Head coach Warren Gatland explains what needs to happen when the new Lions deal is done and why preparation time is key
Just under seven months out from the first game of the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand and head coach Warren Gatland must feel like the lost driver who stops to ask directions from a passer-by and gets told he shouldn’t be starting from where he is at the moment.
Gatland was in London recently to launch the latest Lions shirt – gets yours from Canterbury here – and facing up to the well-documented hardships of doing one of the most prestigious jobs in the game. Knackered players, no preparation time, repeated pleas from former coaches to change the itinerary all ignored and a brutal fixture list.
Gatland is not worried about the games – the more brutal the better as far as he is concerned – but he is worried about the lack of preparation time. That was flagged up by Ian McGeechan, after the 1993 tour to New Zealand, who wanted a couple of weeks with his squad before any future tours.
That has not happened even though after the last tour to Australia, which the Lions won 2-1, Gatland flagged up the same concerns. And guess what – he is in the same boat again and he might not have a paddle.
The next year is a big one for the whole Lions concept. After the trip to New Zealand the 12-year deal with SANZAR expires and the suits will gather in some swanky hotel and thrash out the next one – everyone wants a slice of the tourists but no one on either side of the equator seems to want them to win.
“If I was looking at this thing… if I had one more week’s preparation and no midweek game before the first Test that would give me one week extra,” said Gatland.
“I did a report and the last thing I said was I am wasting my time – I could have written this report in three words and the guy said, ‘What are they?’ Preparation, preparation, preparation.
“You have got the two (Premiership and Pro12) finals on the Saturday, we get together on the Sunday then fly on Monday, arrive on Wednesday and play our first game (on the Saturday) – so it is going to be a challenge. A third to a half the squad might be involved in the two finals. We would have had two camps with the other squad players so a lot of them will be preparing for the first game.”
Gatland has come up with an answer to this conundrum but it involves a bit of give from the home domestic leagues. How about once, just once, every four years they squeeze their fixture lists just a little, by inserting one midweek game, to give the Lions coach in 2021, and it could be Gatland, an extra seven days or so with his squad?
The New Zealander has got no issues this time round – he knew what he was signing up for – and has to lump it, but something has to give. A personal view is that the Pro12 and the Premiership should ditch their beloved play-offs in Lions years but that is not going to happen.
Then there is the possibility of reducing the number of games on tour. The 1971 Lions in Australia and New Zealand, all amateurs, played a heroic 26 games and the first professional Lions, in South Africa in 1997, got through 13.
Ten seems to be the number now but there are talks about cutting that down and for all the chat about the casualty counts on Lions’ trips, Gatland is not having that one either.
He added: “I would hate to see the Lions die as an entity and not have the opportunity to prepare properly. I just think it is unique.
“If we were going away and playing two warm-up matches and three Tests I don’t think there would be the same interest. I don’t think there would be most of the tour packages sold out and perhaps the next tour would be there and people would go, ‘It is the Lions, only five games, you can watch that in two or three weeks on TV and so what?’
“Ten matches is about right and, I personally would hate to see the Lions going for five matches. You would lose the mystique of what the Lions are all about, even for the people who are planning to go on the tour but are only going for the last three weeks. You can get excited watching the first games on TV and seeing the crowds.
“It is a little bit special in terms of the build-up and every week now we are talking about this. People write about the Lions team of the week – it is six or eight months away and it has created that interest. I don’t think it would do that if we were just going on a five-match tour.
“I understand the pressures that the Lions and the board are under and there is a lot of external stuff from the clubs, the unions and the different competitions about release of players and how long they are going to be off. That is all part of the next negotiations. Clubs do get compensated for the players coming away.
“Hopefully when the next deal is done, the stakeholders will sit around the table and thrash out what will be the best thing.”
Gatland has got the wrong end of the deal this time and like the lost driver he should not be starting from here. Let’s hope the powers-that-be get it right next time – but don’t bet on it.
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