even if it leaves Ireland at times exposed at the breakdown. Robshaw, for all his qualities as a leader, is a product of the English Premiership, which has long been throttled by the approach of referees at the tackle area.
A reason there are so few genuine 7s in the Premiership is that the breakdown is not a contest for possession. It is rare for the team taking the ball into a tackle is penalised other than for not releasing. Once the ball is made available, the defending side can forget about challenging for it and concentrate on spreading out.
The dynamics of rugby union have shifted in recent years away from the set-pieces to the breakdown. In one of Wales’s matches in this year’s Six Nations, only one scrum yielded possession: so much for the attacking law change of making defending backs stand five metres back from a scrum. Its only effect has been to lead to a surge in collapses and resets.
The statistics in the Six Nations showed that there were more than five times the number of breakdowns in the average match than there were scrums and line-outs, a complete reverse of the numbers in the 1970s, but the area of the game most likely to produce a try was the line-out: backs attacking other backs and space rather than tanks rumbling into a steel wall.
The English game is still obsessed with set-piece supremacy, but it is how they compete at the breakdown that will determine their fate over the next four weeks. Slow ball was as much a curse for them in the World Cup last year as their antics off the field, but with their front row all 25 or under and the raw Mako Vunipola covering loose-head prop from the bench, the national side may come to defy the clubs.
Ireland may be seeking redemption after their third Test mauling in New Zealand, but they have been hit by injuries far more than any other country: it is probably just as well that they always rest their national squad players in September.
Scotland will interest Gatland less than any of the other three home unions, despite their success in June when they won in Australia, Fiji and Samoa. They have under the coach Andy Robinson become the masters of the one-off, ineffective in tournaments but able to rouse themselves in friendlies: they have beaten Australia and South Africa at Murrayfield in recent years, but the All Blacks proved to be far too resourceful.
Wales have not just worried about Argentina this week. They warned players that moving to clubs in France and England would jeopardise their international careers and the words had still to die on the wind when the centre Jamie Roberts announced that he was leaving Cardiff Blues.
Wales’s success in recent years has been built from the top down but the lack of attention paid to the four professional regions is starting to tell. Roberts will become the 10th national squad member to cross the border in the last two years and more will follow with the regions all struggling financially.
Wales against Argentina may traditionally be a contrast in styles, but it may soon become a fixture in which the two countries have something in common: a squad in which the bulk of the players earn their livings in other countries.