Warren Gatland has welcomed the challenge of leading the most arduous tour in British and Irish Lions history knowing the rewards for glory would be great.
Gatland has been placed in charge of next summer’s odyssey to New Zealand and will begin a 10-month sabbatical from his post with Wales immediately by heading to the home of the reigning world champions today.
The 52-year-old Kiwi masterminded a 2-1 series victory over Australia three years ago, but knows that three Tests against opponents he claims have “taken the game on to a new level” is a different proposition.
“Everyone talks about how tough it’s going to be going to New Zealand but I think you get off at a job like this. It’s one of the most prestigious jobs in the world,” said Gatland.
“I wouldn’t have taken this job on if I didn’t think there were players with the ability to go to New Zealand and win. There’s some real talent there at the moment. Players with pace and footwork. There’s experience in the forward pack and some size as well and there’s some real skill. I’m incredibly excited about the potential of a Lions team able to go to New Zealand.
“I have to believe that we are good enough, that we can pick a squad good enough to go to New Zealand and beat the All Blacks. If we don’t believe that, we shouldn’t even be getting on the plane and if there are players that have doubts make yourselves unavailable because we have to go down there as a squad of players and a group of people who believe 100% that we’re good enough to go to New Zealand and winning the test series.”
Adding to the task facing the Lions is an itinerary that includes five fixtures against Super Rugby teams and a clash with the Maori and scheduling that sees domestic finals being played just a week before the tour opener on June 3.
It has been described as mission impossible but while Gatland accepted the odds are stacked against the elite of British and Irish rugby, he is convinced they can prevail after spotting chinks in the All Blacks’ armour.
“If you look at the All Blacks, when the games are tight they still play the numbers and are a little bit conservative and that’s potentially when they’re at their most vulnerable,” said Gatland, who admitted the gap between New Zealand and the rest of the world has never been greater.
Strengthening Gatland’s belief 2017 could produce only a second series win over New Zealand in 12 visits is the success of England since last autumn’s dismal World Cup. Under Eddie Jones, England have won the Grand Slam and swept Australia aside with a 3-0 whitewash in June, lifting them to second in the global rankings.
“The best thing at the moment about the Lions, and purely with my Lions hat on, is the improvement in England over the last 12 months,” Gatland said.
“For the Celtic nations, they should be the benchmark and we should be chasing them, but that hasn’t happened for the last seven, eight, 10 years. It’s pleasing England’s players are playing well and with confidence, that’s going to be good for the Lions.”
Gatland will spend the coming weeks choosing his coaching assistants and hopes to spend time with each national team, expressing the need for a mixture of continuity and fresh voices, with an announcement due to be made on December 7. Rob Howley has been named as Wales head coach while Warren Gatland concentrates on his Lions role.
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