DONAL LENIHAN: Gatland the perfect choice to lead professional Lions to Oz

It quickly became apparent something was stirring on the Lions front on Monday afternoon when RTÉ and the BBC contacted me to discuss speculation that Warren Gatland had been offered the job of coaching the touring party on their return to Australia in 2013.

One of the reasons that BBC Wales are so interested in the story is that some still believe a foreigner should not be leading the Lions. It evoked memories of Graham Henry’s appointment in 2001 and the fact that some of the Welsh players on that tour had issues with the New Zealander for not picking them in the Test sides.

That ill feeling lingered into the following domestic season and remained an issue within the Welsh camp.

There are also concerns in Wales; given the manner with which Gatland has transformed the fortunes of the national side, that the New Zealander will be asked to step aside from that role for 12 months to concentrate on his preparations for the tour.

Let’s address those issues first.

Firstly the game has moved on in leaps and bounds since the 2001 Lions tour, with the true meaning of being a professional athlete now fully established within the rugby community. There will be no player on the tour next year who hasn’t been a full-time professional rugby player for his entire career. Every man will accept, even within his own national set up, that he doesn’t get to start every game. Ultimately, it is the coach’s job to select what he deems the best side to win the next game and the player’s job, while he may not like it, is to contribute in the best way he can to winning that game.

The issue of nationality doesn’t stack up either. A number of countries now have non nationals coaching their international sides, the most striking being Australia, who appointed a Kiwi. The sporting rivalry that exists between New Zealand and Australia is legendary and therefore for the ARU to appoint Canterbury’s finest in Robbie Deans says it all.

Closer to home, a very proud Englishman, Andy Robinson, calls the shots in Scotland; England, despite the clammer to appoint Stuart Lancaster, will interview both Nick Mallet and Wayne Smith for the job of head coach, while Jacques Brunel, a Frenchman, is at the helm in Italy.

In any event Gatland, with international experience with Ireland and Wales along with a tremendous CV with Wasps at the coalface of the English Premiership, could hardly be better qualified. He deserves the job.

Regarding the requirement of taking a 12-month sabbatical from Wales, I would look at things slightly differently. If I was involved on the Lions committee tasked with organising this tour I would see it as a blessing in disguise that Gatland had the opportunity to travel to Australia for a three-Test tour one year out from the real deal.

In terms of fact finding, preparation and experience it could not be better. That is exactly what Gatland faces this summer with Wales, playing three Tests on successive Saturdays in June. I have no doubt Gatland will come back with a fund of knowledge from playing the Wallabies and touring Australia and I would insist that he take Wales on that tour.

In fact, I would go further and allow him to coach Wales next November when New Zealand and South Africa visit the Principality in order to keep his hand in at the very top level of international coaching just seven months out from the tour. Once that autumn series is completed, he would then have to step aside from the Welsh job until the tour is over. That would allow him time to watch all the potential Lions candidates playing for their clubs and countries.

Gatland has earned the right to lead the Lions and will have learned much from operating under the stewardship of Ian McGeechan three years ago on the tour to South Africa. My one concern is what kind of condition some of the players will be in by the summer of 2013 after a punishing season with the World Cup at the back end of last year followed by those hugely demanding tours in June with Ireland heading to New Zealand; England set for South Africa and Wales facing the Wallabies. There is only so much rugby any player can play.


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