Monday 26 September 2016

Fours years on, the ghost of Brian O'Driscoll looms large over Lions coach Warren Gatland

Memories of 2013 linger for head coach as he begins preparations for All Black assault

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Edinburgh

Published 07/09/2016 | 22:06

Brian O'Driscoll and Warren Gatland during the Lions tour
Brian O'Driscoll and Warren Gatland during the Lions tour

Brian O'Driscoll's name never surfaced during Warren Gatland’s lengthy sit-down with the representatives from the daily newspapers on Wednesday, but the presence of the Ireland great loomed large.

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Bullish in his earlier press conference as he was unveiled as the coach of the 2017 Lions, the New Zealander cut a more reflective figure away from the cameras.

Sitting against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle in an otherwise non-descript meeting room at the headquarters of the tourists’ sponsors in the Scottish capital, the New Zealander reflected on the tumultuous events of the final week of the 2013 tour when his decision to drop the legendary centre caused consternation.

One by one, Irish former Lions came out strongly against the man who had handed O’Driscoll his international debut as fans took to social media to express their outrage at the decision.

Gatland’s side went out and hammered Australia that Saturday, but the first series win since 1997 was, rightly or wrongly, tainted for many Irish fans despite the involvement of Conor Murray, Tommy Bowe, Sean O’Brien and Johnny Sexton.

The win should be among the 52-year-old’s career highlights, but the “vitriol” he endured looms large in his reflections.

Three years on, he returns to the role for the most daunting trip of his life and he believes the experience he endured in that final week will steel him for the gauntlet of leading the Lions to New Zealand.

“There was a moment (during the third Test in Sydney) when I looked at the TV when I was in the coaching box with 15 minutes to go and I felt like gesturing towards it!” he recalled.

“I kept my counsel. It was a tough week that last one.

“I don't think there is any pressure on the (Lions) players. It is tough, but if you fail as a Lion it doesn't have an impact on your international section or club team even if you've not been successful or performed.

"You fail as a coach and have a poor tour - look at previous coaches, the impact it has had on them post Lions tour has not been positive."

So, what was the biggest thing he took from the experience?

“I learnt a lot that last week. The biggest lesson is that you have to be true to yourself," he said.

"The balance of the squad is hugely important and trying to get things right off the field.

“My experience and talking to a lot of people about the Lions is that the potential success is not on the field but what happens off the field.

“If you get that right and get the harmony and work hard on that with the bonding then you have a chance of winning the series. That’s paramount.

“It is getting the balance between going out there and working hard and having a bit of fun.

"The Lions is different to any other team. You have got to remember the history of the Lions. The Lions do things differently... they tend to be more accessible to the community, that is the way it has always been."

A selection call may have defined his last stint as coach, but speculation and debate over who will make the squad and then the team is one of the main draws towards the Lions.

With England currently the dominant force in the northern hemisphere, Gatland will be under pressure to pick from Eddie Jones’ squad ahead of the players he has worked it with Wales, something he says will not be a problem.

“People know me... I think that I'm pretty honest, pretty straight,” he said.

“The team will be selected on merit. I don't care about... it's not my role to have any favourites and we'll pick who we think are the best players.

“If that's 25 Englishmen and two Welshmen, that'll be the squad.

“At the end of the day players are aware who should be in the team. There’s always a debate and there’s some contentious selection which people don’t agree with.

“On previous tours there have been certain times when players or squads… I don’t think the balance has been right or players haven’t been right.

“That’s been documented and people have made comments. I don’t think there’s much debate about the 2009 or 2013 squad but there’s always going to be one or two unlucky people but by and large, those squads were pretty good.

“If you were going to pick the squad now then yes, there would be a large contingent of English players.

“But if they have an average autumn and a poor Six Nations then that’ll soon turnaround. Club form will be important for players as well. There’s a lot of water under the bridge and some of the form in the Six Nations will have an impact on the 50/50 calls and the balance of the squad.”

As for the daunting task at hand, Gatland was striking an upbeat tone.

If the challenge wasn't big enough, this week it emerged that New Zealand would release their Test  players to the Super Rugby franchises for the build-up games.

"It makes our job easier," was Gatland's response. "When I heard that I thought it was the best thing. In 2009 we came into the first Test under-cooked because the South Africans had pulled their (top) players out.

"We won the warm-up games too comfortably and thought we were in good shape. In Australia some of the games were too easy and it wasn't a big enough challenge. The Lions is all about the Test series.

"We're going to be battle-hardened and ready before the first Test. The fact we're playing the best players available is absolutely brilliant and we'll benefit hugely from that."

This morning, Gatland travels to New Zealand to check out the facilities and watch the All Blacks in action against Argentina and South Africa.

His next task will be assembling a backroom team that he says will combine "continuity and freshness", although he appeared to rule out Gregor Townsend and Vern Cotter's involvement at the outset. Andy Farrell and Greg Feek seem the most likely names to be put forward from the Irish set-up.

After that, it's all about picking a squad and a captain and after the reaction to his last selection call as Lions coach that will seem like a cake-walk.

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