'Not many Lions hopefuls would make a World XV'
Tour boss Gatland fears home nations will lose touch with Big Three unless attitudes change
The lie that sport and politics should never mix stretches into the realm of farce in the compressed life of a Lions coach. For Warren Gatland, the next seven months will explore his facility for politesse every bit as much as his nous for international rugby. The job is 90pc illusion, cultivating the optics of fraternal unity when, truth be told, you are wrestling with the self-interest of four routinely truculent families.
Add in the subsidiary tensions of other (un)interested parties, the kind that prompted Ian McGeechan to deride "too many people who are rather two-faced about the Lions" in his 2009 autobiography, and you get the faintest glimpse of a job that morphs into the business of coaching only in its final, Test-defined days.
And, after a November series that featured just a single victory for the home nations against major southern hemisphere opposition, there was the sense of a creaking narrative to the early Lions script last Wednesday as adidas launched the official tour jersey in Cardiff.
As ever, Six Nations form will define the 2013 Lions in terms of personnel, captaincy and psychological perspective for the three-Test tour of Australia.
The Lions have not won a series since the 1997 win in South Africa and, despite a wonderful effort on the high veldt four years ago, the very credibility of these tours has been coming under increasing scrutiny, particularly with next year's series running at an estimated overall cost of £14m. Profit streams are still predicted to be substantial but, for Gatland, all this subliminal stuff is over-ridden by one single imperative. Come July 6 in Sydney, he needs to get his hands on the cut-glass Tom Richards Trophy.
So his view on the current form of Six Nations teams?
"I think a lot of us are disappointed, apart perhaps from Ireland. They have looked pretty strong. They looked really good in the first half against South Africa, then disappointed in the second. But they kicked on and improved from there. But a lot of us have been disappointed. I felt it was a reminder that it just takes us a little bit of time to cope with the intensity that the southern hemisphere teams play at, week in, week out."
But was there not sufficient time for the home nations to get up to that intensity this autumn?
"As a coach, that was what was so good about the World Cup, having the time together to prepare for that. We often have to replicate at training the intensity they're going to experience in matches, because they just do not get enough of that domestically.
"The pleasing thing for me having spoken to the (Welsh) players last week is that they felt much more comfortable in the second half (of a 33-10 defeat to the All Blacks). You know we had 73pc of possession and 57pc territory in the second half. We've never had those numbers before.
"It's a frustration sometimes that you've got maybe 10 or 12 days preparing yourself internationally but, when the players go on the field, it's like the pace the southern hemisphere teams have been experiencing week in, week out, catches our players because they don't get it enough."
So northern hemisphere rugby is still playing catch-up?
"Yeah, because the southern hemisphere countries end up with the finished product, don't they?"
Why is that?
"It's the nature of how strong their school competitions are. Basically the schools are like academies. I look at what my son (Bryn) goes through each week in his first XV (with Hamilton Boys HS) and it just does not compare to anything here. He gets up on a Monday at 6.0, doing shuttles. He's got work-ons then Monday afternoons. He does weights on Tuesday morning at 6.0, rugby on Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday off. Weights Thursday morning, rugby Thursday afternoon. Friday lunchtime, they have a captains' run. And they play on Saturday.
"He's 17 years old, benching over 100kg, playing out-half. That's just the way with every top school in New Zealand. They go from that into domestic competition, then into Super Rugby. So when you're a coach in New Zealand, the finished product almost turns up on your lap. I've seen signs of improvement here, but it's just us being aware of how we're quite protective of our own competitions rather than saying 'actually we're going to make our players stronger and more competitive, week in, week out'."
So how impressed have you been this month by the likes of Craig Gilroy?
"When you're looking at the Lions this early out, you're looking at more experienced players. Then you're looking at some youngsters who put their hand up and make you go 'Wow, that's pretty exciting!' He's definitely been one of those guys. At the moment, he's definitely put himself in the frame. But you watch him from now on and (see) can he repeat those performances and continue to be exciting.
"Four years ago, Keith Earls would probably have been one of those guys who came on and showed some stuff. The pleasing thing about Ireland (against Argentina) was they went out and played rugby. They got some of their players into position, they got the ball into Gilroy's hands. And then you saw the experience of someone like Tommy Bowe. He was outstanding.
"It's the first time in a while from an Irish point of view that they've coped without the O'Driscolls and O'Connells who have been such icons of the team. Previously, they always seemed to struggle without them."
What has been your assessment of the Wallabies?
"I think we shouldn't underestimate the benefit Australia will get from having to cope with the amount of injuries they've had. That's going to give them the depth and competition they've sometimes lacked. Long-term, it's going to be really good for them and it's going to make next year really tough and competitive."
And their lack of consistency, which seems to have become a national obsession Down Under?
"I think that's only because they can't beat the All Blacks, but not many of us can. I feel for Robbie Deans a bit, he's under a massive amount of pressure. I feel he's in a no-win situation.
"I think it's a bit hard when you win the Tri-Nations last year, when you finish second in the Championship this year, you finish third in the World Cup and you're No 2 in the world (they are currently No 3 in the IRB rankings). Most coaches in most countries would be pretty safe with those kind of numbers and statistics.
"It probably doesn't help that he comes from over the ditch (in New Zealand)! I understand from an Australian point of view. It's not just rugby, they want to be successful in every sport. Per population, they've traditionally been the biggest over-achievers in sport. So people expect Australia to beat the All Blacks, not every game, but regularly. That's been potentially his biggest downfall.
"Then you have someone like Quade Cooper come out and criticise the environment, it doesn't make it easy. Ex-coaches and ex-internationals, whether it's Alan Jones or (David) Campese or whatever. So it's been tough on him."
What sort of Wallaby game do you expect to encounter next summer?
"That's the hard thing, because we've seen a number of different versions. But I think the biggest example of their threat was, after the disappointment against France, fronting up the next week against England."
What assets will the Lions bring to Australia?
"We certainly will have some size, some physicality, some pace. Particularly when you look at the midfield and the back three, you really have some genuine pace and size. Then you talk about someone like Gilroy who's a sort of bolter with potential. We've a lot of options and depth in the second-row too."
What about the impression of shortcomings in the front-row and at half-back?
"You see some good performances from players, then the performance the next week isn't good enough. Conor Murray was good a couple of weekends ago but sometimes I've seen players like Eoin Reddan who've had some good games for Leinster. Danny Care and Mike Phillips as well. But I don't think there's been really dominating performances from a No 9 on a consistent basis.
"The same could be said about hookers. Is there a really dominant hooker? I know Rory Best and Dylan Hartley are injured, but there's no really dominant hooker out there. And where's your dominant prop that's destroying any opposition front-rows?"
The impression is that the position of out-half is wide open too, would you agree?
"Yeah, absolutely. For a number of them, the Six Nations is going to be key. You want to be picking No 10s that are coming into a Lions squad out of a successful team and they've got a bit of swagger about them, a bit of cockiness and confidence."
And the captaincy, is that simply going to come down to form in the Six Nations?
"There's no one at the moment. I don't think there's any stand-out player you're saying is favourite for captain. In the next few months, hopefully there'll be one or two more candidates. The ideal situation is you'd like someone who's had a little bit of experience, has the respect of everyone and is No 1 in their position. But there's not many players in that category.
"It could potentially be someone you might pick as a captain of the tour and say 'Look, you're captain of the Lions, but that's no guarantee you're going to be selected in the Test side.' I think it's important that we select on form. There have been previous Lions tours where captains have been selected and probably haven't been good enough to be in the Test side. But tradition has meant that they've been selected.
"I think we need the best players and best team to go on the field. But I don't think it's something you get too hung-up about at the moment."
You've talked about continuity from '09 in terms of both coaching and players, so do you have a distinct style in your head of how the 2013 Lions will play?
"I think looking at the players, we'll have the ability to play more than one style. Ideally, you want to go there, move the ball and score tries. But not at the expense of winning. We're aware that when Australia have come under pressure against the All Blacks and South Africa, it's when they've been very very direct. Sometimes they lull you into a false sense of going to try to play too much rugby and, if the game loosens up, it brings the quality of backs and match-winners they have to the fore.
"So we have to be smart. If it means being a little bit conservative and scrummaging them into the ground, let's be prepared to do that. That said, I think the brand of rugby the Lions played four years ago in South Africa was absolutely outstanding.
"They took the game to the Boks, which is something they weren't expecting. They out-scored them in the Test series and were beaten basically by the kicking of Morne Steyn."
How many Lions candidates would make a world XV today?
"Not many, would they? But then you're probably picking eight or 10 All Blacks".
At the end of the 2009 tour, who did you feel was world class that is still available to you now?
"Rob Kearney, but he's injured at the moment isn't he? I thought Mike Phillips did a good job. Jamie Roberts. The question is ... there's a bit of pressure on those players. Their form probably needs to improve a little bit. Kearney's got to come back.
"Tommy Bowe (left) probably played better in the centre in the third Test than he did on the wing (laughing)."
Any Australians particularly impress you this autumn?
"I thought, particularly against England, their ball-carriers were outstanding. Polota-Nau, Palu, Timani were good, Tapui as well ... all the island boys fronted up. But you're looking at players coming back too, Pocock obviously. Horwill, if he's fit, is world class. The same with Genia. When at full strength, the Australians have four or five players of real firepower. I'm thinking of the attacking threat of Cooper, Beale, Ioane, O'Connor – real game-changers that can force missed tackles."
Would you be pleased if Cooper wasn't on the scene?
"Not if he keeps tweeting the way he's tweeting (laughs). Nah, he can do whatever he wants. He's another enigma, isn't he? When he's on form, he does things out of the blue. He's got his weaknesses, but he puts bums on seats. We'll see how he goes after his boxing escapades. People sort of love to hate him in a way, but he's the kind of player that the game needs. Almost Campese-esque in a way".
Can he be a point of vulnerability too?
"Definitely. When he's good, he's very good. But when he's bad, he can be just as bad as well."
The way Mike Hooper has been playing, getting to the breakdown first is going to be crucial, right?
"Yeah, I think you need genuine No 7s and there's a lack of genuine No 7s out there. Someone who gets on the ball, who's competitive at the breakdown, is a nuisance. Australia have got three at the moment with Gill and Hooper and Pocock. The one country here that probably has two genuine No 7s is Wales with Tipuric and Warburton. In the other countries, the guys who are playing No 7 are probably more six-and-a-halves really."
Finally, how are you finding separation from your job with Wales?
"I think everyone needs to feel that there is that sort of neutrality and balance, that they're all on the same footing. I want the other nations to feel like that. The great thing is we've made requests to go in and spend a day with Scotland and England and Ireland, just to show our face, and England and Ireland have come back with some dates.
"The last thing I want is them to feel I'm going there to watch them training and I'm going to be telling Wales exactly what they're doing. That's not my style, it's the last thing I would do. They've got to feel confident and comfortable with me coming into their environment. Hopefully, it can be a little bit motivating.
"I think we need to share information and knowledge among the Six Nations teams a lot more. Because we're that bit insular. We bash the crap out of each other in the Six Nations, we look at each other too much as the enemy. We should look at the southern hemisphere as the enemy, because that's where the real threat is."