How many times do coaches find their best team by accident? Feels like a lot – across sports. Today, about twenty-five minutes in, with Finn Russell making Test Rugby look an absolute lark, it seemed that Gatland had joined that long illustrious list of flukers.
Biggar, a magnificent, hearty, consistently excellent manager-of-the-game had succumbed, after ten. Russell – palpably the brighter, more twinkletastic star – looked immediately what he is; a more complete footballer. The Lions, immediately and with relish, adopted Plan B (Finn scratchmix inna dancefloor stylee) and rugby broke out. The Sherrif scored. The Boks had no answer.
And then, ultimately, they did.
Points of interest and possibly contention. Why was Russell not a starter? (Or Hook, Grealish, or Hoddle?) Because they represent, apparently, a risk. The *best, most gifted players*. Percentage-wise. They fall victim.
They fall victim but then the coach or captain chooses to ‘make statements’ rather than take easy points. Meaning bigger gambles, probably, than those around selection of the best footballers you have. Work the algorithms around that baby, I’m still in a froth; have been since yaknow, whenever.
The Lions should have won the deciding Test, earlier, by half-time. There really was a period when the Boks had no answer to Russell’s Running Rugby – an Accidental Gambol. Suddenly the Irish genius Henshaw – switched to 13 but still finding an exhilarating burst of flow and freedom – came into the game. The forwards popped and crackled… and recycled. It seemed that in the knowledge of Russell’s multi-dimensional brilliance, the guys in red honed-in on a way of playing: perhaps they were thinking that this is the only way Ar Finn can do this? Whatever; it worked and maybe crucially they were playing, rather than ‘executing’. This was rugby not strategy – or felt and looked that way.
Coaches and captains may be making calls about how far they push for killer moments (as opposed to taking points), or there may be a kind of all-in squad policy to go ambitious, go for the statement. Certainly belief in The Process is rife: players across sports being asked to go back to that sacred well. It may be a great hypothesis but it may also be bollocks of the most obvious kind, predicated on masturbatory over-coaching or dumb machismo. Amazing, contradictory stuff: High Philosophy and weird, primordial denial of that which is surely unarguable – the needs of the game situation.
Whether Gatland or Alun bach or the whole posse opted as one for bold kicks and subsequent lineouts (and scores, ideally) we may never know. We cannot even know if the eminently presentable penalties spurned would have been converted. However, it seems likely that a critical distance could have been established between the two sides. Maybe *after that* might have been the time for the visitors to express some superior confidence?
One of the more delicious ideas to emerge from this series is whether or not a kind of Barbarian approach from the Lions might have prevailed. It did, after all seem like whenever the away team threw the ball around they brought not just excitement but a very real threat. So imagine Russell playing throughout. This might have brought Watson and Hogg into the games – might have brought tries, victories and – who knows – a smile to the face of world rugby? But of course that wasn’t Gatland’s brief.
There is a case that the option towards lineouts/driving mauls/theoretical tries cost the Lions the series. There is a case that Liam Williams – who, I emphatically thought should be restored – cost the Lions the series. (Failed to put Adams in, catastrophically/made a right hash of trying to stop the winning try). There is a case that Gatland only got anywhere near his best team on the park (and that strangely this precipitated periods of both dominance and entertainment) when fate intervened. So funny ole game.
The South Africans are clearly a force but I can live with your accusations of naff partisanship after my next, final, inflammatory notion… that they are both unlovable and led by donkeys. Surely neutrals would have viewed much of this series as poor – possibly as anti-sport? Much of that hard grind and all of the matrix of cheap mind-games and cynically dislocating ‘theatre’, were (let’s remember) choices? But yeh: coaches, eh?