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Gatland's choice should be simple

THERE is a club versus country argument that will brew until Monday when British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland announces the man that will be the backs coach for the tour to Australia next summer.

It would appear Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt and Wales backs coach Rob Howley are the two main protagonists in 'The race to Australia'.

When Gatland fell from a ladder at his home in Waikato in April, he could not have foreseen how Wales would mirror his fall.

Ironically, Gatland's plummet has led to a rise in his stock as his first and second lieutenants Rob Howley, the interim head coach, and Shaun Edwards have failed to take on the mantle since Gatland abdicated his throne to oversee the Lions.

Last week, Gatland swept back into power for Wales' penultimate November international - they play Australia on Saturday - against the All Blacks where they were better than before, but not nearly good enough.

It all augurs well for Schmidt's candidacy as the most qualified and most exciting choice as Gatland's backs coach for the Lions.

Wales fell foul of Australia in three litmus tests of Howley's credentials back in June and followed that with more damaging defeats to Argentina and Samoa at the same time Gatland took a sabbatical to lead the Lions.

Howley, the former Wales scrum-half, was responsible for five internationals and five defeats. "It is not a physical issue, it's just getting the head right," said Gatland last week.

"Yes, we've had a couple of disappointing weeks, but I think the benefit of that will be shown in the next couple of years in terms of what the players have experienced and coaches have experienced."

This would also lead most observers to conclude that Gatland believes Howley and Edwards are still at the foothills of their coaching careers.

That is certainly not the case for Edwards. He has been at Gatland's side for a host of triumphs at London Wasps and Wales.

This is a damning indictment of Howley. For the coach is responsible for the preparation, motivation and building the confidence of his players.

Howley began his coaching career as the backs coach at Cardiff Blues in 2005. He was never touted as one of the best in Europe in his three years there.

He was a central figure at a storied club where under-performance and under-achievement are the standards by which they sunk into mediocrity.

This autumn, Howley has been at the helm for three tries in three matches, none against Argentina, one against Samoa and two consolation tries against New Zealand. He was also there for the four tries against the Wallabies in three tests in June. Before that, in his specialist role as a backs coach, Grand Slam-winning Wales produced 10 tries, all of them from backs, in the Six Nations. This was three less than Ireland.


The point to all of this is that Wales have set their stall out to win by use of a dominant defence and the strike power of a powerful and supremely talented three-quarter line.

Has Howley made best use of his resources? Hardly. Has he earned the right to be called the best backs coach available for the Lions? Definitely not.

Australia will enter the dragons' den for their fourth test match in six months on Saturday, the first day of December.

It will be the equivalent of Howley's final interview to make the coaching ticket. The management team will be announced by Gatland two days later.

For Schmidt, the interview process has been ongoing and impressive. He has been the head coach and the primary backs coach for two of Leinster's Heineken Cups. The New Zealander has been able to strike the perfect balance between winning and looking good doing it. He would present a challenge the Wallabies have not faced.

They have seen what Howley has had to offer for Wales and have dealt with it. They have not seen what Schmidt can do. This would bring an element of unpredictability. If Gatland sides with Howley, it will send out the wrong message. There will be a cabal converging. Welsh players will dominate the squad, regardless of the Six Nations.

If Gatland opts for Schmidt, he will open the door to all possibilities and in one decision move the Lions from underdogs to an even-chance at breaking the mould for the first time since the Lions beat South Africa 2-1 in 1997.