Saturday 22 October 2016

Gatland facing toughest challenge on home soil

Published 07/09/2016 | 02:30

Warren Gatland chatting with Ireland coach Joe Schmidt last year before a World Cup warm-up game
Warren Gatland chatting with Ireland coach Joe Schmidt last year before a World Cup warm-up game

Back in January, Warren Gatland was playing hard to get when he said, "Joe Schmidt can have the Lions job if he wants! Have you seen the schedule?! He can have it!"

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This afternoon in Edinburgh, the New Zealander will be unveiled as the man who will lead the touring party to his homeland next June. The daunting schedule hasn't changed, but his tune has.

Before the Six Nations, there appeared to a race for the job, but Eddie Jones had made it clear that he wasn't interested and Joe Schmidt has never appeared enthusiastic.

Perhaps they knew that the gig was Gatland's if he wanted it.

Having guided the Lions to their first series win in four attempts in 2013, he had earned the right to go again.

The circumstances of that victory over Australia may still rankle in these parts, but there can be no denying his credentials. However, beating a mediocre Australia side and going to New Zealand to face the All Blacks three times are very different matters.


"It's a really tough tour," Gatland said in January. "I'm not saying the Lions can't win but it's tough. You're facing the world champions. It's not unwinnable but very, very tough.

"I've been very lucky to have been involved in a couple of tours. If you were offered it you'd find it difficult to turn down but if you weren't offered it you might thank your lucky stars."

Since then, he has been to home and back with Wales; suffering three heavy defeats to the All Blacks and one, perhaps most humiliating of all, to his home province the Chiefs in their midweek game.

So, news from New Zealand that the All Blacks will be made available to their Super Rugby coaches for the early games of the tour won't have made him feel much better about the task in hand.

Unlike previous tours when they faced weaker teams from the National Provincial Championships, the Lions will face four Super Rugby sides and the Maori before they take on the world champions. Only their opening game against a Provincial Union team in Whangarei offers any potential solace.

Over the course of seven days, the tourists will face the Blues of Auckland, the Canterbury Crusaders and the Otago Highlanders who will all be able to pick their Test players for the visit.

"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 and they need to play," All Black selector Grant Fox said. "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 it.

"Any tour of New Zealand is going to be challenging because we've got real talent and depth. It will be tough."

In the past, the Lions have complained about the lack of a real competitive game before they took on the Tests, but they should have no such issues this time around.

Instead, the key concern for Gatland and his assistant coaches will be trying to keep their players fit at the end of a gruelling season.

While the Lions could do with a break before taking on this massive task, instead the squad is likely to depart before the English Premiership and Pro12 finals take place.

Whether this gives the Lions a fair shot or not will be a source of much debate, but little about the task set the tourists has ever been fair; which is why success is so difficult and seen as rugby's greatest challenge.

After his coronation today, Gatland's next task will be to pick a backroom team to support him and he has plenty of candidates available even if Schmidt and Gregor Townsend are not available to coach the attack.

For the players, you only had to watch Sky Sports' coverage of Saturday's clash between Connacht and Glasgow Warriors to understand what they're in for. Stuart Hogg's every touch was given Lions-season significance and there's plenty more where that came from.

Ireland's two November meetings with the All Blacks will take on added significance, while the Six Nations will be framed by the tour. It all comes with the territory.

Today, Gatland will be unveiled and given the opportunity to lay out his blueprint for a historic second Test series win in New Zealand, the first since 1977.

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Lions captaincy contenders

Sam Warburton

The incumbent, Warburton will feel he has unfinished business after being ruled out of most of the series in Australia. A trusted member of Warren Gatland's regime, he starts as favourite.

Alun-Wyn Jones

The man who delivered the series win in the final Test last time, Jones is a hugely experienced and highly respected figure who has plenty of captaincy experience despite serving under Warburton at Wales. However, he is far from guaranteed his place in the most competitive position going.

Dylan Hartley

Missed out in 2013 because of ill-discipline, but comes into the picture this season as a reformed character and the leading hooker. A Kiwi by birth, the England captain's appointment would be controversial.

Irish Independent

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