He’s been there, done that and got the ice-skates. Former Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas has pretty much done it all. In an exclusive column for the Paddy Power Blog, speculates that the easy wins may be a result of some Australian scheming
Out of the three nations that the Lions tour to, Australia are probably the most conniving. That was my experience as a player and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if there was an understanding within Australian rugby to give the Lions an easy build-up to the Tests. If they hold back in the tour matches, let the team think they’re better than they really are and then leather into them in the first Test.
For the Wallabies, it’s all about winning the Test matches and if I was in the Australian camp, the best thing to do would be to not test them, let them think they’re amazing, let them think they can steamroller over us. You wouldn’t want the Lions to test their defensive systems or get up to Test match intensity so when you get the chance to face them, they’re off the pace and you can smash them. It makes sense, but I don’t like it. It’s a devious tactic, it’s underhanded, but if your goal is solely to win the Test series, then of course the Aussies will do it.
Two games, two convincing wins. With a start like that, I thought I’d be over the moon with the Lions’ start to the tour. But it’s become a double-edged sword. They haven’t really been tested in either game. The BaaBaas game wasn’t as important because they are a team thrown together similar to the Lions, but against the Western Force, a team that are playing together week in, week out, you want a tougher examination.
Are midweek games history?
The Lions can only play what’s in front of them and what was in front of them on Wednesday was almost degrading. As a player, coach or fan of the Lions, you expect more from an opposition – more respect for the history and the concept of the team. I take my hat off to the boys because sometimes it’s hard to go out against a team you know are very weak and give it everything. The Lions need to be tested.
It’s almost come to the point where Lions tours will consist of all Test matches. If teams are going to do what the Force did, it’s not worth playing them. You’re better off just doing a training session. It’s unfortunate that this tradition is under threat, because of behaviour like that, but it’s a natural consequence of professionalism. Everyone knows that it’s all about the Tests and the club teams know there’s not much in it for them. The Lions players may come off the pitch physically, tired, but not smashed up in the way they used to be against more passionate opponents. Next year’s contract is now a bigger deal for the players than a Lions’ scalp.
There’s clearly been changes in the professional era. Back in the day, a provincial team or a club team playing the Lions was huge. The opportunity to take the Lions scalp was such a great incentive, you would do anything to win that match. Back in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the Lions players would come off the pitch fucking battered and bruised because the tour matches meant something. The opposition were ferocious because they players in those teams realised they were never going to get the chance to represent their country, so their only chance of doing something to help their country was battering the Lions.
Warren Gatland says he might up the training sessions to Test intensity if the players aren’t getting tested enough and I fully support that. I’d even consider bringing in a few ‘banshees’ from the local clubs – guys who you know will hit the Lions players hard rather than just having half the Lions squad facing the other half of the Lions squad and going easier on each other.
The Pros and cons of modern rugby
Nowadays, the players and coaches know they won’t be judged on the Lions match, they’ll be judged on how the season went as a whole, the finals they reach and where they finish in the league. It’s so cut-throat, there’s no other way. The Western Force saw their Super Rugby game at the weekend as being more important than playing the Lions and you end up with a shadow team with players who’ve barely played any first team games.
I agree with Clive Woodward when he said fielding such a weakened team was showing a lack of respect. But on the flipside, I can totally understand where the Australians are coming from. I remember when I went on a Lions tour, it was such a big thing for the sport in New Zealand, the tour matches were important. They’d waited 12 years for the Lions to come back and everything was geared towards it. When we got there, it was intense and you couldn’t get away from it. Every corner you turned, every man, woman or child wanted to talk rugby, nobody could escape it.
In South Africa and New Zealand, rugby is the number one sport, but when you go to Australia it’s maybe only fourth or fifth and the country as a whole doesn’t respect the tradition of the Lions as much the others. The Lions coming to town is a great opportunity to boost the profile of the game in the country and if they keep treating the games like they are, it will go to waste.
The sledge of reason
I’ve been happy with how the Lions have done in their two games, but indiscipline is becoming a bit of a recurring theme. Cian Healy has ultimately not been charged with anything untoward, but generally, the players need to learn how to control themselves and not get into those positions. The Aussies are going to throw a lot of verbals at you, they’ll niggle you on the floor and do whatever they can to wind you up. They’re renowned for it so more so than ever, the players need to watch their discipline.
The one I recall most from playing Australia was the late hits. That was a speciality. You’d pass the ball on and then a couple of seconds later you get wiped out. You’ve got a choice – do I get up and retaliate or do I just get on with it? You’ve just got to get on with it because no-one’s seen it. They’re also very good at getting in your face when you fuck up. If you make a mistake, they’ll be straight up to you saying ‘you’re rubbish’, ‘you shouldn’t be here’, ‘you can’t kick for shit, you can’t catch’ – that sort of stuff but with a lot more swear words. In a Test match environment where you’re so pumped up, that can flip you over the edge, but you have to use it as motivation to play hard, but within the rules.
Johnny Sexton wasn’t too happy with Leigh Halfpenny doing the place-kicking duties on Wednesday and I can appreciate because you want to impress every time you can to get that Test jersey. But this tour isn’t about Johnny Sexton, Leigh Halfpenny or any individual – it’s about doing what’s right for the Lions and by giving Leigh more experience, Warren Gatland is improving the options at his disposal. In the end, he kicked 11 from 11 including some very tough ones and if that contributes towards him producing the goods on a bigger stage, it’s only a good thing.
Gareth’s bet v Queensland Reds:
Hopefully they’ll get a sterner match against the Queensland Reds. There are a few things to work on defensively for the Lions. They’ve been caught out a couple of times, especially against the Western Force. They’re trying to play the umbrella defence a bit and coming up quickly on the outside, but there was on occasion Sean O’Brien shot out of the line leaving a gap which they scored from. It’s the right approach because it can really choke teams, but it’s a high risk, high reward thing and some of the players may need to get used to their role in it. It was difficult against such weak opposition, but they didn’t have enough pride in defending their line at times and you want them to the adopt the mentality of ‘we are not giving you a single point’.
I’m expecting Saturday’s game to be much tougher than the two that have gone before. But with so much to play for, I’m expecting another big performance. Everyone in the squad will know that the first two results didn’t count for much due to the quality of the opposition and this might be the first time they’re playing a decent team. Covering an 18 point handicap is a lot to ask. I can see the Lions winning by anything up to about 10 points.
The Lions take on the Queensland Reds on Saturday and Paddy Power has a great Money-Back Special on it. If the first try is scored by a forward, we will refund all losing try scorer bets on the match!
More from Gareth Thomas:
- Why a shed-load of beer will do wonders for team-bonding
- My starting XV for the 1st Test
- Dylan Hartley could have cost the Lions everything