Warren Gatland faces ‘one hell of a challenge’ as Lions coach
WITHIN minutes of being officially anointed as the new “Lion King”, Warren Gatland confirmed that he is to fly to the country possibly least concerned with the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia next summer.
Gatland is heading to France this weekend to begin the process of identifying contenders for the 2013 tour and to ascertain who may or may not be available from French clubs, with the Top 14 Final clashing with the Lions’ historic stop-over tour match in Hong Kong. Such a
priority sums up both how professional the whole Lions concept has become and how meticulous Gatland is set to be.
The New Zealander is acutely aware that the last time the Lions handed over the reins to a Kiwi, also in Australia, it ended in tears. The 2001 tour itself was not a catastrophe, the Lions
losing the Test series 2-1 after an agonising stolen lineout in the final minutes deprived Sir Graham Henry’s pride of victory in the third Test and a series win. But the tour was riven with rancour and much was laid at the feet of Henry.
The fact that he has gone on to achieve great success with the All Blacks has ensured his legendary status, but the former headteacher still admits he cannot fathom how it went so wrong for him in 2001. From splitting the squad in two soon after touching down in Australia, in order to concentrate his efforts on a “Test squad”, and inadvertently sending a message to around 20 tourists that they were in Oz to carry tackle bags, to being attacked in player’s newspaper columns by Matt Dawson and Austin Healey for his coaching methods, Henry suffered at the hands of his own, and cut an isolated figure by the end.
The performance of the Lions did leave its mark, however, on a sceptical Australian public. After the first Test match, where fans from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland turned the famous Gabba cricket ground into a rocking red bowl of noise, the Australian government took out large adverts urging Australians to wear yellow to the second Test and avoid another embarrassing upstaging.
The Wallabies came through to win but the excitement left its impression and Australia view the 2013 tour as another huge opportunity to lift the profile of rugby. After Sir Clive Woodward’s disastrous 2005 tour and a return to Lions principles in 2009, and a narrow loss in South Africa, the Lions have turned back to a successful Kiwi.
Now 48 and still recovering from broken heels, suffered in a fall off a ladder when back in New Zealand after the Six Nations, Gatland has promised to follow the 2009 example. “There is no question it will be one hell of a challenge,” he admitted. “Playing in the southern hemisphere is one of rugby’s hardest challenges. The Lions came close in South Africa [in 2009] and our ambition is to win the series in 2013, and I believe we have the players to do that.
“I am really honoured to have been asked to take the position of head coach. I really enjoyed the experience as one of the
assistant coaches in 2009 and, since then, have harboured the ambition to lead the tour to Australia next year.” On his plans now, he added: “Over the coming months I will give careful consideration to the make-up of my coaching staff and, of course, the playing squad itself.
“A Lions tour is unique. It is the ultimate career pinnacle
for coaches and players. I want to ensure that we get the
tour environment right so
that we are hugely competitive and that our fans are proud of the team.”
Gatland plans to confirm his backroom team before the autumn Tests and they will be familiar faces.
His Wales assistant Rob Howley was confirmed by the Welsh Rugby Union as caretaker for the their team in Gatland’s absence, and many read into that that he would not be by Gatland’s side to Australia, but I expect the former Lions scrum-half to become the Lions backs coach, with Shaun Edwards the defence chief and Graham Rowntree as forwards coach.
It makes sense, as one of the key barriers to success with the Lions is the time available to prepare and mould a squad, so it is vital that coaches have a good understanding of each other and a strong grasp of and confidence in their tactical plans for the tour, long before they leave these shores. All four worked together on the 2009 Lions tour and know each other inside out.
It would be no surprise were Wales also to provide the
captain, with Sam Warburton an obvious candidate, but for all Gatland’ desire for meticulous planning, the first lesson he may already have learned is to expect the unexpected in planning for a Lions tour.
His appointment launches a new year of Lions anticipation. The focus now turns to the
players who would be Lions.
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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