The furore from the Lions tour regarding the selection of Wales’ Jonathan Davies over Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll was sustained and vociferous; but it shouldn’t have been over nationality, rather over what it revealed in terms of the squad’s high performance culture and leadership.
Since the subsequent win I’ve heard a lot of famous former players apologising over their pre-game stance. Many of the pundits and commentators who had criticised Gatland’s team selection were labelled as having been myopic with regard to nationality, and rightly so, where it was genuinely only parochialism. But regardless of the result no one should apologise for seeing the essence of the Lions experience being lost.
In business they say culture eats strategy for breakfast. In sport, I believe culture eats results for breakfast.
Of course the result, and high margin of victory over Australia did somewhat vindicate Gatland. But would the same team, with the same style, have beaten New Zealand or South Africa?
The Lions rugby team is a unique concept which blends the best of the talents and styles of four nations. Like many modern professional teams its strength is in a culture that merges complementary styles of play thus requiring leadership that takes account of that culture. By selecting a centre partnership from his Welsh national set-up Gatland reached for a tried-and-tested (and admittedly successful) solution, but inadvertently revealed a lack of faith in the culture he’d managed to build up amongst the squad and for which he had responsibility for delivering.
In the warm glow of the series victory Gatland has already pressed his claims to coach the Lions in his native New Zealand in 4-years time. I believe that would be the wrong choice, because only with a proper blend of the four nations, using the best of each of their styles and cultures will they be a success against the reigning World Champions. Gatland, via his selection, revealed he was unable to do that in Australia and this must be borne in mind when choosing the next management and coaching team.
If culture eats results for breakfast then a Gatland-coached squad would be eaten alive in New Zealand.
Alistair Tosh is Director of Executive Education at the Irish Management Institute and is a specialist in leadership development.