Friday 30 June 2017

Don't Rule Out Gatland Wellington Win

Gatland celebrates series win in Sydney 2013
Wellington offers Warren Gatland his best chance of redemption when the Lions take on the All Blacks for the second time in seven days. In what looks like an impossible task, Gatland will revel in the challenge and thrive on the fact that the odds stacked against him. The Lions are given no chance to avoid a white wash in this three-match series with New Zealand. However, such a view fails to acknowledge Gatland’s speciality, winning against the odds. Which was best exemplified in that final Test in Australia four years ago at the Telstra Stadium, when the Wallabies were deemed favourites for the final match against a supposedly weakened Lions. The pre-match view coloured by the absences of captain Sam Warburton, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, with the visitors desperate for an emphatic victory that would strike the 24 years of defeats in Australia from the record books. 

On Saturday, New Zealander Gatland hopes Wellington will be a repeat of another famous victory under his tutelage and a return of that spirit with his 2017 squad.

As a coach, he is famous for galvanising his players in the hour of most need. With Ireland, in his match in charge in Paris against France – a side who had already run rampant on their opening fixtures of the 5 Nations - Ireland just lost 18–16 defeat at the Stade de France. Then twon years later returning to Paris Gatland saw a hat-trick of tries from Brian O'Driscoll that brought Ireland to a 25–27 win and that first away victory in the French capital since 1972.

At London WASPS as Director of Rugby the cub won multiple Premiership titles; in 2003, 2004 and 2005. These included Wasps beating Northampton Saints in the semi-final in 2003 and again in 2004, while they also had to beat Leicester Tigers in the final in 2005. While in Europe, they won the 2002–03 European Challenge Cup, winning eight from eight matches, before beating Bath 48–30 away in the final. With their promotion, up to the Heineken Cup for the 2003–04 season, London Wasps clinched the title, losing only to the Celtic Warriors on their way to a 27–20 victory over French giants Toulouse. 

On returning to New Zealand to coach Waikato in the National Provincial Championship (NPC), Gatland led his side to seventh in the Division 1 table. However, under the new competition format, the Air New Zealand Cup in 2006, Gatland then took Waikato to the final of the 2006 Air New Zealand Cup, beating Wellington in the final 37–31.

In 2007, Gatland was named head coach of Wales and in his first game of the 2008 Six Nations Championship Wales beat England 26–19. Their first victory in Twickenham since 1988. This was followed by victories over Scotland and Italy/ After which Wales went on to beat Ireland at Croke Park 16–12, to win the Triple Crown. The first time Wales has held this trophy since 2005. In the final fixture Wales also beat France at the Millennium Stadium 29–12, to clinch their 10th Grand Slam.

In 2011 Gatland led Wales to fourth in the Rugby World Cup, winning three of their four Pool D matches; 17–10 win over Samoa, 81–7 win over Namibia and a record breaking 66–0 win over Fiji, their loss was a 17–16 defeat to the Springboks. Wales beat Ireland 22–10 in the quarter-final, but lost to France 9–8 in the semi-final. Wales were ranked fourth in the world, their highest ever ranking again under Gatland. In the 2012 Six Nations Championship, Gatland won a second Grand Slam in four years.

In 2009 tour of South Africa, Gatland was named as assistant coach, specialising as the Forwards coach under Ian McGeechan. He then was appointed Lions Head Coach for the 2013 tour of Australia. After winning the first test Gatland saw his Lions collect a defeat in Melbourne in the second test and so headed back to Sydney to win the series. But his preparations were to be filled with controversy after the decision to drop O’Driscoll adding to the week’s PR woes. Albeit it was the right decision based on the errors committed by the Irish centre in the second test. Then the victory in the final test secured that first series against the Wallabies since 1989 and the first series victory since the 1997 tour of South Africa. 

Before that third test in 2013, Gatland was heavily criticised by the amount of Welsh players in the match day 23 – a total of 11. Despite all the furore the Lions won the final test 41–16, which was a record winning margin for the Lions against Australia. He will be hoping to face the same criticism in Wellington this week with the same type of performance on the pitch.

British and Irish Lions:
L Williams, A Watson, J Davies, O Farrell, E Daly, J Sexton, C Murray; M Vunipola, J George, T Furlong, M Itoje, AW Jones, S Warburton (c), S O'Brien, T Faletau.
Replacements: K Owens, J McGrath, K Sinckler, C Lawes, CJ Stander, R Webb, B Te'o, J Nowell.

New Zealand 
I Dagg; W Naholo, A Lienert-Brown, SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith; J Moody, C Taylor, O Franks, B Retallick, S Whitelock, J Kaino, S Cane, K Read (capt).
Replacements: N Harris, W Crockett, C Faumuina, S Barrett, A Savea, TJ Perenara, A Cruden, N Laumape.

Thursday 29 June 2017

Future Not Looking Black for Gatland

Warren Gatland’s winter solstice this year was spent in his homeland leading the British and Irish Lions against his own people and could well prove his fall from grace. A challenge he was determinedly focused on since winning the final test against the Wallabies in July 2013 at Stadium Australia, his ambition to perhaps even position himself as Steve Hansen’s replacement with a possible record breaking tour to New Zealand. It may have just been a long white cloud of optimism distracting his normal ruthless decision making. The potential fallout now from the drawn midweek game against the Hurricanes placing the tourists in a tough predicament. Low on momentum, struggling with confidence after a poor opening test in Eden Park, and the challenge of Wellington now only days away. With the hosts riding high following their decisive victory last Saturday and seeking to improve their efficiency and prove even more clinical.

The ambition of Gatland to place himself in the shop window for the All Blacks coaching job which Hansen will leave at the after the 2019 World Cup, may have been in the eyeline at one point. But the battle he has engaged with the Kiwi media may yet backfire and make him the type of noisy coach the New Zealand rugby board don’t not want. With plenty of alternatives already in the running. Albeit one, Wayne Smith, is no longer a contender having announced that he would step down from New Zealand’s coaching team at the conclusion of this year’s Rugby Championship in September. Thus, ending as a 20-year association with the All Blacks as a player and then in three spells as a coach. One of them under John Hart. But having recently turned 60, Smith sees it as the right time for him to walk away having been Hansen’s right-hand man and helping deliver the 2011 and the 2015 World Cups. 

Smith opted for the All Black option after working with Northampton and then losing out to Eddie Jones when there was a vacancy at the RFU. Also in 2012, Smith was offered a role with England under Stuart Lancaster but chose the All Blacks backroom role. This week his replacement was announced and it will be Scott McLeod who moves from the Highlanders to All Blacks HQ and may in time be another contender for the No 1 spot. Adding to the current traffic jam which includes not only Gatland but Joe Schmidt, Verne Cotter and the current assistant All Blacks coach, Iain Foster 

McLeod played with Waikato Colts making his provincial debut for Waikato in 1995 and his Test debut for the All Blacks in the same year. After playing in Japan, he returned to New Zealand to coach as Waikato's Assistant Coach (2008-2012) and Assistant Coach of the Chiefs (2008 to 2011) with a specific focus on skills and defence. He coached the New Zealand Under 20 in 2012 before joining the Highlanders in 2013. In the meantime, Cotter has returned to France with Montpellier, Schmidt has extended his deal with Ireland to 2019 as all synchronise their availability for when the NZRFU go seeking their next coach.  

For Warren, the sort of homecoming he would have preferred on this to New Zealand no doubt was something rather different. The achievement in Australia now a distant memory on his rugby CV unless he can devise a win in Wellington on Saturday to make the final test more than just a rubber in two weeks. However, that challenge becomes a mightier feat after the listless second half performance in the first test that would have won Gatland’s few admirers with the All Blacks selectors. Apart from one moment of pure inspiration and talent from Liam Williams. 

Listless is something that no Gatland team can be accused of in matches under normal circumstances. But in Auckland the Lions were outfoxed and outgunned in almost every part of the game and even after the break Gatland’s coaching team were unable to find a way to build on Williams’ genius. The normal roster of old reliables also fading as the match progressed, including Alun Wynn Jones, Peter O’Mahony, Owen Farrell and Conor Murray. None able to find the kind of form that earned them a test spot and could reverse the New Zealand onslaught. The All Black machine smothering every move in the final forty minutes. The tone of Gatland’s remarks in the post-match interviews highlight his general disappointment and disaffection with the last few days. Indeed, even more so after the Highlanders game.


Wednesday 28 June 2017

Lions No Longer BOD Test

Getty Images
Alun Wyn Jones will lead the British and Irish Lions against the Qantas Wallabies in the 3rd Test at ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Saturday. 

Ospreys lock Jones replaces the injured Sam Warburton in a team showing six changes to the one that started last Saturday’s 2nd Test in Melbourne. 

Sean O’Brien takes over from Warburton, Jamie Roberts replaces Brian O’Driscoll in the centre and scrum-half Mike Philips has recovered from a knee injury to start instead of Ben Youngs. 

Alex Corbisiero returns from injury to replace Mako Vunipola, who moves to the bench, Richard Hibbard makes his first starting appearance at hooker, while Toby Faletau makes his Test debut at No.8. 

British & Irish Lions Tour Manager Andy Irvine said: "It has been a great tour on and off the field. The hospitality we have received from the Australian people has been outstanding. The banter between the fans has been in great spirit and to date we have had two incredibly exciting Tests. 

“It is amazing that the last three series between the Lions and the Wallabies have gone down to the last Test. In 1989 the Lions triumphed, in 2001 it was the Wallabies who won the series and now in 2013 we go to ANZ Stadium in Sydney with the series and the Tom Richards Trophy up for grabs. 

“There is nothing between these two teams, with the last two Tests being decided in the dying moments. The Test is a sell out and the whole rugby world is looking forward to the match with great anticipation.” 

Head Coach Warren Gatland said: “It all comes down to Saturday. Winner takes all. We know we can leave nothing in the tank and that only a complete performance will get us across the line. Picking this team was not easy and ultimately with several players available after recovering from injury the head overruled the heart in many selection decisions. 

“It has been a challenging tour and we have had our fair share of injuries but we always knew that would be the case. Brian O’Driscoll is a great player and has had a wonderful career but for the final Test in Sydney we just felt Jamie Roberts' presence offered us something more. Mike Phillips and Alex Corbisiero were 1st Test selections and would probably have played in the 2nd Test if not for injury. Richard Hibbard, Toby Faletau and Sean O’Brien have also earned their starting places.” 

15. Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues/Wales)
14. Tommy Bowe (Ulster/Ireland)
13. Jonathan Davies (Scarlets/Wales)
12. Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales)
11. George North (Scarlets/Wales)
10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/Ireland)
9. Mike Phillips (Bayonne/Wales)
1. Alex Corbisiero (London Irish/England)
2. Richard Hibbard (Ospreys/Wales)
3. Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales)
4. Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales, capt)
5. Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers/England)
6. Dan Lydiate (Dragons/Wales)
7. Sean O’Brien (Leinster/Ireland)
8. Tangaki Taulupe Faletau (Dragons/Wales)

16. Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England)
17. Makovina Vunipola (Saracens/England)
18. Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers/England)
19. Richie Gray (Scotland)
20. Justin Tipuric (Ospreys/Wales)
21. Conor Murray (Munster/Ireland)
22. Owen Farrell (Saracens/England
23. Manusamoa Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers/England) 

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In Gatland We Trust - Brian O'Driscoll

Gatland and O'Driscoll

Former British and Irish Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll has backed Wales coach Warren Gatland to lead the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand.

Gatland, 52, controversially dropped the Ireland legend from the decisive Test win against Australia in 2013.

O'Driscoll told the Daily Telegraph that Gatland and Ireland boss Joe Schmidt are the best options for 2017.

The 37-year-old added Gatland's style "is probably something that lends itself to the short lead-in time".

The Lions face New Zealand three times in a five-week tour in 2017, with the first Test coming after six build-up games over three weeks.

British and Irish Lions chief executive John Feehan has said Gatland is the leading contender to take charge again.

The Welsh Rugby Union would again back their national coach, who was assistant to Ian McGeechan for the 2009 tour to South Africa that ended in a 2-1 defeat.

Gatland selected Wales' Jonathan Davies ahead of O'Driscoll to partner Jamie Roberts for the crucial Test in Sydney three years ago.

Former Ireland captain and Lions hooker Keith Wood described the decision as "a terrible mistake".

The Lions won 41-16 without O'Driscoll, but Wood stood by his comments.

O'Driscoll says he would partner Davies with England's Manu Tuilagi were he selecting the team now.

"I will get absolutely lambasted in Wales for not picking Roberts, but I think you have to have Manu in there and I don't think you play him and Jamie together," said O'Driscoll.