ROTORUA INTERNATIONAL STADIUM, New Zealand — Amid the criticism of his decision to bolster the British & Irish Lions midweek squad and talk of devaluing the shirt, Warren Gatland stayed resolute to the message he has delivered since being appointed coach: “My job is to win a Test series and I will do whatever it takes to do that.”
News of the six additions — based in part on their proximity to the Lions — was confirmed throughout the day on Saturday, with Wales quartet Kristian Dacey, Cory Hill, Gareth Davies and Tomas Francis joined by Scotland duo Finn Russell and Allan Dell.
Forward dominance, physicality and some real grunt saw the British & Irish Lions dispatch the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua. Here’s what the tourists will have learned.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including three Tests against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
The original reports, prior to confirmation, provoked a social media backlash with some players past and present criticising Gatland’s call to bring in who he did with some suggesting that the likes of Dylan Hartley and Joe Launchbury were more deserving of call ups. Some, like 2009 tourist Stephen Ferris, went as far as to say the Lions shirt had been devalued slightly.
There are few who know the uniqueness and special nature of the Lions like Sir Ian McGeechan — who coached and played on seven tours — and he questioned Gatland’s decision. “I think it’s difficult to justify geography,” McGeechan said on Sky Sports. “If that was always part of his planning, then he could have been speaking to Eddie Jones for certainly the England players to be released last week.”
Speaking after their win over the Maori All Blacks, Gatland said he understood “concerns” but reiterated his view that the squad needed extra players to allow him to pick one team for the Chiefs game on Tuesday and keep the Test 23 fresh for the All Blacks on June 24.
He highlighted their approach in 2013 when they called in Brad Barritt, Christian Wade and Shane Williams for their midweek match against the Brumbies, which fell on the Tuesday before the first Test against Australia. He added that in his view, they would have lost that had players been forced to play both matches.
In response to those, including England coach Jones, who said he should have looked at players further afield than New Zealand and Australia, he used the example of Wade in 2013 as a cautionary tale.
Gatland has defended his decision to call up six additional players to his Lions squad. Hannah Peters/Getty Images
“I understand Eddie’s concern, people’s concern — his point, I suppose — but I just understand how difficult it is to do that travel from Argentina; it’s not as if you’re in Buenos Aires, you’ve got to get here and get around the world and acclimatise,” Gatland said.
“You use past experiences for that. Christian Wade came in last time [from Argentina] the day before and he sat on the bench, came on and it was obvious that the travel impacted his ability to play.”
Gatland insisted the additional players would not split the group. “These guys will be with us for a week and they are for bench cover and they understand that’s the way it is,” he said.
And then came the question over whether he had devalued the shirt by bringing in these players rather than potentially more deserving hopefuls based on where they were in the world.
“Does it devalue the shirt? You’re only a Lion when you get on the field and there’s a few of those players that were probably unlucky not to potentially be in contention in the first place.
David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images
“We’ve picked up a couple of injuries. In terms of devaluing the shirt, I can see some people’s point of that but we’re here to win a Test series and it’s those guys covering from Auckland, not travelling halfway around the world.
“We found it difficult the first 10 days when we were here in terms of jetlag and tiredness and stuff. The players that came in from Auckland last night and from Australia will be able to fit quickly into that time zone.”
Gatland first raised this possibility back in September when he got the job. He has referenced it since, and Steve Hansen raised it again on Thursday. It is a calculated gamble by Gatland, as he knows this tour will be remembered for the Test series result and anything else will be secondary.
“This is something we had planned from the start and informed the coaches and this is what we were looking to do,” Gatland said. “I understand it is difficult when you are so far away and when you bring them in. My job is to win a Test series and I will do whatever it takes to do that.”
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Gatland on call-ups: My job is to win Test series
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