“A HUGE honour and extremely humbling” — that is how former Ireland and current Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, described his appointment as British and Irish Lions forwards coach yesterday for the 2009 Tour to South Africa.
While Gatland’s appointment to the Lions brains trust was predicted, the 2008 Grand Slam-winning coach has also said he is “massively” looking forward to working with the Ireland contingent next summer, given the distinct possibility he’ll link up with a clutch of players with whom he worked and first capped during the latter years of his Ireland tenure that lasted betwen1998 and 2001.
He also stated the Lions could borrow the Munster template for success and apply the Irish province’s “virtues” and team spirit to their group when eventually they set foot in South Africa in eight months’ time.
“I have often spoken about the virtues of Munster,” said Gatland at the management team announcement in Dublin yesterday. “What Munster bring as a side is what the Lions needs to look at in terms of how we gel a team together, what it means to put on the jersey. Sometimes it’s not always about having the best players, but having the best team. I’m looking forward to hopefully catching up with a number of those Ireland players and being involved with them again.”
The New Zealander will be part of an impressive and, for him personally, a familiar-looking coaching ticket after Lions head coach Ian McGeechan and Gerald Davies, tour manager, named Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley as Lions defence and attack coach respectively. There are either six current or past ‘Waspies’ on the management panel: McGeechan, Gatland, Edwards as well Craig White (head of conditioning) and Rhys Long (performance analysis). Completing the back room are Lions tour veteran, Dr James Robson, and Greg Thomas (head of media).
Like former Lions head coach Graham Henry, who oversaw the 2001 tour to Australia, as a Kiwi Gatland will be viewed as an outsider, but with his years of experience working in Britain and Ireland, it would be seen that he’s bought into the mentality on these islands.
“I think for those people who know me would know that I’m very passionate about whatever I do,” said Gatland. “When I was involved with Ireland I gave 100%, the same at Wasps, back at New Zealand with Waikato and now with Wales.
“I find this opportunity a huge honour but also very humbling to be involved and I think culturally I can bring a lot to this set-up, having lived in Ireland a number of years, spent time in London and now in Wales.
“I’m very aware of what the Lions is all about. As a young boy watching the Lions in 1971, that was my first real memories of it. Not many teams come to New Zealand and go away with the Series. I took notice then and saw this is something special.”
Gatland has already been casting his eye over candidates for the 35-36 man Lions touring squad that will be named next April. An initial 65-man list will be announced in January but the Wales head coach, for one, has been hugely impressed with the form of Leinster and Munster.
“With Leinster’s win over Wasps and Munster winning away to Sale, I think there are already a number of players putting their hands up. Those are the sort of games that are really going to be a benchmark for the type of players who are pushed in those games. Doing what they do in the big game, producing big performances will tip the balance.”
Gatland said he doesn’t envisage any problems taking a step down from a head coach’s role to that as number two to McGeechan in South Africa. McGeechan himself admitted he is very open-minded about how the management dynamic will work citing his close working relationship with Edwards at Wasps.
Given the short time frame for preparation in what will be a gruelling seven-week, 10-match tour, assembling a coaching staff, who are both familiar with each other and have worked with each at either Wasps or Wales, appears an intelligent move by McGeechan.
“Ian’s thinking has been around people with similar views. It’s not going to take us four or five weeks to gel together as coaches to understand each other,” says Gatland. “We’ve got the same ethos about the game and how it should be played. With limited preparation time between the end of season and the first test, we need to give ourselves the best possible chance of being right for the first test.”
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