Warren Gatland is to be unveiled as head coach for the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand knowing a brutal itinerary has just been made even harder.
Gatland is poised to fill the post for a second time after masterminding the 2-1 series victory over Australia three years ago with confirmation of his appointment due at a press conference in Edinburgh today.
The 52-year-old Kiwi has the sabbatical required by the Lions written into his Wales contract and, accompanied by tour manager John Spencer, will depart for New Zealand tomorrow to begin plotting the world champions’ downfall. The arduous 10-fixture schedule, culminating in a three-Test series, has grown even more challenging with the news the All Blacks will be selected by their Super Rugby teams for the early tour matches.
It means the Blues, Highlanders and Crusaders will be at, or close to, full strength with the trio of fixtures taking place over seven days from June 7 to June 13.
In recent history, internationals have been rested to keep them fresh to face the Lions in the Test series, but selector Grant Fox insists New Zealand will adopt a different approach for 2017.
“The Super Rugby sides will be loaded up with All Blacks early because there’s a bit of time from game one to the first Test,” said Fox.
“They need to play and then as we get closer to the Tests some of those franchises will have less access to the All Blacks as we start preparing for the series.”
The tour comprises of five fixtures against Super Rugby sides with the Chiefs and Hurricanes completing the list, an opener against a provincial union team, a clash with the New Zealand Maori and three Tests. Gatland expressed his concern about the schedule shortly before the RBS 6 Nations in January, when he and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt were the leading contenders for the position.
“It’s a really tough tour. I’m not saying the Lions can’t win, it’s just a tough schedule,” Gatland said.
“It’s the hardest place in the world to go and play, from a travel and organisation perspective as well as the rugby perspective.
“It’s not un-winnable, but it’s a very, very tough schedule.”
Since the Six Nations, Eddie Jones has emerged as the year’s most successful home nations coach after guiding England to a Grand Slam and 3-0 series whitewash of Australia.
However, Jones is unavailable due to his England commitments and Schmidt also withdrew.
Scotland’s Vern Cotter is reported to have been interviewed for the job and he could yet be included among the assistants.
The Lions have prevailed just once in 11 previous visits to New Zealand - John Dawes’ 1971 tourists triumphed 2-1 - and were demolished in their last meeting with the All Blacks in 2005.
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