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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 20 March, 2019

'Does it devalue the shirt? We're here to win a Test series'

Lions head coach Warren Gatland answered the criticisms about his six new call-ups.

Murray Kinsella reports from Rotorua International Stadium

WHILE THE LIONS’ grindingly excellent win over the Māori All Blacks took some of the sting out of it, Warren Gatland’s decision to call up six additional players to his touring squad in New Zealand will be a major talking point for days to come.

There’s confusion, there’s dismay and – as ever – there’s outrage.

Peter O'Mahony speaks to his team before the game Peter O'Mahony speaks to the Lions in Rotorua. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Four Welshmen joined the Lions in Rotorua today, while two Scots were on the next flight out of Sydney after they had impressively claimed the scalp of the Wallabies.

Finn Russell apparently showed his class in that fixture to underline that he deserves to be a Lion, but the real mutterings are about the rest of this crew.

Gareth Davies had has an excellent season and was superb in the Pro12 with Scarlets, sure, but the fingers are being pointed at Kristian Dacey, Cory Hill, Allan Dell and Tomas Francis.

You’d have to feel sorry for the individual players themselves, given that they have been called up to the Lions squad to widespread disapproval, but the questions around Gatland’s decision are entirely justified.

The chosen six are set to feature on the bench in Tuesday’s meeting with the Chiefs in Hamilton and then against the Hurricanes in Wellington, before leaving the squad again.

Some of these players were not in the mix for the original Lions squad and now they will be capped – even if it’s only off the bench – in New Zealand. Their geographical proximity was the key criteria, with Wales playing Tonga in Auckland on Friday and Scotland over the water in Australia, but the frustrations are being felt strongly.

Gatland himself understands it, he appreciates that people are angered that their favourite Irish or England player hasn’t been flown the 11 or 13 hours from Japan or Argentina to represent the Lions, but he says he is just out to win a Test series.

“Does it devalue the shirt? You’re only a Lion when you get on the field and there’s a few of those players that were probably unlucky not to potentially be in contention in the first place,” said Gatland after his side’s 32-10 win in Rotorua on Saturday.

Warren Gatland before the game Gatland before the impressive win over the Maori. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We’ve picked up a couple of injuries. In terms of devaluing the shirt, I can see some people’s point of that but we’re here to win a Test series and it’s those guys covering from Auckland [where Wales played], not travelling halfway around the world.

“We found it difficult the first 10 days when we were here in terms of jetlag and tiredness and stuff. The players that came in from Auckland last night and from Australia will be able to fit quickly into that time zone.”

Steve Hansen and some in the New Zealand media have suggested that this move by Gatland will divide his camp, but the Lions boss said his players have known this was going to be the case for some time.

“This is something we had planned from the start and informed the coaches and this is what we were looking to do. I understand it is difficult when you are so far away and when you bring them in.

“These guys will be with us for a week and they are for bench cover and they understand that’s the way it is. My job is to win a Test series and I will do whatever it takes to do that.”

While Gatland says that the national team coaches of the home unions were aware that the Lions would call on extra players at this point, Eddie Jones’ critical assessment of the call-ups would suggest otherwise.

The England boss – who is no great fan of Gatland’s – told the BBC that players should have been selected on merit rather than proximity to the Lions, and wondered why Englishmen weren’t being called on.

“Oh, I’ll let Eddie do his own talking,” said Gatland in response. “He can do plenty of it so… we made the decision that we think is the best decision for us.

Allan Dell Allan Dell is one of the new faces. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

“I understand Eddie’s concern, people’s concern, his point, but I just understand how difficult it is to do that travel from Argentina. It’s not as if you’re in Buenos Aires, you’ve got to get here and get around the world and acclimatise.”

And while there has been shock at the Lions’ call-ups in the past 24 hours, Gatland pointed out that he did much the same on the 2013 tour of Australia, when Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees, Shane Williams, Christian Wade and Tom Court joined the original squad to protect the Test 23.

In Gatland’s eyes, keeping his frontliners out of a clash with the Brumbies in the week of the first Test was essential to the success of the tour.

This time around, he hopes the call-ups can help the Lions towards a similar result.

“Like I said, it’s all about us doing that for the best opportunity for the first Test.

“We did that in 2013 and I have no doubt it’s one of the reasons why we won the first Test because we gave the Test team a chance to win the Test, and if we hadn’t have done that then we could have easily lost the series.”

There’s precedent, but it still doesn’t make it right.

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The Rugby Show: Controversial call-ups and reaction to Lions’ victory

‘I can only take that as a sign of respect in that Hansen is a little bit worried’

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Murray Kinsella

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