Gatland: Oz perfect destination for Lions
Head coach Warren Gatland is tasked with leading the British and Irish Lions to a first Test series triumph in 16 years and is confident Australia is the place to do it.
By Matt McGeehan
Next summer’s tour will be the fourth since the Lions’ last triumph, in 1997 in South Africa, but Gatland has already suggested Australia will be, comparatively, the easier proposition.
Gatland said: “Going to one of the top-three teams in the world, playing away from home and being successful is incredibly challenging.
“But if you’d said to me, out of the three southern hemisphere teams, pick your choice of where you’d like to go, I would’ve said Australia probably.
“It’s maybe the easiest from a Lions perspective. In the past there are teams that have had some success against the Australian sides.”
The New Zealand-born Wales coach may have been making mischief, but there is reason behind his comments as the home unions have strong records against the Wallabies; Scotland, for example, have won their last two Tests against Australia.
It does not mean Gatland is downplaying the size of the task and he knows Australia are capable opponents and rise to a challenge, as demonstrated by last month’s heavy loss in France, which was followed by victory over England.
Gatland added: “We’ve got to be incredibly aware if we happen to win the first Test.
“We’ll know what’s coming in the second Test.
“They will do whatever it takes to get a result.”
The 49-year-old is equally aware Lions coaches have not had the happiest of experiences in recent times ahead of a tour which begins against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1, with the first of three Tests in Brisbane on June 22.
“The last four Lions tours the coach has lost his job within 12 months,” added Gatland.
“It’s a poisoned chalice. My challenge is to be in the same job 12 months after the Lions tour. That would be success for me.”
Gatland was speaking in Scotland yesterday as he announced his assistant coaches.
There are no Scots in the coaching squad though, with Gatland opting for a triumvirate of Wales’ Rob Howley and England duo Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, the former Great Britain rugby league captain who will be making his Lions tour debut.
Gatland held discussions with Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt, while also opting to leave behind defence specialist Shaun Edwards, who works alongside him with Wales and was part of the 2009 tour to South Africa.
“It was pretty agonising,” said Gatland of the selection, which he confirmed in his own mind last week.
“There was a lot of speculation and people talking about Shaun. That was, for me, the most difficult decision to have to make.
“We wanted some continuity from 2009, with Rob and Graham, but then to bring in someone fresh that challenges me, someone that I haven’t worked with and that’s why.”
That man is Farrell, whose rise has been rapid.
Farrell’s role will have an emphasis on defence, but there will be integration and cross-over of the coaching responsibilities. One of the first tasks as a quartet was selecting a touring party out of the players currently available.
“That caused a little bit of debate and it was a good process to go through,” Gatland said.
Rowntree revealed it took over an hour to select the back-row positions alone, while fly-half provided topical debate, given Rhys Priestland’s Achilles injury which effectively ruled the Wales No 10 out of contention.
A captain was also chosen, but Gatland declined to reveal his “hypothetical” skipper.
Gatland believes representation from all four home unions is important in the playing party, due to the Lions history.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable myself not having someone from the four countries represented,” he said.
“There’s no restriction — if I decide to pick 35 Englishman I’ve been given the licence to do that — but I think it’s important that we do have that representation.”
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