Jonny Wilkinson sent the British and Irish Lions a warning
Sir Clive Woodward’s Lions were ripped apart by the All Blacks, who inflicted a whitewash in a one-sided series. The 2005 pride never recovered from the confusion of Christchurch in the First Test where their muddled game plan led to a 21-3 defeat.
For Wilkinson, who felt less like a Lion than a headless chicken in that game, the lesson is that the Lions must stick to the basics and ensure they go into the Tests singing from the same hymn sheet, even if it means playing the most basic rugby.
The cramped time frame handed the Lions to formulate a coherent style offers no other option.
“We went down to 13 men against New Zealand in Wellington with England in 2003 when we had a couple of guys sin-binned but we were so together and sure of each other that we just dealt with it. A couple years later we were there with a full squad of amazing guys from all different teams packed into the Lions, went out for the First Test and it was like chaos I’d never seen before,” said Wilkinson.
“We had 12 of us in rucks at times. We were literally all over the place. Everyone was trying their best and giving more than they have ever given – I’m sure of that – but they pulled us apart.
“At times I was defending against five people. I was just picking one and thinking ‘You’re getting it.’ As soon as I saw the pass leave the hand I just had to guess. I remember twice choosing the right bloke and whacking into them. If it I’d hit someone else then it was done.
British & Irish Lions squad for 2017 New Zealand tour Mon, May 22, 2017
Express Sport runs through the confirmed Lions squad for the 2017 tour to New Zealand
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Express Sport runs through the 37-man Lions squad ahead of the New Zealand tour
It was like chaos I’d never seen before
England legend Jonny Wilkinson
“How many times in rugby now do you see a five or six-man overlap? Never. There were four or five in that First Test in the first half. Not only that it was happening with it chucking down with rain and windy as well. New Zealand were kind of doing well but even they were thinking: ‘what’s happening here?’
“The Lions have to be absolutely clear this time. They need to have fewer things to do but be absolutely clear on each of them. Everything has to be driven in one direction. If that means everything has to be kept more simple then that’s the way it must be.
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“If they go in with a complicated plan I think they will get pulled apart.”
Wilkinson’s advice to Warren Gatland is that less is more when it comes play books for the likes of Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell. He believes the head coach would be wisest to concentrate on solidifying the defence ahead of the challenge from the most potent attack in world rugby.
“In that short space of time it is about understanding general principles, choosing combinations and then feeding the energy so the guys are ready to go,” said Wilkinson.
“Start with the defence – nothing can come through – and then attack-wise all the guys need to know is that there is opportunity in what they are doing.
“They don’t need to know that if he runs that line, it goes behind him and then we should be able to get the offload away. If the guys going into the game with a very solid platform but excited about attack then I think they will do incredible things.”
The Lions squad arrived in New Zealand yesterday determined to offer a more friendly and accessible face than Woodward’s 2005 squad who were largely hidden from public view. Back then Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell was taken along to power an aggressive Lions PR machine – a move which backfired as badly as anything on that ill-fated tour.
Wilkinson’s view is that the Lions are fighting a lost cause in trying to win over the New Zealand public and would be best served using what little time they have to become the team they dream of being.
“One of the greatest things to take forward from 2005 is that the only thing that matters is rugby. That’s how you communicate and negotiate with the New Zealand public. Through rugby,” said Wilkinson, speaking at a Land Rover promotional event.
“It’s not through what you say or anything else, it’s how you play that speaks. You don’t get to say ‘we’re the Lions and this is what we’re about’ . Your voice is in your performance so you need to gear everything towards that.”