Ian Stafford: Lions Save Themselves And Gatland Goes Down In Folklore

by Ian Stafford »

So now we know Warren Gatland knows what he is doing. Even when most others were against him the Kiwi had it all worked out. To hell with the repercussions. To hell with his own standing. And to hell with reputations.


The British & Irish Lions head coach chose the team he felt could beat the Wallabies on Saturday and win the series. Now, two days on, the man who could so easily have become a villain, is a hero, and many so-called experts have been left to backtrack on their own views, and hail a coaching hero.


Dropping Brian O'Driscoll was a high-risk move based on his average form. The news created a furious wrath stemming from Ireland but soon spreading across the four nations. Making Alun Wyn Jones captain for Sydney was highly questionable. Playing both Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies in the midfield risked more scorn, and fielding ten Welshmen provoked predictable accusations of bias towards the international team he coaches.  


And yet just look at these decisons. Alex Corbisiero for Mako Vunipola was inspired. Wyn Jones led from the front and produced his finest display in a rugby jersey. Toby Faletau for Jamie Heaslip at the base of the scrum was another move that worked with bells on. Roberts and Davies was proven to be spot on. And ten Welshmen, from the team that won the Six Nations, after all, having smashed England? It could have been more.


No wonder Gatland struggled to fully celebrate on Saturday night in Sydney. His overiding emotion was relief that what everyone else saw as a gamble had paid off, and anger, too, that he had endured such a testing time after doing his job and picking a team he believed - rightly, as it turned out - could beat the Wallabies.


Gatland's vision not only set up a first Lions series win since 1997 but, frankly, stopped any further talk of whether there was any point to the Lions. Defeat and the clubs and nations would have muttered that the fall-out for them was too big a price to pay for forming a scratch team that loses every four years. Victory ensures the Lions go on, and on.


On Saturday every player proved to be a hero but if I were to select just a few then they would be Corbisiero, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Sean O'Brien, Faletau, Roberts, Davies, George North and Leigh Halfpenny. Actually that's nine already, underlining what a gigantic display the Lions produced. Halfpenny was man of the series and rightly so. His metronomic kicking alone may have won this award, but his attacking play and assists made this choice an easy one.


Perhaps, though, even Halfpenny will concede that the real man of the series is Gatland himself. Whilst the rest of the rugby world expected him to pull the trigger he held and he held, closed his ears to what everyone else around him was telling him, and fired on his terms.


If nothing else Warren Gatland has earned the right not to be questioned again for a very long time while Messrs Halfpenny, Jones and chums can forever be linked to the winning Lions of 2013.

By Ian Stafford