Warren Gatland's unveiling as Lions coach in Edinburgh sets off the countdown to the toughest Lions series ever. RW looks at the task ahead…
Congratulations Warren Gatland – and, er, commiserations. For while being named head coach of the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand is a great honour, one to be celebrated and cherished, the task ahead is a huge one. In fact, it is arguably the toughest any Lions coach has ever faced.
Yes, there have been longer tours, ill-prepared tours and controversial tours – but next year’s trip to New Zealand could be the most thankless of all. Stephen Jones put it succinctly in The Sunday Times when he described it as “mission impossible”. Perhaps we should all hope Wasps new boy Tom Cruse has a phenomenal season and earns a call-up!
There are myriad factors that make this tour so foreboding, but first a few positives when looking at the man in charge and why he’s been chosen for the top job.
Gatland has experience both in the northern and southern hemispheres. He’s been successful on both the club and international stage, too, winning European and Premiership titles with Wasps as well as Grand Slams with Wales. Plus, of course, he’s been involved with the Lions before. A coach under Sir Ian McGeechan in South Africa in 2009, he took the reins in 2013 and guided the British Isles to a first series win in 16 years.
It’s his nous and his strength of character that are likely to come to fore in New Zealand. He was criticised for his first Wales selection, picking 13 Ospreys in the starting line-up, but it was the pragmatic thing to do. He didn’t have much time to work with the squad before that 2008 Six Nations opener so he picked a team that knew and understood each other.
He backs himself and stands by his decisions – and that will be crucial in New Zealand. Who can forget the Brian O’Driscoll furore in 2013? He picked what he believed was the best team for the third Test against Australia and those players duly delivered the required victory.
And from a media perspective we all know he’ll lob the occasional ‘grenade’ at a press conference and generate headlines both in the British Isles and New Zealand.
So what are the big issues ahead for Gatland? The schedule has been described as “ludicrous” and it is gruelling. This is mainly because no one, in the North or South, was willing to budge on the timings.
New Zealand would not consider moving the tour back a couple of weeks to give the Lions time to prepare and neither the Aviva Premiership nor Guinness Pro12 would move their finals forward. So we have the situation where a huge contingent of the squad are likely to be playing for their clubs just a week before the first game of the tour on the other side of the world. Ludicrous is being polite.
The Premiership clubs have been particularly vociferous in their criticism, but it’s worth remembering that no one was complaining about the extra England v Wales fixture played last May – perhaps because the monetary rewards of that game were split between those same clubs – or the three-Test tour of Australia that lengthened the season to 13 months when taking into account World Cup training camps.
Sadly, there is nothing to be done about the schedule now. It’s set. But this situation must be addressed before the next tour to South Africa because it is not sustainable. The Lions is a hugely successful brand but fans need to believe in the prospect of success on the pitch too – and at the moment the squad simply does not have the time to prepare adequately.
As others have suggested, a simple solution would be to scrap the play-offs in Lions year – you immediately reduce the season by two weeks. Or scrap the Anglo-Welsh Cup in those seasons and play a few Premiership fixtures on those weekends. And play hard ball with the host nation, too. They make millions from these tours so should not be able to dictate things to the Lions.
On top of the schedule, is the quality of the opposition. The Lions may ‘ease’ themselves in with a game against a Provincial XV – made up of Mitre 10 Cup players – but after that it is relentless. They play all five Kiwi Super Rugby franchises – that includes half of this year’s quarter-finalists – and it is likely that players in the All Blacks squad will be playing in those teams, at least early on the tour. That’s the opposite of 2013, when Wallabies were withdrawn from their Super Rugby sides.
A week before the first Test they play the Maori, a side with huge pride and passion that will relish the opportunity to tear into the Lions. Their 19-13 win over the 2005 squad is still fresh in the minds in New Zealand.
Then there are three Tests against the best team in the world – back-to-back World Cup winners and a side that has lost just three games since the start of RWC 2011. Remember, too, that the All Blacks have not lost at Eden Park since 1994. No wonder they are staging two of the Tests in Auckland.
The Lions have only won a series in New Zealand once, way back in 1971, and for all the British and Irish talent at Gatland’s disposal, the odds are heavily stacked against a second triumph in 2017.
So congratulations Mr Gatland – and good luck!