Gregor Townsend exclusive: Why England's World Cup final defeat will shape our Lions gameplan

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Gregor Townsend exclusive: Why England's World Cup final defeat will shape our Lions gameplan - Getty Images
Gregor Townsend exclusive: Why England's World Cup final defeat will shape our Lions gameplan - Getty Images

In the anxious minutes before the final British and Irish Lions squad selection meeting at the Lensbury Hotel last week, Gregor Townsend opened his laptop for one last time.

Hundreds of hours of preparation had gone into this moment, arguably the biggest selection meeting of his coaching career.

Townsend had analysed players across the four home unions, and spoken to a range of coaches, both past and present, from former England head coach Stuart Lancaster at Leinster to Joe Schmidt, the former Ireland head coach who is now with World Rugby, and Chris Boyd at Northampton.

Yet even now, 30 minutes before the four-hour meeting was due to start to pick what would ultimately prove to be a 37-strong squad for the tour of South Africa, Townsend could not resist one final review of the game he had first turned to when Gatland had asked him to be a Lions assistant coach back in December – England’s humbling World Cup final defeat by South Africa in Yokohama.

"We met at 1.30pm and in the half hour before I remember I watched back clips of the World Cup final to review one player again," recalled Townsend in an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport. "It was then that I finally thought, 'right, that is the last game, now we are into the selection meeting'.

"It was also the first I had turned to when Warren first offered me the (Lions) coaching role. It was obviously the last game the Springboks played but there was a dual role there. We were playing England in the first game of the Six Nations, so I was half-looking for any more traits from England, even though it was over a year ago.

"But also to look at South Africa – their defence, what they did well that day. And what England did well. It is probably forgotten after the result that there were a lot of things that they did do well in that first half."

Eighteen months on and that final was still having potential repercussions - and the focus on performances in the World Cup perhaps goes some way to explain why England, despite finishing fifth in the Six Nations, still provided the highest number of players (11) to the Lions squad.

South Africa swept aside England 32-12 in the 2019 World Cup final - REUTERS
South Africa swept aside England 32-12 in the 2019 World Cup final - REUTERS

Townsend's preparation also included re-watching the semi-finals - Wales' narrow defeat by the Springboks and also England's stunning victory over New Zealand.

"They were key games given the opposition was South African but also the England v New Zealand game was one of the best games a country has played over the last two or three years," he added.

"There was a lot of work that went into the selection process. Obviously, we felt a big responsibility to do everyone justice, to watch the games and to find out more about them and to make that selection discussion and decision as robust as possible."

Initially the process began with Gatland asking his coaches to send in their 36-man selections a month before the final meeting and then the conversation deepened at a get together in Jersey, where the Lions head coach helped shape the deliberations by first stating his selection principles, where character was key.

Of equal import were Gatland's experiences of players on the tour of New Zealand in 2017 and his criteria helps explain why some of England’s Saracens contingent, such as Elliot Daly and Jamie George, still made the cut despite their relative lack of form in the Six Nations.

"'Good people' was one of the first things Warren said," added Townsend. "That included players who did an outstanding job who were maybe not included in the Test team or improved during the tour and bounced back after adversity.

"Obviously we discussed a lot more players than just from the last tour, but that was one of the first things he said and it certainly got everyone’s thought process around to: 'even if he is a really good player, how will he handle it if he is not a starter?'

"And likewise, there might have been a player that wasn't in the best of form or hadn’t played a huge amount of games but was an outstanding character and would thrive in the Lions environment and enable others to thrive as well."

As head coach of Scotland, and with his national defence coach Steve Tandy also on the Lions coaching team, the pair had something of a head start in both their knowledge of their Scottish players and the analysis of their opponents from the home unions in the Six Nations Championship.

"Once Steve and I were confirmed (last month), it was about looking at the games we hadn’t watched as much," he added. "I think I watched the Wales v France game at least three times. But also the likes of Leinster, Munster, obviously the European games, games in England.

"We have watched a lot of English rugby, because we've got a lot of Scots who play in England so when you are watching Cam Redpath play for Bath, you are also seeing Ben Spencer and Anthony Watson."

The crunch time came with the 'jeopardy' involved in the Lensbury meeting on Wednesday last week however, when the debate at times included whittling down three players for one position, with second row, back row and back three the most competitive. Each coach was given the opportunity to make their case for players, but ultimately it was Gatland who had the final call.

"I tried to lean on what I appreciate when I am head coach in those meetings – people giving their opinions, with logic and being able to have a debate – someone saying 'I've seen this in a person, I know this is how they perform, look at stats or a game, how it would suit the rugby we are going to play or face South Africa'.

"Warren was very open to input from all the coaches. We had some good discussions and debates around players. We not only put our own feelings across about a player, it got us talking about rugby philosophies – and it fits with what Warren wants for the Lions and our own tendencies - why is this player really important for our defence or attack or how we get through a tour against South Africa?

"Players came into the reckoning that would help with the gameplan – help that balance of playing in a power game at times, matching their power but also playing at speed and moving South Africa around and playing to space."

There was a major sense of relief when the decision to expand the squad to 37 at the end of the four-hour meeting was eventually signed off by the Lions board two hours later before the coaches sat down for what became a much more relaxed dinner and welcome glass of wine at 7.30pm.

Yet Townsend, who regards his own experience as a player on the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa as the pinnacle of his playing career, knows the biggest challenge still awaits them.

"I am very excited about working with this group of players and what we can achieve but what we do know is this will be the toughest test you can have in rugby - South Africa are world champions and are full of confidence," he added.

"They will have huge cohesion and will be desperate to play international rugby again and against the Lions. Their passion will be through the roof. They're going to come at us to play with power. So we've got to be ready for that."