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Lions' handling of the 'geography six' has been a complete farce

Warren Gatland’s admission that public opinion had swayed his decision-making was surprising.

Murray Kinsella reports from Wellington

LOOKING DOWN AT the Lions’ replacements bench at Westpac Stadium, it was impossible not to feel sorry for Tomas Francis, Gareth Davies, Finn Russell, Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey and Allan Dell.

We could argue until the cows come home whether the sextet – dubbed the ‘geography six’ after being called up to the Lions squad based on their geographical proximity – should have even been in New Zealand at all, but surely the sensible move was to give them a genuine shot.

Finn Russell with Brad Shields Finn Russell got five minutes only as a HIA replacement. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With the Lions tiring against the Hurricanes, even more so after Iain Henderson’s yellow card stretched them, reinforcements were needed. 14 points were conceded in the 10 minutes of that sin binning, eating up the lead the Lions had held.

And all the while, these Lions replacements sat slumped on the bench. Protect the Test 23? What about giving them a lift by beating the Hurricanes four days out from the second clash with the All Blacks.

Topping it all off was a quite farcical scene in which prop Francis pulled off his tracksuit and readied himself to come onto the pitch in the very closing minutes.

Starting tighthead Dan Cole even began jogging towards the touchline in the 78th minute after referee Romain Poite had informed him he was being replaced, only for the Frenchman to say, “No, no, no – stay on” a second later.

Then just after the hooter had gone following a Hurricanes choke tackle two minutes later and before the final scrum of the game, Francis was again seemingly ready to win his first Lions cap for a matter of seconds, only to be held back again.

Poite walked towards the touchline with his arms spread out in confusion, his body language echoing what everyone else was thinking – ‘What the hell is going on here?’

Francis, of course, didn’t get on and the bizarre scene was an entirely fitting end to what has been a divisive and damaging saga for the Lions ‘brand’.

Allan Dell Allan Dell [right] played against the Chiefs. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Whatever about one’s opinion on the actual value of having these six additional players added midway through the tour to protect the Test 23 – and certainly one can make a very good case for it – the handling of the affair has been a complete mess.

To be fair, it was all the way back in September that Warren Gatland highlighted that the Lions might bring in additional players for the final two midweek games.

But it wasn’t mentioned publicly by the Lions once in the meantime, nor were any members of the media informed of the plans in order to get the message out along a different channel, reminding people that there would be additional players brought in.

So it was that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was able to ‘reveal’ the plans before most Lions fans were even aware of the possibility, and certainly before the Lions had brought the issue up again themselves.

Suddenly, it seemed that Hansen had insider knowledge on what the Lions were planning and he was able to drive the narrative of a split being created in the tourists’ camp, a theme that has continued ever since and clearly irked Gatland.

The Lions were quick to state that the six players would be leaving the squad after the Hurricanes fixture, but few expected that they would not play at all unless absolutely necessary – as was the case for Dell and Russell’s fleeting appearances.

Dell got a handful of minutes off the bench when Joe Marler was in the sin bin against the Chiefs and helped win a scrum penalty, while Russell played for five minutes against the Canes with Dan Biggar getting a HIA.

Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar Gareth Davies [right] had a fine season for the Scarlets. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

29-times capped Russell must have felt he could have made an impact against a rather loose Hurricanes team if given a chance in the second half, while Hill, Dacey, Dell and Francis would have backed themselves to add work rate as the Lions battled to hold their lead.

Instead, Joe Marler, Rory Best and Dan Cole put in an 80-minute shift in the front row – an absolute rarity at the top level of the sport – while Test 23 candidates Iain Henderson and George Kruis finished out the game, Courtney Lawes having played 54 minutes.

Gareth Davies, meanwhile, was perhaps the best scrum-half in the Guinness Pro12 this season, so there was little reason not to trust him and he might even have improved the Lions’ performance given that Greig Laidlaw was not at his best again.

Wing George North played most of the game at inside centre after Robbie Henshaw’s shoulder injury, while Leigh Halfpenny – himself a late bench replacement for Jared Payne – played 60 minutes after being involved in the first Test.

Bizarrely, it transpires that Gatland and his coaching staff had decided not to cap these players unless necessary due to the furore over their initial call-ups.

A head coach who has so seldom been swayed by public opinion admitting to changing his mind after some social media outrage and questioning of his decision-making from people who have no real knowledge of the demands of his job?

That didn’t feel right.

And even if that was the case, that the Lions were influenced by public opinion, it wasn’t the right thing to admit. Gatland’s position must be one of conviction and All Blacks boss Steve Hansen will have enjoyed hearing that the Lions head coach made a decision based on other people’s opinions.

Cory Hill Sightings of Cory Hill were few. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Stuck in the middle of the whole mess are the six players, all of whom will surely now leave the Lions squad questioning what they got out of the experience.

Training with some of the best players in the world is valuable, but at the end of an already long season these men were criticised openly and then didn’t even get a chance to show those critics what they can do.

It would be fascinating to eventually hear an honest take on events from one of the six players’ points of view, but from the outside looking in, the entire affair has been handled farcically.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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