Pressure of Six Nations decider is key to Lions selection

Warren Gatland will be thrilled to bits that England only limped over the line against Italy on Sunday, absolutely thrilled to bits.

I do not mean because of those ill judged comments about being careful how many Englishmen he takes on tour, not because it means ‘his’ Welsh team now have an opportunity to retain the Six Nations title, no.

I mean because it sets up a high stakes, high pressure challenge between England and Wales on Saturday. A game where the media attention will be huge, where two sides that will surely provide the bulk of his squad will be going head to head for the Championship. The biggest game in Northern Hemisphere rugby, the most extreme pressure.

It is that word, pressure; pressure is why Warren Gatland will be thrilled that England and Wales’ performances set this up.

When selecting a Lions squad you are not looking for the guy that can turn your fifteen point win into a twenty five point win, you are not looking for the player who still plays well even when his side are being thumped. You are looking for the man that makes the difference, who stands up to be counted when you are in a close battle, when the margin between victory and defeat is almost imperceptible.

You are looking for the player who performs under pressure.

Make no mistake, there will players who will either make or break their Lions hopes in Cardiff on Saturday evening. If you wilt under the pressure of a Six Nations decider how would you deal with the indescribable pressure of a Lions decider? Equally, if you stand tall and perform in a Six Nations decider, you can go from a Lions no hoper to a Test candidate in 80 short minutes. At the highest level, performance under pressure is the most important attribute.

England’s 2003 World Cup winning side had an acronym that was drummed into them relentlessly by Sir Clive Woodward, TCUP, Think Correctly Under Pressure. It was spot on, the point was that if each individual can make the right decisions in the midst of the tension and pressure of an important game then their team will win that game. Rugby is a simple game, remembering that under pressure is the hard part.

There are the head to heads between potential Lions as well, not least between Chris Robshaw and Sam Warburton for the number 7 jersey and the captaincy, but the details of those are for a different blog, what will be key again in those battles though is performance under pressure.

Leigh Halfpenny, for instance, has been magnificent in his goal kicking so far this Six Nations but if he wobbles against England would Gatland trust him ahead of Sexton, or potentially Farrell, in the heat of Lions Test? Equally if he is fantastic it might just seal him the job on tour, regardless of form in the warm up games.

Faced with the choice, what would you rather; someone who can perform brilliantly against weaker midweek opposition, kick all of their goals in a low pressure game, or would you prefer the guy who is perhaps a bit quiet in midweek but who was a warrior in the Six Nations decider? I know which one I would want.

It is with that in mind that I would have Brian O’Driscoll in my squad. At 13-13 on Saturday against France he was concussed, with a dead leg and a deep cut to his ear, he was a broken man.

Despite all that though he realised the situation, realised that there were no adequate substitutions left, realised his team needed him. He marched back out onto that pitch ignored all of his pain and defended like a lion. He was a warrior, he is a warrior.

For all of his undoubted attacking and defensive qualities that he still possess, it is that warrior spirit that would make me choose him. If the Lions are clawing by their fingernails the win the series there is one man above all others that I would want on that pitch, Brian O’Driscoll, the ultimate rugby lion.

A few more warriors may emerge in Cardiff on Satuday, it is in that type of high-pressure environment where rugby warriors come out and show their worth. As for who they are though, we shall have to wait and see.

Angus Savage

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