British and Irish Lions players warm up, during a Captain's Run ahead of the first test match against the Springboks
Credit: Halden Krog
Ben Darwin still winces at the memory of facing the British and Irish Lions. It was his debut for Australia, coming off the bench in the first Test in Brisbane, where Brian O’Driscoll was waltzing the tourists to a famous victory.
“It was the most physically tiring 10 minutes of my life,” recalls Darwin, who went on to win 28 caps for the Wallabies before a neck injury in the World Cup semi-final victory over New Zealand in 2003 prematurely ended his career.
“It was just a complete terrifying blur. But I got to scrummage against my hero, Jason Leonard, which was at least something.”
Twenty years on and Leonard will be at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday in his capacity as Lions chairman for the opening Test against South Africa.
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, has plumped for arguably the boldest selection of his three tours in charge, attempting to both match the physicality of the Springboks while also equip his side with a high-tempo game to run them off their feet.
But Darwin, who will be watching the game from his home in Melbourne, this time fears for the tourists.
As if facing the world champions in their backyard was not a big enough challenge, Darwin, who runs a sports data analysis company called Gain Line Analytics, fears the Lions’ biggest challenge this time may come from themselves.
His analysis centres upon levels of ‘cohesion’ in sporting sides, and the critical role it plays more than anything in the success, which when you boil it down is described as “the measure of the understanding between the participants”.
Ben Darwin (L) was unable to play in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final after his career was prematurely ended by a neck injury earlier in the tournament
Credit: MARK BAKER
It is this measure that Darwin claims is why in times of need during the previous two Lions tours under Warren Gatland, he has turned to combinations he knows and trusts, most notably when he dropped Brian O’Driscoll for Jonathan Davies in the third Test against Australia in 2013.
“You can’t find combinations, you build combinations and if you can’t build combinations, you take the ones that are already there,” adds Darwin. “And that was Gatland’s smart move in 2013. O’Driscoll was hands down the better player but there was not enough time for O’Driscoll to show it. It may not have been fair, but it was about the outcome.
“The problem for the Lions is that the build up in this series most resembles the first Test in 2005 against the All Blacks in terms of cohesion of the team.”
Darwin’s analysis centres on the fact of his starting XV, only the centres, Robbie Henshaw and Elliot Daly, have started together on tour while Alyn Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje played together four years ago. The remainder of the combinations are untried – an indictment of the disruption caused by the Covid isolations and the fact the tour has been reduced by two games.
And yet the magic of Lions tours is that the analytics only take you so far. The Springboks may be more ‘cohesive’ but the great unknown there is the impact that their lack of game time together will have.
And Gatland’s cohesion comes from his coaching team and his instinct which rarely lets him down. He has plenty of credit in the bank. He argues that his line-up, if it lacks game time together, is a reflection of the fact that he has never had so much depth and so many options to choose from going into the first Test.
Looking at some of the big name players who have not even made the 23-man squad – Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Taulupe Faletau and Josh Adams, underscores that point.
Victory in South Africa would cement Warren Gatland's status as the greatest Lions coach in history
Credit: Halden Krog
“You come to the selection meeting and you don’t look at the nations they come from,” said Gatland. “You look at them as individuals coming from one team and hopefully making the right decisions. It’s tough from that perspective but a real positive because you want to be in that position where there’s going to be a large group of players really disappointed because they’ve made your job so hard.
“Sometimes you’re able to say to players one or two things that another player might have had over them that swung selection.
“Other times you don’t have an answer, you just say keep working hard and we’ve gone with a gut feeling because we feel it’s the right call for that game. There were definitely some of those decisions made where it was almost like gut feelings or tosses of the coin where it could easily have gone the other way.
Even Darwin admits that the unique circumstances surrounding this game makes it impossible to call.
What is certain is that a series victory for the tourists would cement Gatland’s status as the greatest Lion king of all, surpassing even the great Sir Ian McGeechan. And whatever the outcome, he will continue to fight for the Lions’ place in the global calendar.
“I’d like to think I’ve fought really hard – I’ve not always been the most popular with members of the board or the unions – about how important the Lions is to the rugby calendar, to the players, for the people who are involved it’s something incredibly special,” Gatland added.
“There are Lions fans but I don’t think they always understand the significance of a Lions tour and representing the Lions, not just as players but also as coaches and management.
“I’m going to keep fighting and keep promoting the Lions. For the last 20 years I’ve spent in the UK, all that time in Ireland as well, I feel very privileged and honoured to have had those opportunities. I’d like to think I’ve been incredibly honest and transparent and worn my heart on my sleeve.”
One senses that could be the most important coefficient of success on Saturday.