The British & Irish Lions' tour to New Zealand is less than 12 months away but who will be coaching the team that have the job of trying to emulate Carwyn James’ greats of 1971?
Now the summer tours are done, the names of potential British & Irish Lions coaching combinations are being flung around like confetti, so what could the management team for next year’s trip to New Zealand look like? The Lions are intending to name it at the end of the summer, but as that has barely started, they have a bit of wriggle room.
Last time, in 2013 to Australia, the tour was managed by former Scotland full-back Andy Irvine with Warren Gatland the main man as head coach. Rob Howley was in charge of attack, Graham Rowntree the forwards, Andy Farrell defence and Neil Jenkins kicking. And a pretty good job they did.
The tour manager is already in place and at least he knows how to win in New Zealand. Ex-England centre John Spencer, part of the 1971 Lions squad without playing a Test match, has already been installed in the logistical and ceremonial role but experience of winning down there is pretty thin on the ground elsewhere.
Eddie Jones this week distanced himself from the role of head coach, yet again, and Gatland has already been made favourite to be head honcho by Lions’ chief executive John Feehan. In January Feehan also name-checked Stuart Lancaster, out-coached by Gatland in the World Cup, and linked with most coaching posts these days on both sides of the equator. But pundits have been throwing some more names into the ring.
Ben Kay, a Lion in 2005, wants a Joe Schmidt/Martin Johnson dream ticket; Keith Wood, a double Lion, wants Jones and Gatland, but that seems a non-runner; whilst Clive Rowlands, manager of the 1989 tour to Australia, has championed Dai Young and Gregor Townsend for some involvement.
The appointment of the head coach is the key though – then he can pick the men he wants to pick the brains of, as Gatland did with Farrell, and blokes he gets on with or thinks he can. Or we can pick them for him, like we have done below.
Gatland has been given the green light by the Welsh Rugby Union to have time off on Lions duty ahead of and during the tour, he was an assistant in 2009 in South Africa and won the series in Australia in 2013. He has copped his fair share of flak since the Wales tour to New Zealand but he ticks all the boxes of seemingly wanting to do it, being experienced and definitely being available. The former Kiwi hooker would see his stock in his homeland go through the roof if he fashioned another win and it would probably give him a leg-up to the All Blacks job sometime.
Schmidt is a contender but his international contract does not have a release clause at the moment and his future with Ireland is uncertain because of family issues, whilst Vern Cotter is a long-shot after a disappointing Six Nations with Scotland. If the Lions went really left field they could go for a successful club boss who is not scared of big names – Connacht’s Pat Lam or Mark McCall from Saracens, anyone?
Odds: Gatland 1/2, Schmidt 5/2, Jones 6/1, Cotter 14/1
I wouldn’t mind seeing Johnson involved somewhere just for his presence, but he has been out of the game for too long to be an assistant, although he could be a sounding board for the head man. In attack Gregor Townsend, a winning Lion in 1997, deserves a crack. It takes something special to break down the All Blacks and Townsend could just supply it. He won the Pro12 with Glasgow in 2015 and if any player questions him he can show them the video of the ‘Toonie Flip’that set up a Gavin Hastings try in Scotland’s 23-21 win over France in Paris in 1995.
Howley still has claims, Schmidt could even do the job as a number two or Glen Ella, who went down a storm on England’s tour to Australia, might fancy a few weeks in New Zealand.
Farrell, a veteran of 2013 when Gatland gave him the nod over Shaun Edwards, is back in the international game after England’s World Cup collapse, as defence coach of Ireland, and must still be rated to get a gig with the Lions. Edwards is a winner and has stated he wants another Lions tour and you can’t see him stuffing up if he gets the job.
Paul Gustard did wonders with England’s defence in the Six Nations but Jones recently said England had conceded too many tries against Australia – they leaked ten in three Tests – despite the heroics in Melbourne, and I reckon Jones wouldn’t mind another tour with Gustard in Argentina with England’s non-Lions. It’s Edwards for me this time.
Up-front, Steve Borthwick gets a ticket to New Zealand – imagine all the lineout videos he could study in nearly 30 hours in a business class seat. He shone with Japan at the World Cup, has done the same with England and I wouldn’t mind seeing Young helping out the forwards with him.
Young knows a thing or two about Lions tours. The former Welsh prop is the only man to go on trips with Britain’s best in three separate decades – 1989, 1997 and 2001 – so he knows what it is all about, he loves a scrum and although some details, such as his Wasps duties, would have to be sorted – likewise with Townsend and Glasgow – he wouldn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
Jenkins had worked with Leigh Halfpenny, with Wales, ahead of his 2013 tour of duty and both did a great job but what about if Jonny Wilkinson was on the training paddock every day? Wilkinson has popped in and out of England camp since Jones arrived and done plenty of work with Owen Farrell and George Ford. TV commitments might restrict the English great but he doesn’t have to work on match days with the squad. Wilkinson does all his stuff in the week, the southern hemisphere are scared stiff of him and current players revere him. Get him signed up.
Warren Gatland (head coach); Gregor Townsend (attack), Shaun Edwards (defence), Steve Borthwick and Dai Young (forwards), Jonny Wilkinson (kicking).