SO THE worst-kept secret in rugby is out, Warren Gatland is the man entrusted by the Lions to bring a first Series win since South Africa in 1997.
In truth, at Lions HQ in the plush surroundings of Ballsbridge, Dublin, Gatland has always been penciled in as the outstanding candidate for the top job, this despite powerbrokers rightly proclaiming it a fair and proper recruitment process with Irish pretenders Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney rumoured to have thrown their hats in the ring.
It was Gatland’s role to lose even before he led Wales to a World Cup semi-final and a second Grand Slam in five seasons. In fact, only a shaky ladder at his Waihi beach house threatened the 48-year-old’s participation.
What is unequivocal is that the Waikato native has impeccable coaching credentials for the job at hand. He faced a Lions touring side in 1993, talking at the press conference enthusiastically about ‘bouncing off the walls’ from excitement at the chance to front up to the tourists. Yet it is as a coach he has really established his name. Forged in Ireland with Connacht and the national team, honed on English playing fields with London Wasps and polished in Wales with two Grand Slams to his name, Gatland’s coaching CV is hard to refute.
Alongside Sir Ian McGeechan, Rob Howley, Shaun Edwards and Graham Rowntree, Gatland earned his stripes in 2009 and was integral to rebuilding the unique Lions bond out in South Africa, where despite a series loss, there was renewed bonhomie between management and players, which was absent with Sir Clive Woodward’s ill-fated 2005 Lions tourists in New Zealand, and to a lesser extent with Graham Henry’s Lions in 2001.
So what characteristics will he bring to the party? Speak to Lions Man of the Series in 2009 Jamie Roberts about Gatland and the first word he mutters to describe his national coach is honesty. If Gatland wants to tell you, you haven’t performed he’ll look you in the eyes and tell it to you straight. He doesn’t hide, which is how the players like it.
Importantly in a touring environment, Gatland is no puritan who will happily share a wager or beer with friends and on a condensed six-week, ten-match tour, his man-management skills will come to the fore as he looks to separate the first XV, while giving the dirt trackers enough of an incentive to stay motivated for the tour’s duration.
With the last three tours losing ones, the Lions management are taking Australia 2013 seriously, wary that another failure in tough commercial environment could endanger the continued viability of a 125-year institution. Gatland has been seconded for eight months with the Lions, save for the Autumn Tests against New Zealand and Australia, to divert him from his new role.
Within weeks he will have clocked up the air miles, travelling to France to check on potential squad members and Argentina to run his eye over the opposition. This was after witnessing the Wallabies being taught a ‘rugby lesson’ by the All Blacks at Eden Park in The Rugby Championship. As a proud Kiwi you’d imagine it would give him immense pleasure to send a Wallabies Test side packing in their own backyard.
Above all, Gatland’s message was clear. There is work to do, the countdown is on.
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