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The riddle Gatland admits he can't answer despite 4 Lions tours

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Having just completed his third Lions tour as head coach and his fourth in total having been a 2009 assistant to Ian McGeechan, you would imagine there is nothing about the famed tourists that Warren Gatland doesn’t have a definitive opinion on but you would be wrong as he is flummoxed about the issue of midweek games during Test match weeks. 


When he was first in charge in 2013 in Australia, Gatland had to pick Test match replacements on the midweek bench in order to make up the numbers and ensure there was sufficient cover available. He was then lambasted in 2017 in New Zealand when he called in the infamous Geography Six to take up the midweek slack and allow the Test 23 to train fully.

South Africa in 2021 saw Gatland go a different way and not have any midweek matches during Test match weeks. This allowed the 17 players who were not involved in the Test match 23 to go especially hard in Tuesday training against those players who had been picked for the weekend games against the Springboks, but it also meant that those surplus players were left without any game to prolong their interest in the tour. 

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Lions boss Warren Gatland reflects on his team’s Test series defeat in South Africa
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Lions boss Warren Gatland reflects on his team’s Test series defeat in South Africa

Having tried three different methods, Gatland was at a loss to suggest what is best practice for the Lions and in the wake of their Test series loss to the Springboks, he even pondered if Clive Woodward had the right idea with what he did with his extended squad for the 2005 trip to New Zealand where the Lions effectively toured with A and B teams.  

Asked what might be the best thing for the Lions to do on the 2025 excursion to Australia, Gatland was uncertain about which approach to adopt. “It’s something we have talked about and I don’t know what the answer is to this,” he shrugged in the aftermath of Saturday’s agonising 19-16 defeat which gave the Springboks a 2-1 Test series victory.

“As you go into a Test match week you want to be able to have the full preparation with that Test side. There has been criticism of us in the past about bringing in players to help protect that Test team in preparation, but it is also hard on those players who are not involved in the Tests, they don’t really have rugby for potentially three or four weeks. 


“One of the things about the midweek games is it does keep them involved and keeps them playing rugby and that is a positive. I don’t know the answer to this. Maybe what Clive Woodward did in 2005 in terms of having two separate teams, is that the right model going forward but then do you miss all the stuff in terms of the bonding that goes on and are you devaluing the jersey a little bit by having sort of having an A and B team? 

“A really good discussion to have in the coming years is what is the right format and how does it work? We have tried to bring in players in the past to bolster up that team that is playing in that midweek game before the Tests and everyone is still engaged and involved.

“We have also done it when we haven’t done that and it is quite challenging for the Test 23 because you have guys sitting on the bench on a Tuesday and being involved in a match where normally that would be a tough training day for the Test side in a normal Test week. I haven’t really given you an answer but it’s a really weird debate going forward.”




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