Lions’ domestic form gives Gatland headache

Dylan Hartley

Jamie Hosie asks if the selection for the British and Irish Lions side just got tougher.

On the one hand, the sight of Tom Croft galloping gloriously down the touchline for a spectacular 60m solo try would have filled British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland with pride at one of his more controversial selection decisions seemingly paying off.

Alongside him the Youngs brothers both had exceptional games once again, while Geoff Parling soared the airwaves in the line-out. 

In a similar fashion the way in which Dylan Hartley, a man not many had on their squad lists, led his Northampton Saints team to an unlikely but resounding victory over Saracens would have left Gatland feeling vindicated.

These performances all helped their respective clubs reach the Premiership final the weekend after next. 

Over in Ireland, Leinster and Ulster, commandeered by the likes of Jamie Heaslip (man of the match) and Tommy Bowe, who has found some try-scoring form, won their respective semi-finals and ploughed their way into an all-Irish RaboDirect PRO12 final.

Again, Gatland will have been happy to see players he has selected to the fore. 

All this, however, means he is without these players for the next two weeks. While they head back to their clubs, minds and bodies firmly focused on respective finals, those who have finished their domestic season will remain in camp and train together.

They will also be the ones in contention for selection for the opening game of the tour, against the Barbarians in Hong Kong. 

Gatland has publicly said that these players are at an advantage when it comes to Test selection – and rightly so. The Lions tour is unique in that it throws together players from four different nations and expects them to gel into one team in the blink of an eye.

So it is about building partnerships both on and off the field, and obviously those who have been in camp together longer will be at a huge advantage in this sense.

 And then of course there is the ever-present threat of injury. It has already reared its head to force Brian O’Driscoll off last weekend, scenes which would have had Gatland hiding behind his sofa.

O’Driscoll’s body is undoubtedly in tatters – question marks remain whether he would be able to take three test matches in quick succession, as well as the build-up games – but as the most experienced man on tour he would be a huge loss.

The news is that he will recover in time, but it is still a reminder that at some point a front line player is likely to have his dreams shattered and miss the tour through injury, and those playing in finals over the next couple of weeks are at a significantly higher risk than those just training.

So will that stop those with games still to play giving their all? Will they have one eye on being fit for the Lions tour? Not a chance. Such is life in the rugby world.

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