In an exclusive column for the Paddy Power Blog, Lions and Wales legend Gareth Thomas explains why Warren Gatland has some big decisions to make but skipper Sam Warburton must start.
Warren Gatland has made a bed to lie in by picking Sam Warburton as captain and with not long to go before the first Test with Australia, he’s got a dilemma he probably wasn’t expecting. Warren will end up with major egg on his face is he doesn’t pick Sam for the first Test, but so many of the back rowers have impressed on tour, it’s hard to see a place for him.
Justin Tipuric has been playing out of his skin, Toby Faletau has shown he’s up for it, Sean O’Brien has impressed – there are so many possible combinations you have to admit that the one that gives the Lions their best chance of victory may not involve Sam Warburton.
I would keep Sam in the team, but purely because he is captain. When you select your captain for such a prestigious tour – from all the other possible captains – you have to be pretty damn certain that he’s going to be worth his place in the team. The way Sam’s rivals have played has blown it wide open. Sam hasn’t done anything wrong and it doesn’t undermine him, but candidates who weren’t really considered genuine contenders for the Test team a few weeks back have put their hands up by playing really well.
It puts pressure on Sam. Whatever the players say is bullshit – players know what’s being said about them in the press. If it’s good, it adds to the self-confidence and if it’s negative, it makes them aware that they’re under pressure. Under the microscope of the Lions media, Warby will know that he’s under pressure to rise to the standards the players have set.
There will be pressure on him but he should be able to deal with it.. The other guys playing have more freedom to go and express themselves on the pitch because Warby is taking the pressure and the spotlight off them.
In 2005 Brian O’Driscoll was the captain and that was the be all and end all. There was no vice-captain or second in line. O’Driscoll was the man and we all stood by him. When he got speared I had no idea that Clive Woodward was going to approach me to be captain for the rest of the tour.
The New Zealand players didn’t take out O’Driscoll that year because of anyone disrespecting the Hakka, they wanted to get him off the field because he is a world class player and he was capable of changing the game.
With all the media speculation you just have to get on with it. Whether you play on the local park or at a sell-out stadium, it is still rugby, a working-class traditional sport. When you go on a Lions tour it is completely different to anything you’ll ever do. All of a sudden there is a media bandwagon and a whole group of supporters from all over the British Isles. You realise it is completely different and sometimes you only realise when it is too fucking late.
As captain in 2005 I had to deal with Alastair Campbell quite a lot. Although I wasn’t ready for it or expecting it, I realised it was all about promoting the sport and the Lions brand. You have to create stories and get on the back pages because it is a big business and we need to promote the tour.
At times I thought, ‘what’s the fucking point?’ I was just there for the rugby, but now I get it and I understand.
The fight for places
The next two games will dictate the team for the Lions. The partnerships start to gel and it is interesting to see the attitude of the players who figure out that they’re not in the test squad. Some of them will knuckle down and help and some will understandably get pissed off and upset about not being there. On the training field at the moment there are boys that know if they have done enough.
There are plenty of players who will get disheartened and you wouldn’t be right if you weren’t gutted. You have to get over that in a matter of seconds. I respect players who are pissed off at not being selected. You can’t be happy at missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is the first test and there’s a lot more rugby, and a lot more injuries to come. You’re not there to be pissed off, you’re not there to sulk. You’re there to get on with it and play for your place.