I hope they’re all suitably contrite now. Did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and a whole troop of Welshmen? Oh and the Kiwi. What does he know about history and tradition? Did they bother to watch in Edinburgh, or were they too busy trying to remember the words of the Arbroath Declaration? Well it doesn’t matter now anyway. Because we won. The Lions pulled off a first series victory in sixteen years, scattering the Aussies across the Sydney turf and causing quite a few to gorge on humble pie. Warren Gatland ignored the romantics and went with his own hard instincts, delivering a team which, regardless of individual origins, was positively bursting with pride in the jersey. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?
In the days leading up to the titanic deciding Test it was difficult to believe some of the comments flying about from pundits, former players and supporters. Now, I accept there were reservations about the style of rugby that Gatland’s controversial selection suggested, potentially lacking in guile and finesse and relying too heavily on brute strength in the scrum. There were even plenty logical reasons for doubting the wisdom of dropping Brian O’Driscoll. While this admirable servant on his fourth such tour had his moments of uncertainty in the middle game of the trio, his numbers stacked up and he could count himself desperately unlucky to miss out. What I fail to appreciate is the narrow, parochial lines on which some of the criticism was based. At its most vitriolic was the absurd allegation that the coach had somehow betrayed the spirit of the Lions concept. His crime was to select a fifteen which he felt had the best chance of bringing home the prize.
Of course this professional lark is still a relatively modern idea in rugby union. Maybe it’s little wonder that so many still hanker after notions of fairness and respect for the composite ethos of these quadrennial trips. The point though is that we are talking about a serious sporting contest, an arm wrestle of the hemispheres, not a six week end of season jolly as a reward for past achievements. Traditionally, the job of taking charge of the group goes to someone who has distinguished himself with one of the four representative countries. As the strongest of that quartet currently, Wales this time provided the figurehead, his New Zealand heritage notwithstanding. It is therefore no surprise that he should favour Welshmen when it comes to choosing between candidates for inclusion in the squad, and by extension, starting team. These are the players he knows best and trusts. It is also pretty understandable that having triumphed in back to back Six Nations they are likely to be the most solid options anyway.
So the imbalance towards the principality is a reflection of ability, not bias. Building around an existing structure is how it inevitably works, so to use the core of the most successful side, semi-finalists at the last World Cup to boot, is both pragmatic and sensible. Hence ten of those who lined up on Saturday for the first whistle hailed from the land of the red dragon. That did not prevent the two first half tries which laid the foundations being scored by an Englishman, Corbisiero, and an Irishman, Sexton. There were no Scots, an aberration for some given their recent propensity not to be cowed by Australia, simply because those who had the credentials were not the best available in their particular position. Meritocracy then, not the quota system apparently favoured by the whingers. Perhaps some of those who lined up to put the boot in would do better to reflect on why their part of these isles failed to produce more candidates who demanded a spot.
Gatland made a bold call, and was ready for the flak which would have been heaped on his shoulders had it all ended badly. He analysed two very tight matches, each of which could have gone the other way had a last gasp kick negotiated its way through the posts, and came up with a solution which he felt exploited the opposition’s weaknesses. The power of the pack was immense and when Genia’s early fumble set the tone the Lions seized the initiative and quashed the doubters. The shuddering collision between Hibbard and the recalled George Smith was a measure of the intensity. Though the Wallabies briefly hinted at a revival, the backs found their fluency after the break, shattering the illusion that this was one-dimensional stuff. Halfpenny will gain plaudits for his kicking under pressure but his offload for the Sexton try was one of many magic moments. Roberts more than justified the faith placed in him, and George North is as exciting a talent as any in the game.
Who cares if the showmanship, mockingly pointing to the tackler before touching down for a fine solo score at Brisbane, was construed as ungentlemanly conduct? In picking up and carrying Israel Folau at Melbourne he added another layer of lustre to his legend. And he’s young enough to emulate O’Driscoll, a dignified if disappointed spectator, and in so being enhancing his reputation as a true team man. For that is the real measure of the Lions; comradeship, commitment and togetherness. Birthplace is just a detail. If this stunning accomplishment was forged in the valleys, I bet it was barely mentioned in the dressing room. Gatland was happy to take a back seat as the celebrations gained momentum, but he was the strategist and the architect. He understood the other key component which underscores this pooling of resources. It is about winning, and it’s irrelevant who you might upset along the way.