When Warren Gatland announced his Lions squad for the tour to New Zealand there was considerable disgruntlement in Scotland that only two of their kith and kin and had been selected.
Former Scottish internationals lined up to criticise the selection that also saw 16 players from England and 12 players from Wales even though they had finished below Scotland in the 6 Nations.
Jim Telfer, himself a former Lions (and Scotland) coach stated: “Scottish Rugby should really feel as if they’ve been badly let down.”
There was, of course, a different perception south of the border, where the mainstream British Press, The Daily Telegraph, Guardian and Times, were in contrast, much more positive and whilst nominally at least they cater for a Scottish, Welsh and Irish rugby audience – their readership, being overwhelmingly English – would have had little complaint with Gatland’s selections which saw 16 Englishmen on the plane to NZ.
So perhaps Warren decided that the British(English) press would maintain their stiff upper sporting lip and let him get on with it when he announced that he was extending his squad by adding 6 extra players – including another 4 players from Wales and another 2 from Scotland.
He may also have considered that his explanation of geographical convenience would be enough to ensure the positive media coverage which the tour had been enjoying would continue. (The Welsh players were in the Pacific Islands, the Scottish in Australia, the English in Argentina and the Irish in Japan.)
More likely, Warren didn’t give consideration to how his decision would go down back home. Or even how it would go down with those English players who most commentators believed to be next in line to gain Lions recognition – despite the fact that their (very outspoken) English coach Eddie Jones had publicly told Gatland the day before his controversial announcement, that the English players were ready, keen and available to travel from Argentina.
The Daily Telegraph complained that the deserving English players had been ‘snubbed’ and former Lions publicly criticised Gatland for ‘devaluing’ the jersey. Even the Lions most eminent and reliable supporter Sir Ian McGeehan told Gatland he had got it wrong.
But whatever criticism there may have been aimed at Warren, it is fair to say he will never be accused of having a soft neck or a thin skin. Here is a man who survived a barrage of criticism over his decision to drop the pride of All Ireland – or own BOD all mighty – not just out of the team but out of the match day squad – for the final test four years previously on the Lions tour to Australia.
If the Lions can pull off a surprise and historic series win in NZ – just as in Australia 4 years earlier – Gatland will simply shrug his shoulders and tell everyone to check out the results and the media (and fans) in both Britain and Ireland will probably swallow any disgruntlement and hail a great victory.
If however (as the bookies think, and the history books suggest ) the All Blacks dispatch the Lions with something to spare – Gatland may find himself in the centre of a backlash where his allegiance to his adopted tribe (the Welsh) will be questioned by those who perceive their own tribe to have been slighted on this or on his previous (in the case of Ireland) Lions tour as Head coach.
In sport (just as in politics) analysis of the campaign will be conducted through the simplistic filter of hindsight and Gatland’s legacy and his contribution to the ethos of the Lions as a pan-tribal institution will be under scrutiny as never before.
Whether Warren Gatland is a walking public relations disaster or a straight talking rugby man is a matter for debate – but with controversy brewing (again) – off the field – the Lions really now need to get results – on it.
…hopefully I’m wrong – but I just can’t see Gatland and the Lions pulling off what would be only their second series win (1971) in the long history of New Zealand tours going right back to 1904.