In a year’s time, everyone will be picking up their pens and making their own minds up who should be on the plane to Australia to represent that old rugby tradition. The British Lions. Despite suffering a 2-1 series defeat to South Africa back to 2009, that tour helped the public fall back in love with a concept that had some serious doubters after Clive Woodward led a disastrous tour to New Zealand four years before that. Without a win since 1997, the Lions could really do with someone to pull a result out of the bag and prove the Northern Hemisphere can still mix it with the best.
It seems the Lions bosses have already decided who to entrust with the task of beating the Aussies and have subsequently offered the position out. Warren Gatland, Wales coach since 2007, having picked up his second Grand Slam during that period, is the selected man and an official approach has been made to the WRU. The 48-year-old is the obvious choice, considering his coaching credentials and achievements, not just with Wales but also a trophy-packed spell with London Wasps. Although Ireland boss Declan Kidney and Scotland coach Andy Robinson were apparently interviewed for the position, Gatland is the overwhelming favourite, not just with the public, but the players as well as it seems. So what’s the problem then?
Well the WRU are in fact, being very co-operative over the situation. They are willing to allow Gatland to step aside for the 2013 Six Nations, which would ensure he fulfils his duties as Lions coach. The Lions bosses though, are keen for a man to be appointed for the entire year. This makes the situation slightly trickier, as Wales would prefer Gatland to remain in charge for the autumn internationals, before handing over the reigns to assistants Rob Howley and Robin McBride to defend their Six Nations crown. Given the WRU are making a fairly big sacrifice in allowing their main man miss part of an international season, it is only reasonable that the Lions bosses let common sense prevail and allow Gatland to continue in his position until the end of the autumn tests. Hopefully, some sort of compromise can be reached so Gatland can be appointed and get on with his task of reviewing who he wants on his plane toAustralia.
What about Gatland as a coach though? The New Zealander would become only the second overseas coach to lead the Lions into battle, and the last man that attempted this didn’t exactly do a great job. Graham Henry was everyone’s number one choice last time the touring party visited Down Under, but clashes over his management style and team selection ensured the tour was a dismal failure, and much worse than the 2-1 series defeat suggested. Scores of players complained about his coaching style, including England stars Matt Dawson and Austin Healey in controversial newspaper columns, while it was suggested certain Welsh players were disgruntled having been left out of the test team.
Issues have arisen over the problem of favouritism, with people in some quarters suggesting Gatland might favour those who have helped his Welsh side to two Grand Slams during his time in charge. Players have been quick to speak out against those claims though, with Welsh prop Adam Jones telling the BBC: “In fairness to Gats he would pick who he thinks would be the best players. Knowing him, he’s not going to be one of these guys who will pick you if you play for Wales or on past form. If you’re on form and playing well for your club or country, you’re going to go on tour regardless of which country you’re from.”
Aside from the obvious fact that if a test team was picked today, a high proportion of Welsh names would feature anyway, Gatland knows the value of the Lions and what it means to Britain in general. Having toured with Sir Ian McGeechan’s party in 2009, Gatland understands the ethos and team spirit needed to build a successful tour, and this should stand him in good stead when the trip comes around next summer.
The choice is obvious, Gatland is the best man for the job and should be able to assemble a decent set of backroom staff to assist him. It seems his Welsh defence coach Shaun Edwards would also join the team, while most people would expect England’s Graham Rowntree to coach the forwards given the positive reviews he has received in helping Stuart Lancaster revive England’s fortunes. Gatland’s appointment is just the beginning of the excitement though, as rugby awaits one of the highlights of the international calendar. Bring on 2013.