- Dec 3, 2010
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Always knew you were WelshI said when the Lions squad was announced that it was the most Gatland squad that ever did Gatland and since then I've had some thoughts bouncing around in my head about it, nothing super new but wanted to get them out there. Despite many of us being surprised by a number of selections looking back we really shouldn't have been. Gatland seems to have even greater autonomy than he had on any previous tour. As such barring something like a mass covid outbreak the success or failure of this tour is on him to a greater extent than his previous two tours. It's also interesting to see how his previous experiences as far back as the 09 Lions tour where Gatland was forwards coach. This may be controversial but even if I disagree with the way he's gone about things I am impressed by how he's willing to stick to his guns. Something a head coach absolutely has to do. As fans part of the fun is obsessing over team/squad selections and calling coaches idiots for not selecting X. I don't want to stray into 'the coach is always right' territory because I definitely don't believe that and I believe everyone is entitled to an opinion (even if I wish sometimes people wouldn't be so set in their opinion and acknowledge gaps in their knowledge), however, the reality is that as far as I know, no one on this board has ever been a part of a professional set up. Some of us may have played at ok levels or even been coached by people who are involved at the pro level but none of us really have a full idea what goes into getting a match-day 23 out there and playing to one gameplan. The simple truth is that Gatland, Jones, Farrell whoever have access to far more information regarding anything you can think of around rugby than we do. Of course it's a completely different question if they're actually using this information in the best way possible.
We also as fans focus to a huge degree on players and more on player quality. That's not to say we don't have discussions on here about player role and fit, people are absolutely smart enough to do that but we don't have as much focus on it as some coaches do. It appears to me that there is a scale of coaches who select based purely on player overall quality and those who select players to fit their gameplan (like Lam). In fairness there probably isn't any coach who selects purely on quality and it is a broad descriptor but Gatland is definitely someone who prefers to select for his gameplan and it appears this is a lesson he has really taken to heart from previous tours where the temptation from the wider player pool is just to pick the best players. I don't think it's a great lesson to have learnt but it does appear to be one he's taken away from his previous tours.
So what is that gameplan? What is 'Warrenball'? Be a bit weird if after the previous paragraphs I claimed to know exactly what it was but Gatland is one coach who it's easier to pin down in this regard. The broad strokes of his style haven't really changed since he first coached in the 20th century even if there has been some evolution and additions. It's physical rugby, where the front five is constantly working around the corner and so too is most of the backrow even if one of them and sometimes even two are now given a bit more freedom to operate in the wider channels, none of this 2-2-3-1 malarkey for Gatland. He wants these forwards working around the corner getting over the gainline and dragging the defence with them. The idea is when they reach the touchline the defence will be stretched giving the backs loads of space to attack when you come back. Lots of teams have a similar plan in stretching the defence to a touchline, Gatland just has a slightly more antiquated system in how he does it. I don't believe it has to be boring but unless you've a very special group of forwards and creative backs it often does end up being so.
He also is a big believer in 'less is more' Gatland is not a Schmidt who plans moves down to the last mm, he doesn't like giving players more than a few points to concentrate on so that they can go out, not second guess themselves and play with intensity. There's a speech Gatland gave before a game on the 09 tour that I unfortunately find on Youtube. It's a good while since I watched it but I still remember the gist of it. It was all about intensity for him and that's what he believes the South African's are all about. If you can match their intensity and physicality he believed the players were fitter and had the skill to go around them the way Geech wanted them to. I think Gatland realises he does need that ability to operate wider and create something without just running over the opposition, look at the way he's spoken about the number 8's in particular, but his first focus is being able to match SA in the collisions.
In defence he wants his team hard up and in the opposition faces hence why his great relationship with Edwards and Farrell. He wants as many men on their feet and maybe only one in to poach. Again nothing revolutionary but when it works it's very effective. He's also big on the setpiece, especially the scrum and maul. I think this is very clear in his lock selections. He also loves a 13man maul whenever he gets the chance. One of the trick moves he loves having in the playbook, which as any Irish fan knows can have varying success.
Watch him change all this now that I've written too many words...
Was going to write some more about what Gatland seems to have taken from previous matches vs SA in particular and go through his Lions test selections by position to show how even more Gatland this post is but it's already gotten too long for the moment and probably isn't that instructive. Congrats anyone who made it through all 1100 or so words. Contact Groundhog for your complementary cookie.