lioning up for new zealand

THE BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS HAVE ANNOUNCED THEIR THREE ASSISTANT COACHES FOR NEW ZEALAND AND, IN A MARATHON MEDIA SESSION IN IRELAND THIS WEEK, WARREN GATLAND REVEALED A WHOLE LOT MORE BESIDES.

How does Warren Gatland do it? Where does he find the stamina, the strength and – let’s not beat about the bush – the spit? There he was in County Kildare this week to unveil his Officers’ Mess for New Zealand and holding forth with the dreaded media for a full five hours; RTE, UTV, BBC NI, BBC Wales, TalkSPORT, TV3, Today FM, two bites from Sky Sports HD together with assorted websites from Ireland and New Zealand and an onstage, lounge chair QandA with the urbane Alex Payne, widely considered in rugby circles to be the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet.

And that’s before you get to the inkies, which included the ‘Press Association’, ‘Reuters’, ‘The Daily Telegraph’, ‘The Times’, ‘The Express’, ‘The Daily Mail’, ‘The Mail on Sunday’, ‘The Irish Daily Mail’, ‘The Irish Mail on Sunday’, ‘The Irish Mirror’, the ‘Irish Independent’, the ‘Irish Times’, the ‘Irish Examiner’, ‘The Herald’, ‘Wales Online’, the ‘Scottish Daily Mail’ and a photo-call with a flock of lenses. Put it this way, if the Lions are paying him by the word, he’d have been a rich man by the end of Wednesday evening; knackered, yes, but certainly not short of his bus fare home.

Obviously he’s delighted with his Three Musketeers; Howley and Farrell both rode shotgun in Australia and Steve Borthwick makes the giddy leap from the Championship with Bristol to the Lions in New Zealand in twelve mind-swirling months. His graph is almost vertical; the measure of his worth being that Gatland cold-called him for the job.

‘Well, I did do my homework on him first,’ says the Head Coach, ‘so I know he’s got a massive work ethic and a lot of people rate him highly. But no, I just rang him up and said, look, I’ll be working closely with you and supporting you but I’m going to challenge you and I want you to challenge me. And I want you to enjoy yourself because it can get a bit stressful which means a beer and a chat at the end of the day.’

Buttoning down coaches for a Lions Tour isn’t – and shouldn’t ever be – simply a geographical exercise but, clearly, Gatland was after a Scot and, specifically, a Townsend to complete the set of four Home Unions’ tracksuits. Not getting him, you sense, has been a peeve.

‘I had a chat with Gregor and he had a release clause in his contract with the SRU and I personally felt it’d be brilliant for his development to go on a Lions tour. But Scotland have shown a lot of faith in him, they’ve committed to him and for his own protection I think he probably thought he should be in Australia with Scotland and you can understand that.’

So was it Gregor’s decision not to tour or did the SRU lean on him? Warren’s fur bristles ever so slightly. ‘Well, you need to talk to other people about that,’ he says. ‘Look, he’s made the decision to make himself unavailable but I think it’s going to be his loss and I think it’s going to be Scotland’s loss. It’s a massive amount of IP that he’s missing out on and but I understand and respect his decision.’

Much as you hate to spread rumours – what else is there to do with them? – the whisper is that the rapport between the Lions and the SRU right now isn’t exactly bliss on a stick, not a subject to relish raising – given it’s none of my goddamn business – but, then again, the Lord hates a coward. So does Warren feel he’s getting the co-operation he’d like from all the Home Unions? There’s a long pause. A lesser man would probably try to sell you a small porky pie at this point but Gatland has never been a lesser man. ‘Most of them are outstanding,’ he says, eventually. ‘But it could be a little better.’

The other man Warren chased down was Joe Schmidt, not an enticement necessarily given he’d already ruled himself out as a potential Head Coach, more an enquiry to determine whether some other role might appeal. ‘Yes, I rang him and asked whether he’d like to be involved but he politely declined,’ says Gatland. ‘He just felt that his job was working with Ireland through to 2019 particularly with some of the younger players and I understand his position.’

The smart money suggests two other coaches will be on board by the New Year; ‘scrums is maybe something I can sort out with Steve,’ says Gatland, ‘but maybe there’ll be someone for kicking skills/exits and someone else on attack. I want to take some of the pressure off Rob because last time in Australia it was relentless for the coaches – they’re working their butts off – so you could be doing a captain’s run in the morning and then a session in the afternoon with the other thirteen guys who’ve a game in three days’ time. So coaches are doubling up the whole time and mentally it’s tough. I think the extra attack coach is important.’

Rumour – yes, him again – suggests Jason O’Halloran might well be on a shortlist of one for that post, a former All Black, a former Manawatu Head Coach who’s now the highly-regarded backs coach with Scotland, which seems to have brought us round in a very small circle. ‘Look, I’ve got a name in mind and we’ll get through that in the next couple of weeks after we’ve been through the right channels and spoken to the right people and agreed terms and release dates,’ says Gatland. ‘With a bit of luck, it’s just about dotting i’s and crossing t‘s.’

If the politics of the autumn have proved challenging, the rugby has left Gatland purring. Indeed if the Lions are to upset the applecart in New Zealand, hindsight might one day reckon that it was the Irish who loosened the wheel nuts over in Chicago. ‘It’s the best autumn I can remember and that’s exciting,’ says Warren. ‘And what was impressive about Chicago was the risk-taking of the Irish. It took a bit of courage to play like that. You put the All Blacks under pressure and balls go to ground and there are a couple of knock-ons. As a coach you know all this but sometimes it’s hard to get that message across to your own players. You can see them nodding their heads but they don’t always believe what you’re saying. Now here’s a group of players in Ireland who’ve seen that happen who’ve experienced it for themselves.’

‘What’s also good for the Lions is having a strong England. I actually don’t think they played as well they could’ve done against Australia – they could easily have been twenty points behind and they got a couple of lucky decisions – but they didn’t panic and there’s almost a touch of the All Blacks about them, staying calm and realising that opportunities will come. And … [England going well] … will rev up the Celtic nations going into the Six Nations, you know, beat them and here’s a great way for us to put our name in lights and get on the plane to New Zealand.’

Gatland feels there are areas where the Lions will have more game than the New Zealanders, one being off the tee – ‘we’re going to be better kickers than they are; we’ve potentially three ninety per centers to choose from’ – and the other being on the bench, crucially so given that the last quarter is where the All Blacks wreak most of their havoc.

‘That’s massive and it’s been the Achilles heel of the Celtic nations against the better teams,’ he says. ‘But the thing about the Lions is we’ll be able to match the All Blacks in terms of the bench. So when you’re picking your squad you don’t have to look at picking the same types of players in each position. You’re looking at who might be able to come on and give you something different.’

One thing the Lions will have no control over are the referees. The odds – for the Tests – will be on a Frenchman, (one of Garces, Poite, Gauzere) a South African (Peyper, given Joubert’s now handed in his whistle) and an Australian (which’d presumably mean Angus Gardner.) Given Gardner’s refereed the All Blacks just once and Peyper’s last game with New Zealand (Ireland in Dublin) left grown men in tears, this doesn’t augur well, particularly if you’re of the view that the black team in their own ‘blackyard’ get significantly less whistle than everyone else.

‘Look, the Kiwis would argue vociferously that they don’t get any special treatment,’ says Gatland, ‘but a lot of people feel that when they make a break against you early in the game and you give away a cynical penalty in your own 22, a yellow card comes out. They then do the same thing and it doesn’t come out. I think all we ask for is that both teams get treated exactly the same. And there’ve been times when you’re been on the other side of the fence you feel that sometimes it’s not quite as fair as you would like.’

The Lions certainly recognise it’s something they need to manage and – where possible – influence. One of the reasons Gatland plumped for Sam Warburton in 2013 was that he felt Sam was outstanding at dealing with referees. ‘There are times with the Lions where it’s not the same as any other game,’ says Gatland, ‘the atmosphere, the crowd; and obviously it’s something a lot of referees have never experienced. We need strong referees down there. I was talking to Paddy O’Brien’ – a distinguished former New Zealand official – ‘who said maybe the three Test referees should do one of the other tour matches as well. And that’s a really bright idea and if it could happen it’d be brilliant. The good thing about the Lions though is that hopefully half the ground is going to be made up of our supporters. So they’re going to be putting the referee under a bit of pressure as well. That often has a bit of an impact. ‘

If 2017 is anything like 2005, the Tour is likely to be a scrap off the field as well as on. Gatland was in Auckland for the Australia game a month or two ago, had the brass nerve to suggest that the Kiwi crowd booing Quade Cooper had been a bit disrespectful and suddenly he was a clown on the front page of the ‘New Zealand Herald’. ‘Yes, I was very disappointed,’ he says, ‘I thought at least they could have made me look a bit happier.’

So does he turn the other cheek for eight months or does he fight fire with fire; Eddie-esque even, getting his retaliation in first? ‘I might have to,’ he says. ‘But then you have to back that up with performances. Eddie right now can say whatever he likes because his team is doing it on the field. I think the All Blacks show humility and respect – they do that well – but you just want to be accurately represented in the press. I’ve tried to pride myself in the past of being honest and if asked my opinion give it. Let’s see what happens.’

Certainly the Lions are planning to embrace the Kiwi culture. The phrase ‘charm offensive’ smacks of something contrived and cynical so let’s avoid calling it that but there’ll be hospital visits, charity work and training sessions in schools. ’We’re potentially talking about doing an official welcome up at Waitangi,’ says Gatland. ‘That’s where the Treaty between the British and the Maori was signed in 1840. I think the week we arrive is the Queen’s Birthday so it’ll be a long weekend in New Zealand. A few guys might come in on a ‘waka’ (a Maori canoe) and it’d be great if we could find a Welsh, Irish and Gaelic speaker to reply to the Maori welcome. Plus we’re going to need to sing so there’ll have to be some choir practice. I think that’d go down really well.’

For now, though, the Lions can take a Christmas breather before the New Year ushers in the Six Nations and the live auditions for rugby’s ‘X Factor.’ ‘We had a coaches meeting yesterday and one of the things I raised is that it’s about people and characters. In 2009 there was a very well-recognised player in the last week who wasn’t involved in the last Test, had too much to drink on the Wednesday night and wouldn’t get out of bed for training. If I’d have been in charge I would have got him on the plane, sent him home and told him to explain to his family and the rugby world why he wasn’t prepared to turn up to training on the last week of the Lions tour.’

Selection is going to be brutal. Usually with the Lions twenty-five blokes pick themselves and the haggle over the last ten or twelve makes or breaks the tour. This time round fifty guys could easily pick themselves and leave the coaches wondering whom the hell to leave behind. All will be revealed come the Ides of April.

08 DECEMBER 2016

 

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