Saturday 29 April 2017

'Pick seven back-rows? That is going to be nightmare' - Warren Gatland

Lions head coach Warren Gatland believes his squad will have sufficient talent at its disposal to match the All Blacks Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Lions head coach Warren Gatland believes his squad will have sufficient talent at its disposal to match the All Blacks Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Before the Six Nations got under way, Warren Gatland gathered his backroom staff in one room and started a discussion on picking the 37 or so players who will tour New Zealand this summer.

It proved an onerous task according to the Kiwi coach as he, Andy Farrell and Rob Howley trawled through their options in an attempt to select a provisional squad. The way things are going, the process is only going to get more difficult when they gather again in April to begin finalising the travelling party.

By the time the tournament finishes, Gatland will have attended nine matches and spent time in each of the four team camps.

Last weekend's win over Italy was the only Ireland game he won't have seen live. Behind the scenes, Farrell is keeping a watching brief while also managing Ireland's defence, so the players are aware that their every move could conceivably work either in their favour or to their disadvantage in the coming month.

Recently returned from his final 'recce' mission to his homeland to put the finishing touches to the tour itinerary, the Wales coach is in the rare position to be able to enjoy the tournament away from the pressure of direct involvement.

Hardest

"Joe (Schmidt) gave me a bit of a hard time," he smiles. "When I said I was looking forward to this opening weekend, there are some interesting games.

"He turned around and said: 'Yeah, interesting for you because you are watching!'

"I know exactly where he is coming from because the hardest thing about Six Nations or any international game is it's agony or ecstasy, there is nothing in between.

"You win the game and you enjoy the next week, you lose a game and you go through absolute hell and through pain until you get your next victory.

"I know exactly what those coaches are going through."

His is a different type of stress as he watches the qualifying players go toe to toe on a weekly basis.

On Saturday, he watched on as England beat Wales in a Test match of real quality, before seeing how the much-vaunted Scottish revival spluttered at the Stade de France.

In particular, the back five positions in the scrum are tough to call. He will bring around 20 forwards and 17 backs and the battle to get on the plane is fierce.

"Try and pick seven loose (back-row) forwards for me because that is going to absolute nightmare in terms of trying to narrow down," he said.

"We haven't finalised the number but there is quite a few contenders in that position.

"We are in a healthy position at the moment from choice, we're a lot stronger than we were in 2005 and there is going to pretty disappointed players out there who potentially miss out. There is going to be some severe debate.

"We are in a pretty good position in a number of areas in terms of the choice we have available to us at the moment. If we don't pick up too many injuries during the Six Nations."

Gatland is confident that he has the right type of player to deal with the very particular challenge that the All Blacks pose.

"If you look at the potential of the players we have got some speed, some footwork, some experience, we're going to mix it up front against the All Blacks with some size," he said.

"The profile of the player is pretty good when you look at what you have got to choose from.

"That is what you have got to be able to do with the All Blacks, you have got to be able to match the physicality that they can bring. They lost in Chicago and they turned up in Dublin and the performance was about the result and it was about bringing a physicality to the game.

"They questioned themselves and their character and letting themselves down in that Chicago game so they can turn it both ways. They can go out and play some pretty exciting brand of rugby but if they need to be physical they can also mix it up in that regard.

"We have got to be able to match them in those facets and we are capable of doing that if it does get a little bit nasty up front and the weather isn't great that we are able to do that, and we have got the players who are able to go out and play some good rugby and have got some skills and some footwork and pace to be able to play a pretty attractive brand as well."

Of course, there is nothing new about this process for Gatland who went through it all four years ago.

"Looking back on 2013, there was a toss-up in a few selections and that last game where Wales beat England pretty comprehensively swayed a number of selections in some of the Welsh players' favour.

"It was a big occasion and the thing about the Six Nations is it's our bread and butter, that's our competition, there is points at stake and you want players and teams to respond to that.

"Performance is important, but there is no doubt that some of our thinking will change over the Six Nations. Someone will come out of the blue and put their hand up and then you are looking at where players who have had a good last six, 12 months are and are in a lot of people's reckoning but pressure is on them to have a good Six Nations to continue with that for so they are selected.

"I am excited at the moment from a coaching point of view to see how a lot of those players do respond to those expectations, because you want them to come under pressure because there is no doubt we are all aware how tough it is going to be during the Test series in New Zealand.

Scrutiny

"We're going to come under some huge scrutiny and some huge pressure from not just the Test but the Super Rugby sides and the Maoris. Players who respond to that sort of pressure, they are the sort you are looking for. Their backs are to the wall and they are able to dog deep and get a performance."

Yesterday's news that Greig Laidlaw is out for the tournament and, probably, beyond just shows how things can change and that narrows the field in terms of scrum-halves where Conor Murray, Ben Youngs and Rhys Webb can all be confident of travelling.

And Murray is a player the Kiwi knows well from the 2013 tour.

"Conor was definitely a real success story for us from 2013," he said. "

"People are aware how important he is that he is fit. He brings a physicality to the game that experience, those lines of running, that he gets to the breakdown and gets the ball away is definitely a key."

Predicted Lions squad

Back three: Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England), Simon Zebo (Ireland), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Liam Williams (Wales), George North (Wales).

Centres: Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Scott Williams (Wales), Elliott Daly (England), Jamie Joseph (England), Garry Ringrose (Ireland).

Half-backs: Owen Farrell (England), Dan Biggar (Wales), Johnny Sexton (Ireland), Conor Murray (Ireland), Ben Youngs (England), Rhys Webb (Wales).

Front-row: Cian Healy (Ireland), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Mako Vunipola (England), Rory Best (Ireland), Sean Cronin (Ireland), Jamie George (England), Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), Dan Cole (England), WP Nel (Scotland).

Second-row: Maro Itoje (England), Joe Launchbury (England), Jonny Gray (Scotland), Alun-Wyn Jones (capt, Wales), Iain Henderson (Ireland).

Back-row: CJ Stander (Ireland), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Billy Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), James Haskell (England).

Irish Independent

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