Duncan Smith: Why Warren Gatland is the eternal optimist

'Brutal', 'ludicrous' and 'impossible' have been some of the adjectives used to describle next summer's British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, but Warren Gatland insists he had no hesitation in signing up for the challenge.

Newly appointed Lions coach Warren Gatland in Edinburgh. Picture: Greg Macvean
Newly appointed Lions coach Warren Gatland in Edinburgh. Picture: Greg Macvean

The lure of returning to his homeland and attempting to overcome the back-to-back world champions fills Gatland with excitement rather than trepidation and he believes he can lead the Lions to only their second ever series win in New Zealand and first since 1971.

“I wouldn’t be doing the job if I did,” said the 52-year-old when asked if toppling the seemingly invincible All Blacks was mission impossible. “I am the eternal optimist.

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“With the players we have potentially available, there is some genuine quality in terms of pace and quick footwork, players with experience and physicality.

“Hopefully some belief and confidence as well. That’s the important thing. When you get on that plane you need to go believing you are part of a squad that can win.”

Gatland is the first to accept that the ten-match tour, which starts one week after the English Premiership and Guinness Pro12 finals, presents an enormous challenge but he embraced the task ahead and, rather than try to deflect any pressure, sought to absorb it all onto his own shoulders and free the players he eventually selects next year to view it as a magnificent opportunity.

“I don’t think there is any pressure on the players,” said Gatland. “People look at me and say ‘what do you mean?’ Look it’s tough, but if you fail as a Lion it probably doesn’t have an impact on your international or club selection.

“But if you fail as a coach and have a poor tour, well, look back at some previous coaches and see the impact it’s had on them and some of it hasn’t been positive.”

Gatland was referring to the three successive losing series of 2001, 2005 and 2009 and the three knights who led them. The latter two tours proved to be the last frontline rugby roles for Sir Ian McGeechan and Sir Clive Woodward, while Sir Graham Henry left Wales a year after failing to beat Australia 15 years ago (though he did go on to win a World Cup with New Zealand).

“When I was interviewed in 2013 and asked about my ambitions I said I wouldn’t mind being the first Lions coach who was still in a job 12 months after the tour because all the others had lost theirs,” said Gatland, who masterminded the Lions’ return to winning ways with a 2-1 defeat of the Wallabies three years ago after acting as McGeechan’s assistant in the 2-1 reverse by the Springboks in 2009. “You’ve got to be successful because, if you’re not, I know a lot of you guys will turn on me pretty quickly. That’s the nature of the beast and I expect it. It makes you tougher.”

The news that the NZRU were going to free up the All Blacks to play for their Super Rugby clubs against the Lions appeared to add another layer of toughness to an already formidable test but Gatland chose to view that as a positive rather than a negative.

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“I think it makes our job easier,” he said. “When I heard that I thought that’s the best thing for the Lions.

“Going back to the experience in 2009, we came into the first Test undercooked. South Africa had pulled their players out and we won some of those games too comfortably. We thought we were in good shape but we were undercooked. In Australia some of the games were too easy and not a big enough challenge.

“In New Zealand we’re not going to be underdone after playing the best players. We’ll be battle hardened going into that first Test. It’s absolutely brilliant and I think we’ll hugely benefit from that.”

Gatland then added with a smile: “Maybe me making those comments might change some minds in New Zealand.

“I know back on that 2009 tour a lot of South Africans were frustrated about missing playing the Lions with their provinces. I think the All Blacks will be desperate to play those games too, have a crack at us, learn and take some information back. They have so much strength in depth that if they did lose a couple to injury I don’t think [All Blacks coach] Steve Hansen would be too worried.”

The months of debate about who should make the final cut, which Gatland envisages being around 38-40-strong in size, will now rage around the British Isles. Gatland’s initial squad back in 2013 was made up of 15 Welsh players, ten English, nine from Ireland and three Scots.

England under Eddie Jones, with eight wins from eight in 2016, are the dominant nation at present and the coach vowed that the selection process will be free of politics.

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“People know me as pretty honest and straight up,” he said. “The team will be picked on merit. That’s all I care about. We’ll pick who we think are the best players. If that’s 25 Englishmen and two Welshmen then that will be the squad.

“At the end of the day, players know who should be in the team. There’s always some debate, some contentious selections. But that ends up being one or two. I don’t think there was too much debate about the squads in 2009 and 2013. The balance was about right.

“At the moment if you were picking a squad then, yes, there would be a large English contingent but if they were to have a poor autumn and Six Nations that would quickly turn around and the numbers would change. Club form towards the end of the season is also going to be important. So there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge.”

Wales skipper Sam Warburton was Gatland’s captain in Australia and is currently the narrow favourite to be so again, although Dylan Hartley, pictured left, is likely to have plenty of cheerleaders in the English media who would love to see the controversial hooker lead the Lions back to the land of his birth.

“He’s not been suspended for a while so that’s a big tick against his name,” said Gatland with a grin. “Hopefully he continues in that vein.

“Dylan has always played on the edge but that’s one of the traits that has made him such a competitor as a player. He’s obviously matured and done a great job with England. Eddie rates him highly and he has got respect from the players.

“It’s easier to select players who are coming out of winning environments and have confidence. Picking a captain of the Lions is always the most difficult decision. It’s a long way down the track. You pick the squad first.

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“When it comes to picking the captain, form is an important consideration. A Lions captain is not guaranteed selection. I’d have no problem dropping a tour captain if someone else started playing better than them. Experience of past tours comes into it too. There’s lots of things to consider and apart from the obvious names at the moment there will be others who come into contention by the end of the season.”