Decision making in rugby is not always of the highest order: as the pathetic failure of leadership at Heineken Cup level demonstrates all too painfully, it is only on an unusually good day that some of those running the sport aspire to mediocrity. Yet Warren Gatland, who masterminded the British and Irish Lions victory in Australia last summer, believes the new Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie made an inspired and brave call in throwing the disciplinary book at 15 members of his tour squad last week.
“Ewen is trying to put his mark on the Australian team and I respect him for that,” said Gatland, now back in the day job with Wales and planning for this weekend’s meeting between the two countries in Cardiff – the final international fling of a long and intense autumn programme. “Discipline is a massive factor. I applaud Ewen for doing what he did.”
What Ewen did was dramatic, to say the least: he slapped a one-match ban on half a dozen front-line players, including the long-serving wing Adam Ashley-Cooper, for hitting the bar late at night during preparations for last weekend’s Test in Ireland, and issued formal warnings to nine others. He then went public with a detailed explanation of his actions, during which little was left unsaid. If the Wallabies do not know the mind of their coach now, they must be seriously thick.
It is a matter of record that the Lions – some of them, at least – hit the sauce with a vengeance between the Melbourne Test at the end of June and the Sydney Test a week later, but they had the blessing of a tour management keen to release some tension as a bitterly fought series built to a climax. In Ireland, the Wallaby culprits took it upon themselves to act outside team protocols and, by extension, to question McKenzie’s authority. The answer they received from the World Cup-winning prop was very loud and clear.
Saturday evening’s curtain-down contest at the Millennium Stadium should prove worthy of its stand-alone status. Gatland, sick to the back teeth of leaks from the team room, named his side yesterday, 48 hours earlier than expected, and included no fewer than 11 Lions tourists. One of them, the wing Alex Cuthbert, was picked after making a surprisingly rapid recovery from an injury that had threatened to wreck his autumn entirely.
“I took a lot from the summer,” said the 23-year-old Cardiff Blues back, who scored a fine try on his Lions Test debut in the Brisbane Test before losing his place to the Irish wing Tommy Bowe. “I think I grew up during that trip and I want to prove it by putting on a performance for myself, my family and my supporters this weekend against one of the world’s best teams. All I’m thinking about is getting back out there.
“The Brisbane game was the first time I’d beaten a major southern-hemisphere side and to score as well… I was pretty happy with that. I’ve scored on a regular basis for Wales too, so my confidence is high. When my injury was diagnosed [a hairline fracture of his ankle during a Heineken Cup game in October] it seemed I had no chance of playing in this series. But I’m back two weeks ahead of schedule and the adrenaline is pumping.”
Gatland has been bombarded with questions about the Lions victory and its relevance to this weekend’s fixture, but as he considers the summer’s events to be wholly irrelevant, there are no parallels to be drawn. “Australia are a completely different side now,” the coach argued. He was more interested in discussing his own selection, in which Dan Biggar of Ospreys features at outside-half ahead of his Scarlets rival Rhys Priestland. “It was a tight decision,” Gatland acknowledged. “Both players have their strengths, but I’ve gone for the No 10 in form – the man with a little more confidence.”
Apart from centre, where Owen Williams and his namesake Scott will link up in the absence of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, and at tight-head prop, where Rhodri Jones fills in for the stricken Adam Jones, the Welsh will be at something close to full strength. Always assuming no one heads for the pub.