AS EVERYONE EXPECTED, THE BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS HAVE MADE WARREN GATLAND THEIR HEAD COACH FOR NEXT YEAR’S EPIC TOUR OF NEW ZEALAND. DOES HE HAVE ANY HOPE OF SUCCEEDING?
So the secret’s out. It’s Warren again. Who knew, eh? Not that the misanthropes and the crepehangers will give a fig who’s the Head Coach given where the Lions are going (New Zealand), when they’re going (the fag end of another ballsaching season) and how little time they’ll have to cancel the milk and pack their bags (roughly five minutes.) Indeed for the wet blankets and the worrywarts, the apocalypse is already upon us and, as sure as Friday follows Thursday, not only will it be three nil to the Men in Black but the British and Irish will be lucky to score nil. Rarely have the doom-vendors cornered quite so much of the market.
And they have a point. Here, let’s be honest, is a sporting odyssey to rival – nay, even to outweigh – the Labours of Hercules, who, in comparison, was tasked with such menial chores as throttling a Cretan bull, dispatching a flock of bronze-beaked, metal-feathered, poison-dunged, man-eating Stymphalian birds, scrumping some apples from the garden of the Hesperides and mopping out the Augean Stables. Yes, I grant you, he did hunt down the Ceryneian Hind – by reputation ‘faster than an arrow’ – which he pursued on foot for a full year through Greece, Thrace and Istria before finally cornering it in the land of the Hyperboreans but, so what? Next June, someone in a Lions shirt is going to have to catch Ben Smith. And while you’re there, ask yourself this question: would you rather stand at the gates of the Underworld and grapple with Cerberus, the slavering, flesh-eating, three-headed dog or would you prefer to go to Eden Park and tackle Jerome Kaino with his fur in full bristle? Precisely. Give me the Hound of Hades any day of the week.
Set against all this mayhem and mythology, of course, is the fact that Warren Gatland’s nobody’s fool: his Lions’ legacy is already assured, he doesn’t live in cardboard box and he doesn’t need the publicity. So, however much they’re paying him, would he really burn ten months of his life leading a forlorn, foregone conclusion around his own backyard? On balance, you’d think not. Indeed despite his initial misgivings – back in January he said, and I quote; ‘looking at that schedule, if I wasn’t involved, it wouldn’t bother me’ … (indeed) … ‘part of me hopes they pick someone else as head coach’ unquote – here is a campaign which, on sober reflection, has stirred his competitive juices; indeed the self-styled ‘eternal optimist’ has clearly concluded that ‘Mission Impossible’ – actually – has distinct possibilities.
And it certainly does. Do you have a pen and paper? Good. Then write down all the eligible Lions’ second rows you can think of, list them in order of preference and cross out everyone but the last four. Still pretty good, huh? And how do you like your number eights? Would you rather Jamie Heaslip, Billy Vunipola, Taulepe Faletau, Nathan Hughes, Josh Strauss, Sean O’Brien or CJ Stander? Ah, the agony of choice. Indeed, Ian McGeechan reckons that – across the teamsheet – we could be looking at the richest crop of contenders in the one hundred and twenty-nine year history of the Lions and this from a man who isn’t exactly world-famous for over-egging his pudding.
And in Gatland – almost uncannily – the Lions seem to have the right man in the right place at the right time: no one anywhere can combine his unique insight into the psyche of both the red shirt and the black one. What’s more he’s riding the wave of a – long-awaited, ‘brand-saving’ – Lions’ triumph in 2013 and, perhaps above all, he seems to know instinctively what to retain from the winning formula and which parts of the machine need new cogs. So in Australia he – controversially – went with two fly-halves; this time it’s likely to be three. On a similar theme, three assistant coaches last time will probably be four in New Zealand and as outstanding as Sam Warburton was in 2013, expect Dylan Hartley to be a very, very viable contender in 2017. There is no sentiment. It is horses for courses.
And in Gatland the Lions have the coach with the biggest ‘cojones’ in world rugby. This is the man who – last time out – left behind his rugby wife, Shaun Edwards, in favour of the striking brunette that is Andy Farrell and who, ahead of the deciding test, dropped Brian O’Driscoll from what would have been his crowning game of rugby. Make no mistake, had the Lions lost in Sydney with BOD in his Number Ones on the sidelines, Gatland would have been a busted flush, indeed – let’s not mince our words – the shit-storm would have devoured him. To my mind at least, it remains the ballsiest call rugby has ever seen.
And for all the wailing and whining about the kamikaze schedule, the halo above Eden Park and the invincibility of the all-conquering All Blacks, the Lions have done all this before. In 1971, John Dawes’ – admittedly astonishing – team won a Test series playing twenty-six matches in three months with a squad of just thirty-three players. The first game in Queensland came less than two and a half days after they landed in Australia and, as 2017 Lions’ Tour Manager and 1971 Lions’ player, John Spencer, recalled this week, they did it all with just one manager – Doug Smith – and one coach – Carwyn James. On average the games came every three or four days – travel included – and of those twenty-six, mud-mired matches, the stellar but slender Barry John played in seventeen of them. The mind just boggles.
Admittedly, then was then and now is now but it’s clearly do-able, assuming the Lions get their heads straight. Half the problem in playing the All Blacks is what used to be known in baseball circles as ‘The New York Yankees Syndrome’, where – essentially – you’re beaten by the pin-striped shirt. But if you reduce the fabled All Blacks to flesh and blood New Zealanders and pick yourself the most stubborn minds in British and Irish rugby – thirty-five Owen Farrells would be ideal – then anything’s possible. As Gatland himself put it this week: ‘if there are people, players or coaches who believe we haven’t got a chance, put your hands up now and don’t get on the plane. We have to go there believing we can be successful.’
For all that, the Kiwis will be overwhelming favourites, largely because they always are but also because the Lions – historically – are more winned against than winning. The bookmakers, certainly, will not gainsay the numbers. Nor can you ignore just what this sport means to New Zealand. Unquestionably the finest anecdote on that recurring theme is the one about the journalist being shown around Auckland Grammar School by the rugby teacher, the two of them standing outside the headmaster’s office admiring a portrait of Sir Edmund Hillary. ‘Ah, yes, our most famous old boy,’ said the rugby teacher, archly. ‘But of course, he never played for the First Fifteen.’
Frankly, the mouth is already watering and we’re still a full pregnancy away from the First Test. The Lions estimate 30,000 red shirts will be in New Zealand come next June so if you haven’t already booked your hotel, hostel or camper van, you’ll probably end up sleeping in a tree in Auckland’s Albert Park, such is the enduring appeal of a crusade even the son of Zeus would’ve thought twice about taking on. Interestingly the Oracle of Delphi – so it is written – promised Hercules immortality if he could complete his great, mythical challenge. Should he succeed, much the same awaits Warren Gatland.
08 SEPTEMBER 2016