by Ben Coles
WARREN GATLAND’S feet have provided a tricky start to his career as coach of the British & Irish Lions, with news that the final make-up of his coaching staff would be delayed until December as he continues his recovery from breaking both heels in a serious fall from a ladder in his native New Zealand.
A report in the Daily Mail stated that the announcement on Gatland’s deputies will be made in Edinburgh on December 13th, giving the Wales coach time to finalise contract negotiations for a forwards, defence and attack coach. The first two seem simple enough, but the identity of the third member is currently shrouded in mystery.
Graham Rowntree was lauded by the Lions players for his coaching during the 2009 tour to South Africa, working closely with a scrum that initially struggled in the first Test against the Springboks before gaining parity in the latter clashes. In the aftermath of England’s dismal Rugby World Cup campaign back in 2011, Rowntree emerged as a rare exception to the dross and disharmony in the leaked reports. England’s pack continue to improve under his expertise and the Lions will be in safe hands with ‘Wig’.
Defence again, is sure to be governed by Shaun Edwards, whose mightily successful working relationship with Gatland boasts Premiership titles, Heineken Cups and Grand Slams. Currently working part-time with London Irish, Edwards’ reputation within the game remains outstanding and the prospect of defeating Australia on their own turf after successive defeats with Wales will be a major incentive.
Which leaves the final part of the Lions jigsaw. Rob Howley would be the obvious candidate were he not unavailable to tour due to his caretaking commitments with the Welsh national side in Japan, in Gatland’s absence. The Lions outscored South Africa by seven tries to five in the three test series under Howley’s watchful eye, living up to the traditional exciting brand of rugby associated with the touring side. The new attack coach will be expected to do the same.
Of the candidates to take on the attack coach role, few standout. Leinster boss Joe Schmidt is the supporters’ favourite following his success with the Irish giants, winning two Heineken Cups and reaching two Celtic League finals in his time in charge.
During that time Leinster have played an exciting, expansive game that has produced plenty of tries based around an Irish core of Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Jonathan Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney. The performances have been good enough to see Leinster labelled as the best side in the world, along with the All Blacks. The lionshare (sorry!) of the praise heaped on Schmidt is largely down to his attacking influence. Schmidt’s official availability on taking the position is unknown, but he is known to be keen and would surely be a candidate near the top any Lions shortlist.
So who else could be under consideration? You’d expect England’s new attack coach Mike Catt to be in the mix, although his experience of coaching at international level is limited, whilst new Scotland coach Scott Johnson has experience running the attack with both Wales and Australia. Wayne Smith, who was heavily linked with the attack coach position with England before his decision to stay in New Zealand, would also be an outside bet for the role and would surely love to put one over on the Wallabies.
Discreet negotiations will continue over the next two months before Gatland’s announcement in Edinburgh, but the No 1 choice is clear. Recruiting Joe Schmidt to join an already potent coaching team would be a coup, and increase the chances of the Lions pulling off a first Series win since 1997.
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