Speaking this week to BBC Radio 5 Live’s Rugby Union Weekly, British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has talked about his excitement for the Lions’ 2021 tour to South Africa.
“I wanted England to win the World Cup, thought it would have been brilliant for the Northern Hemisphere,” confirmed Gatland, speaking to show’s host Ugo Monye. “But if I look from a purely selfish point of view, it makes the Lions even more exciting, going to South Africa, playing the World Champions.”
This point holds. However disappointing England’s World Cup final defeat was, you’d be hard pushed to argue it doesn’t account for a better Lions tour.
Had England walked over the Springboks, then Northern Hemisphere’s dominance over South would have been assumed. Gatland would have taken the majority of that World Cup winning squad whilst including a few ‘best of the rest’, and the narrative in the build-up would be ‘can South Africa overcome World Cup demons?’ or something to that effect.
Instead, the Lions will now go to South Africa gearing up to play the World Champions. It will be a proper battle: the best in the world versus the best the Northern Hemisphere has to offer. Gatland will be encouraged to pick a more eclectic Lions squad. One that will pose a different threat to South Africa than England’s who could not contest with the Springboks’ intensity and physicality.
This is better for the Lions for two reasons.
Firstly, above all the Lions tour should be a challenge. An opportunity for players to raise their game, an event on which many individuals define their career. For it to be a challenge, you have to be playing the best sides in the World. 2017’s tour to New Zealand was a perfect example of this. The Lions knew they were playing the best team in world rugby at that moment and that they needed to lift it individually and as a group to come out on top. The tied series was phenomenal, and a superb advert for rugby.
Secondly, it’s more fun when one nation does not dominate the squad. The beauty of the Lions is that it is a coming together of four nations, not the core of one national side with a few extras added for good measure. It’s a laugh seeing two props that last Six Nations were at each other’s throats prepare to scrum down together, it feels like a fantasy team, and it creates more of an aura around the squad.
Gatland’s selection is still a way off. But the prospect of defeating the World Champions will be only beneficial to the Lions tour.
By Will Sewell