I was recently asked by a friend who follows rugby from a distance, ‘Why don’t the Lions win every game?’
It initially seemed a daft question, but, viewed in a general sporting context, with the best players from four of the world’s top seven teams, why shouldn’t they?
The most obvious reason would be home advantage, or lack thereof. Studies in both hemispheres agree that home sides can benefit by up to 10 points, depending on the visiting side’s travel-time.
Given that New Zealand is as far as British teams can travel, we’ll grant the Lions the full 10-point handicap. Against the reigning world champions, that is significant.
The second reason is the time it takes rugby teams to gel from a playing standpoint. Rugby is a true team sport that relies on individuals working with their teammates, not simply taking turns to show what they can do.
The decision of whether to run a line off a ball-carrier, join them in taking contact or waiting to hit a resulting ruck requires understanding of that player’s tendencies and abilities. Whole teams will not make a majority of good decisions without a level of understanding born of familiarity.
The third and possibly most important reason is similarly based and it’s that wonderfully intangible and often elusive quality of team spirit.
In a sport that requires a high level of physical bravery and exertion, nothing less than an indomitable spirit will suffice against a team as established as the All Blacks.
Therefore the primary challenge for Warren Gatland and his lieutenants lies not in improving the players, but building their strength as a unit. For those of you in senior management, it’s a challenge that will resonate beyond the rugby pitch.
He may look to the military for inspiration, as one of the British Army’s company commanders commented on return from Afghanistan in 2009, ‘We would have done well to focus less on technical skills that soldiers pick up very quickly in theatre and foster instead the bonds of loyalty that lead men to extraordinary acts’.
Another stellar example would be Saracens. Once a band of journeymen who were consistently less than the sum of their parts, they are now the back-to-back champions of Europe.
Ex-CEO Edward Griffiths summed up their ethos thus: ‘The core principle at Saracens is that we gather talented people together, treat them unbelievably well and in return they try unbelievable hard. That is it.’
Saracens’ mercurial hooker Schalk Brits further explained: ‘People defend for each other because they want to, not because they get paid. They want to earn respect.’
Rather than his tactical genius, Warren Gatland’s legacy may well depend on whether or not he has managed to mould the Lions into a band of brothers capable of thriving on the toughest of tours.
On Saturday we will find out.
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