Aging Lions maul coach Warren Gatland

June 19, 2017

Warren Gatland


In advance of Saturday’s test match against New Zealand’s All Blacks, [scheduled 24 June 2017] Warren Gatland, the coach of the British and Irish Lions is mauled in a bitter attack by Rugby Union pundits around the world, including former Lion players

Gatland’s heinous blunder

His crime? Dealing with a series of injuries to his squad, Gatland made the decision to call up additional support from members of the Welsh and Scottish teams, touring in the region.

A storm of protest burst out, led by England coach Eddie Jones, whose team is touring in Argentina, half way around the world. The headline Eddie Jones says what we have all been thinking about Gatland’s supposed call-ups sums up the nature of the ‘debate’.

Revenge attacks?

I was struck by both the ferocity and uniformity of the attacks. Gatland had triggered an avalanche of criticism. In some ways, this can be traced to disenchantment with Gatland, who will resume his role as coach to the Welsh national team after the tour.  Accusations of bias have followed Gatland from the outset of this tour against the world champions, who are odds-on favourites to win the three-test series.

His original selections were viewed as biased in favour of players he knew and trusted from Wales, and why strong candidates from England were omitted. The objections were mostly from the English media. Garland was criticized for Nationalistic bias, an ironic charge for someone of New Zealand not Newport Gwent roots.

Players omitted from the England squad were outspoken.

During the few weeks of the tour in June, tour criticism of Gatland built up. The coach was put on the defensive.

The emotional argument

So, returning the six replacements, the emotional argument against the extra six players can be summarized simply. Commentator after commentator echoed it:


“The decision devalues the Lions’ shirt


Few seemed to find it necessary to add (as Gatland found it necessary to point out) that the decision was reached  after long discussions by the international management coaching team of the Lions. Nor was there comment on how these players the pundits dismissed as not fit to wear the shirt might react, if their team mates on their arrival treated them as second-class citizens.

Historical baggage?

There seemed a lot of historical baggage about the media treatment of the story. For example:

England’s former Lion Jeremy Guscott found headlines in a half-time roasting of the Welsh team against Japan in the last World Cup. In particular, he blasted the Lions on the pitch.  Ironically, Wales upped their game against Japan, and Japan contributed to a display which led to the humiliation of England on home soil and the eventual appointment of new coach Eddie Jones.

Returning to the present controversy, even a Welsh rugby great has weighed in.

Jonathan Davies is a much-loved national figure who has suffered hardships and tragedy in his personal life with fortitude and public grace. His views are generally forthright and honest. He again took the devaluing the Lion shirt line.

Putting my frayed academic nightcap and bed socks on, and supping my Ovaltine, I suspect each player is demonstrating the core issue of social identity. Pundit Guscott now preserves his aura of greatness earned as a Lion through the symbolism of the brand. Davies never achieved the honour of playing for the Lions, as he made the painful decision to leave the amateur game of Rugby Union to support his family as a rugby league player, returning later as professionalism entered the Union code.

Gatland’s stubborn streak

There is a well-known streak of stubbornness about Gatland, although no more than the one apparent in the public pronouncements of Eddie Jones.

The test series may well be lost to the mighty All Blacks. If so, it would be helpful to conduct post-mortems in a more clinical fashion than the ‘expert’ diagnoses to date.


Rugby Brains trust gets it right

April 23, 2009
Brains trust

Brains trust

Congratulations to the Leaders we deserve brainstrust whose members pinpointed Ireland’s O’ Connell as Lions captain and also suggested most of the squad

Leadership issues

Now to identify the leadership challenges facing O’Connell and the entire touring party

Lions tours are notoriously difficult to manage. Signals of possible friction points have begun to emerge as national heroes are left behind. Irish players have earned their places with monster six-nations performances. In contract Scotland had a woeful competition. That hasn’t stopped Scottish journalists being peeved over the tiny number of Scots in the quad. The English have similar gripes as they have a historically low number of squad members. Welsh comment is mixed. There is a healthy representation from Wales. But there is disappointment that Ryan Jones is one of several national captains left behind. In Wales there is also some bitterness over what they see as a potential re-run of the Graham Henry time as Lions coach and Wales National manager. This time it’s another Kiwi, Warren Gatland, again Wales national coach also coaching for the Lions.

The story goes that by the time the last Lions tour was over, Henry had lost the trust of key Welsh players and it carried over into subsequent national team performances. There is worry the same thing might happen in South Africa. To get some idea, you might like to think of the expectations at Newcastle Football Club, and the heights and lows as each possible saviour fails to ‘guide them to the promised land’.

So here are a few leadership questions

I realize that much will be forgiven a winning team, but I’m anticipating plenty of blame to spread around before the tour is over.

Has ‘the management’ done a reasonable job in selecting O’ Connell and squad? Will potential cultural factionalism play a significant part in events off and on the field? Comments will be incorporated into future blogs.

Other notes

A Guardian summary of the ‘team picked for toughness’ gives indication of the reasoning behind the selections.

Life with the Rugby Lions: Background to the 2009 Tour

January 14, 2009


The British and Irish Lions are preparing for the 2009 tour against the South African Springboks. Ian McGeehan is off-field leader of a team which will compete against the current world champions of rugby. He will also have to deal with the ‘mid-week team’ problem, and the potential off-field clash of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures

The tour has echoes of the famous 1997 tour in which the Lions had also visited South Africa. Coincidentally, the Springboks had at that time too been current world champions, and McGeehan had been chief coach of the Lions.

Background to the Rugby Lions

The British and Irish Lions reflect a cherished rugby tradition with a team assembled representing the members of the Home Nations championship (England, Scotland Ireland and Wales). The Lions players still come from these nations, although the original championship has long been extended to include France, and more recently Italy.

Anglo-Irish Politics and the North South divide

It should be noted that Ireland in this tournament is represented by a combined team with players from the Irish nation, and from the British and unionist province of Ulster. The issue of governance of Ireland has been one of the historically important ones for Ireland and the United Kingdom for many years, and became particularly intense and bloody over the period of The Troubles in the mid 1980s to the turn of the century. This was followed by a period of implementing the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement, which continues to the present time. We have reported this in an earlier post.

In popular shorthand, the North of the Island is the geographical core of the battle for a united Ireland, with cultural, geographic and religious tensions between North and South. Although a dangerous over-simplification, the ‘two cultures’ are often stereotyped as a Protestant North, and a Catholic South.

In a host of daily experiences, the citizens of Ireland co-exist within all-Ireland Institutions. In sport, the institutions include Rugby Union and League, Cricket, Hockey, as well as traditional Irish sports such as Hurling. Football is governed, in contrast, by Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland Bodies. Religious institutions are all all-Ireland in scope including the influential Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Anglican Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

In any study of sports management such cultural differences are likely to be a consideration. An obvious source of tension will be the inescapable fact that in most instances, the leader will be be drawn from one of the communities, and faces the challenge of creating and retaining team coherence, and of loyalty and respect from those coming from the other cultural traditions.

Distributed leadership and the midweek team problem

Over various tours, midweek matches have been played by a group of players considered less gifted than the squad playing the test matches and week-end matches. While in principle, mid-week players can ‘play their way’ into consideration for selection for the test-matches – the ultimate personal achievement – the reality is dealing with the presumption that they are second-best. This is a morale problem, which has deepened over time as the mid-week role has become increasingly recognised in these terms.

Disenchanted players find it easy to attribute non-selection to wider cultural preferences by the tour leadership. Clive Woodward’s lack of success as a Lions’ manager in 2005, after his world-championship success as England manager in 2003, was attributed, in part, to his failure to resolve the mid-week problem. The media (and players subsequently) made it a major issues, as week by week, the Lions limped through their New Zealand itinerary to humiliating defeat after defeat, losing the test series 3-0. Woodward’s coaching methods, man-management, and extended loyalty to the English players he knew well, all came under intense scrutiny..

Cultural symbolism

By the 1930s cultural diversity was implicitly and symbolically acknowledged in the team colours: red jerseys, white shorts, blue socks and green stocking-tops, (to represent Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland respectively). Recently, senstivities over labels had rresulted in an official name The British and Irish Lions, as well as the pithier label of The Lions

Follow the tour

Leaders we deserve will be following the 2009 tour, drawing on the views of sporting administrators and rugby experts. We hope the posts will interesting, enlightening, and maybe providing material which throws light on leadership issues in and beyond the world of rugby football. Quick polls will make for interesting evidence of changing views as the tour progresses. We welcome comments, and the wider distribution of the posts, to enrich discussions even further.

Polling your views