Skysports.com rugby union writer Tony Curtis looks at what lessons Lions coach Warren Gatland will have learned from the autumn Tests
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter: @SkysportsTC. Last Updated: 04/12/12 11:19am
As the dust settles on the autumn internationals, British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has been left with plenty to ponder.
Gatland's own Wales team slumped to four successive defeats - extending their losing run to seven - while Scotland suffered a whitewash of their own.
Ireland overcame Fiji and Argentina but came unstuck against South Africa.
And having opened up with victory over Fiji, England were edged out by the Springboks and Australia before everything came together as they thumped New Zealand 38-21.
On the back of the autumn schedule, skysports.com looks at what lessons Gatland will have learned ahead of next summer's tour to Australia...
The difference between the northern and southern hemispheres is not necessarily the quality of players, it is about the individual mentally. Sir Clive Woodward's mantra while he was England coach was "thinking correctly under pressure" - or T-CUP - but that was something that was noticeably absent during the autumn internationals. England's decision-making let them down during their first three Tests - and they could easily have registered their own whitewash if they had made the right calls. Gatland accused Wales of being naïve during their games, Ireland let the Springboks off the hook, while Scotland's loss to Tonga highlighted the issues they have. It is not just the captains that are to blame, it is the players as a whole - whether it is kicking instead of passing or throwing the ball out of the tackle rather than taking the contact. Gatland's job is to prepare his squad for every possible situation so they are more likely to make the correct decision in the heat of battle, no matter what the distractions. That, though, will be no mean feat given the limited time the squad will have together.
The games against the big three of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will have emphasised the need to take a specialist openside to Australia. The Wallabies have two of the leading 'fetchers' in world rugby - with Michael Hooper underlining his potential in the absence of David Pocock - and if they are to negate their threat, then the Lions can't afford to play out-of-position back-rows. That would appear to put Sam Warburton in pole position, particularly after he came out of his battles with Richie McCaw and Pocock with his reputation intact.
Australia had made the trip to the north with a number of their leading lights missing, but they still left with the scalps of England and Wales. It will not have gone unnoticed that the Wallabies are likely to have some more potent weapons - James O'Connor and Will Genia, for example - available by the time the three-Test series starts. Genia, in particular, will give Australia extra impetus, while O'Connor is a regular supply of points and has that X-Factor. It means that although the tour will have given the Lions a useful look at the strength-in-depth of the Wallabies, it is far from a complete picture of what they will face Down Under.
Given the short space of time the Lions have together, the selection of the captain will be the most important decision Gatland will make. Worryingly few stepped up to the mark during the autumn internationals. Chris Robshaw and Sam Warburton both had their positions questioned and that is a situation Gatland will want to avoid. Kelly Brown did nothing wrong for Scotland, however, there is intense competition for those seven or so back-row spots on the tour and he is far from guaranteed a place in the squad. Brian O'Driscoll is likely to be in the mix given his experience, while Gatland has talked up the chances of Jamie Heaslip following his interim spell at the helm for Ireland. Tom Wood could be another contender after he marked his return to fitness with some impressive displays. And it is individual form going into the tour that will be key to who finally gets the nod.
A lot has been made about the Australia scrum and its apparent weaknesses, but how much of that is fact and how much is fiction? Well it is true that the Wallabies appeared to crumble in France, but then again the same pack dominated the much-vaunted English set-piece a week later. The truth of the matter appears to be over the individual interpretation of the referee over what is happening - and that is where Gatland and his captain need to earn their corn. What goes on in the front row is a dark, mysterious art and as a result it is notoriously difficult for referees to manage. That means the Lions need to be clear of each referee's view of what they deem as right and wrong at scrum time.