Stuart Lancaster and Joe Schmidt could prove an innovative double act if they take charge of the British Isles tour to New Zealand in three summers' time
IN CASE you’ve forgotten – this season has seemed long enough for most things to slip out of memory – the British & Irish Lions travelled to Australia last summer.
As the first tour under the full gaze of social media (Twitter was very young in 2009), scrutiny was unprecedented. Just about every punter had picked their preferred XV by January and changed it umpteen times before July. Then they could vent their vitriol over Brian O’Driscoll’s omission for the final Test.
Coverage sat somewhere between extensive and overkill. As such, don’t expect too much from me on the subject of 2017 until at least after next year’s World Cup. That’s a promise. One early suggestion is surely okay, though. So, here goes: I’d love Stuart Lancaster and Joe Schmidt to spearhead the Lions’ siege on New Zealand, with Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell completing the coaching team.
Given the events of this past weekend – Gatland’s Wales so nearly ambushing the Boks and Lancaster’s England helpless to prevent an All Blacks thrashing – this may seem oddly-timed. Gatland would be tough to leave out four years after leading a successful mission, but this is more an endorsement of his rivals’ qualities than the Kiwi’s shortcomings.
First off, Lancaster should be rewarded for England’s recent efforts in New Zealand. Shorn of first-choice players, an intrepid side so nearly ransacked Eden Park. That first-Test performance took a fabulous amount of graft, but the key element was a cast-iron conviction that had filtered down from the top. Frankly, England could easily have headed to Hamilton 2-0 up in the series.
Seemingly innocuous mistakes – a weak ruck clear-out, a pass behind a runner, lazy support lines – are what kill you against the All Blacks. This is where Schmidt comes in. Challenging players to hone their skills, his fundamental currencies are diligence and discipline.
In nine games under the former Auckland Blues assistant coach since last autumn, Ireland have conceded 63 penalties at an average of seven per 80 minutes. Those are remarkable statistics. By contrast, Richie McCaw & Co have been pinged 95 times in their last nine matches stretching back to the 38-27 defeat of South Africa in Johannesburg… not that referees seem to think those numbers merit yellow cards. Meow.
Anyway, such control would stand the Lions in good stead. This month, a trio of sin-binnings meant England had 14 men for half an hour over the series. Steve Hansen’s men went over for three pivotal tries and 25 points. The devil is in the detail.
In short, Lancaster and Schmidt are a meticulous duo. And, if you think the notion of two former schoolteachers overseeing the trip appears slightly square, look no further than Messrs Rowntree and Farrell – two of the most charismatic figures in rugby who can take care of technicalities up front, defensive systems and the required mindset.
Those four varied personalities each know exactly what it will take to garner a second consecutive series triumph. As far as Gatland goes, one typically obdurate comment during the Six Nations is difficult to overlook. When Ireland handed Wales a Dublin drubbing back in February, he was asked whether Plan B was ever considered. His response? “We didn’t even execute Plan A well enough.”
Now, stubbornness is an admirable trait at times. Gatland’s loyalty in selection certainly helped the Lions in their Sydney decider last year. It also allowed the same side – Adam Jones and Aaron Shingler notwithstanding – to right some wrongs in Nelspruit on Saturday.
That said, it is hard to get away from the fact that Wales’ tactics look stale. South Africa won’t be as bad as they were this weekend for a long time and one-out runners won’t cut it against the All Blacks over three fixtures. Lancaster and Schmidt offer a mix of ambition and painstaking accuracy alongside crucial adaptability.
Of course there is plenty of water to run under the bridge before 2017 and the concept of two head coaches forming an alliance might be a non-starter, but it’s a combination that would be fascinating to see.
A Lions team to beat the All Blacks in 2017
The average age of the All Blacks side that battered England on Saturday was just over 27. The squad below has an average age of a fraction under 28, and could be pushed lower depending on the development of Maro Itoje, Nick Tompkins, Garry Ringrose and Jonny Gray among others. It should be said that Joe Launchbury and Alex Cuthbert are unlucky.
Fifteen of the 23 possess Lions experience. There is dynamism, skill and sheer brawn throughout the forwards, with enough guile, power and pace both to trouble New Zealand out wide and shackle the likes of Julian Savea. Roll on off-season, and let the debate begin.
Starting XV: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales); Marland Yarde (England), Manu Tuilagi (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales), George North (Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Conor Murray (Ireland); Cian Healy (Ireland), Dylan Hartley (England), Samson Lee (Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (captain, Wales), Courtney Lawes (England), Chris Robshaw (England), Sean O’Brien (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales).
Replacements: Ken Owens (Wales), Alex Corbisiero (England), Dan Cole (England), Ed Slater (England), Sam Warburton (Wales), Danny Care (England), Rhys Patchell (Wales), Stuart Hogg (Scotland).