Thursday 8th September 2016
IN the shadows of Edinburgh Castle, Warren Gatland was unveiled as head coach of the British & Irish Lions 2017 to New Zealand, bringing a look of surprise to no person’s face throughout the rugby world.
The appointment makes sense; Gatland has Lions winning form with the 2-1 defeat of the Wallabies in 2013. And in 1993, the same thirty year old hooker played for Waikato against the British Isles captained by a certain William David Charles Carling, where the provincial side was one of only four who beat the visiting Lions, and incidentally heaped on the biggest winning margin in a 38-10 defeat, 11 more points than the All Blacks. Being a Kiwi, and technically an All Black -though he never actually played in a test match, appearing in 17 uncapped matches whilst sitting on the bench for 29 tests, waiting for Sean Fitzpatrick to get injured- there are few more qualified coaches who understand both the magic and grandeur of the Lions, and the privilege of beating them on home soil.
The 2017 Lions schedule makes less sense; ten matches in 36 days, including three tests against the two-time world champions, only a week after the top teams in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales play their national tournament finals in another hemisphere, with next to no time left for any pre-tour training, and two days in earnest to even get to the other side of the planet.
The Lions have not won a series against New Zealand since 1971, and in 38 matches played since 1904, have won only six and drawn 3. Not a record to be hopeful about. Of the home nations, only England have beaten the All Blacks in recent years at all, at home in 2012; Scotland and Ireland have never beaten this opposition, and Wales only three times in 33 matches, and not since 1953.
Mission impossible most would agree, but not Gatland.
“I wouldn’t be doing the job if I thought that. I’m the eternal optimist. If you look at the players who are out there we have some real quality. There is genuine pace, great footwork, players with experience, size and physicality and hopefully some belief and confidence as well.
“That’s the important thing. You have to get on that plane believing you are part of a set-up that can go to New Zealand and win. It is a chance to tour one of the greatest rugby nations in the world.”
Positivity around the tour is an absolute necessity if there is a hope in hell to make a tour win a reality. But given the history, the schedule, the lack of time together, and Gatland’s personal record coaching his national side against the top three southern hemisphere nations of one win (against the Springboks) in 28 matches in eight years, nothing short of a miracle, or a majority England Test side will match the hopes of in excess of 30,000 travelling fans expected in New Zealand in June 2017.
Gatland has been clear about selection, stressing the team will be selected on merit,
“It's not my role to have any favourites and we'll pick who we think are the best players. If that's 25 Englishmen and two Welshmen, that'll be the squad.
“On previous tours there have been certain times when players or squads where I don’t think the balance has been right or players haven’t been right. That’s been documented and people have made comments. I don’t think there’s much debate about the 2009 or 2013 squad, but there’s always going to be one or two unlucky people, but by and large, those squads were pretty good.
“If you were going to pick the squad now then yes, there would be a large contingent of English players. But if they have an average autumn and a poor Six Nations then that’ll soon turnaround,” a statement which will please Welsh fans.
As for the captaincy, one has to hope merit is the prominent factor, and not previous form and reputation. Dylan Hartley is undoubtedly the premier captain in the northern hemisphere currently, having marshalled his England side to eight consecutive wins and a Grand Slam under the guidance of Eddie Jones. But Hartley and Gatland have previous form; Gatland was quite vocally het up about his fellow Kiwi not being cited in certain conditions in 2011, and laid the blame of many an offence and team failure at the young gun’s feet. But Hartley has come on leaps and bounds in maturity and stature since those early testosterone-fuelled heady days, which earned him an English summer staycation in 2013 after he was banned for 11 weeks for some choice language uttered almost in the ear of referee, Wayne Barnes at the Premiership Final.
“Dylan has always played on the edge and that has been one of the traits that has made him such a competitor as a player. He’s obviously matured and he’s done a great job with England. Eddie rates him incredibly highly. He has a lot of respect from the players as well,” observed Gatland in Edinburgh.
“The pleasing thing is his discipline. He hasn’t been suspended for a while. That’s a big tick against his name. Hopefully he continues in that vein and continues to be successful. It is easier to select players who are coming in from a winning environment with a lot of confidence. It’s the same when you are picking captains.”
So, injury permitting, to have the likes of Hartley to choose from, and the experienced winning-Lions captain, Sam Warburton as back up, the 2017 Lions may not be on such a back foot to begin with.
However, to add to the pragmatic difficulties already heaped upon next year’s Lions party, there is the negative x-factor which only appears to arise down under, as Bristol’s Director of Rugby reminded the press earlier in the week. Andy Robinson, a former British Lion and coach who was part of the fateful 2005 ‘black-wash’ under Sir Clive Woodward, has vivid memories of that tour,
“The whole country is against you. Not just the players and staff but the government, the local shopkeepers, the children. It is relentless.
“Whenever New Zealand tour here in the autumn, we roll out the red carpet for them. You don’t get any of that. You know that everybody wants to beat you and they will do whatever they can to do it.”
The Lions coach has much to ponder during his recce of New Zealand, and not just the form of the All Blacks unbeaten at home for 42 consecutive games; there are coaches to appoint in December, players to assess through the Autumn Series and Six Nations, numbers to crunch with a wider squad of c.40 players, strategy to formulate under extreme pressures, Super Rugby championship semi finalist teams to weigh up who will undoubtedly be laden with All Blacks in the run up to three arduous tests.
But of all the coaches of his calibre in the world, Warren Gatland has been there and done it already; he’s bought the t-shirt, sold the videos, won the trophy, and so has more of an idea of what can be achieved. Previous experience is priceless, and lessons learned invaluable.
“The Lions is different to any other team. You have got to remember the history of the Lions. The Lions do things differently. I know it is sometimes hard in terms of preparing for tours and matches because the players are going out and doing extra things. We see that as a special part of what has gone on – the way the Lions have conducted themselves. We will look to continue to do that as well.
“The biggest lesson is that you have to be true to yourself. The balance of the squad is hugely important and trying to get things right off the field. My experience and talking to a lot of people about the Lions is that the potential success is not on the field but what happens off the field. If you get that right and get the harmony and work hard on that with the bonding then you have a chance of winning the series. That’s paramount for us.”
To climb this seemingly insurmountable All Black Everest, if there was ever a man for the job, it is Warren David Gatland, once of Hamilton, New Zealand. If there was ever a more appropriate war cry from the Bard,
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more...”