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Joe awaits Lions call

LEINSTER coach Joe Schmidt would be best advised to keep his mobile phone charged over the coming weeks.

The confirmation of Warren Gatland as British & Irish Lions head coach is the first step in securing a top-notch coaching team that could yet include Irishman Conor O’Shea or New Zealander Joe Schmidt.

Gatland’s London Wasps and Wales sidekick Shaun Edwards is in line to cover the role of defence coach and Graham Rowntree is thought to be favourite for the forwards post.

“Over the coming months, I will give careful consideration to the make-up of my coaching staff,” said Gatland

yesterday.

“I will be making some phone calls over the next couple of weeks. The preparation time is really tight and there are a couple of finals on before the first game in Hong Kong. There are some people we have in mind.”

For two years now, Schmidt has led the rest of Europe a merry dance in terms of carving up the best defences at home, in England, Wales, Scotland and France.

Gatland’s release from his Wales contract surely means his backs coach Ron Howley will take interim control of the national squad for the Six Nations.

Howley was in charge of Wales’s

3-0 series defeat to Australia after Gatland broke both his heels in a fall from a ladder in New Zealand last Spring.

Schmidt's main opposition could come from former Ireland full-back O’Shea, who has transformed Harlequins from perennial under-achievers in the Premiership to 2012 champions on the basis of a fast, fluid style of rugby similar to that of the Heineken Cup champions.

For the moment, Schmidt will have club matters foremost on his mind as Leinster might have to hand 22 year-old Tom Sexton his first start at hooker against the Dragons on Saturday.

The former 2008 Schools Cup winning Belvedere College captain could be in line for just his third appearance for the club to add to two cameos totalling 23 minutes.

Richardt Strauss (stinger) and Aaron Dundon (eye and foot) are struggling for fitness, while Ireland’s Sean Cronin has been withheld as part of the Player Welfare Programme. While Strauss could still come through, Sexton has played 11 times in the British & Irish Cup and is a strong candidate for the bench at least.

Meanwhile, Gatland will be prepared to omit France-based players from the Lions squad if they cannot secure release from club duties to make the plane.

The French Top 14 final is on June 1 – the same day as the Lions play the first match of their 125th anniversary tour against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.

The Lions are determined that the whole squad will depart on tour together on May 27 – and if a potentially key player like Mike Phillips or Gethin Jenkins cannot make that date then so be it.

Gatland headed to France today to meet the players and discuss their availability with their respective Top 14 clubs. “I'm going down to France and will talk to players down there,” he said.

“Gethin's one of the players I'm going to see. I'm going to talk to [Toulon coach] Bernard Laporte, give him the programme and talk about potential release. I'm going to watch Perpignan and Bayonne, so it's a chance to talk to players.

“You don't want to cut your nose off to spite your face in terms of making those players unavailable if they're really, really important for you.

“But I'm also really, really conscious that you want the whole squad together. You don't want people coming out late on a Lions tour – you want them in right from the start.

“If it means us having to make a really, really tough call because someone's not available because they made a decision to go to France, we might have to make that call because it might be the best thing for the squad.

“At the end of the day, it's all about what's best for the team.

“We're not going to make a hard and fast rule, but we are capable of making tough decisions if that's right for the squad.”

Gatland held up the example of Scotland lock Nathan Hines, who left Perpignan before their 2009 Top 14 final in order to make the Lions tour of South Africa. “Ultimately it may be up to the players,” Gatland said.

“In 2009, Nathan Hines left Perpignan before a final because the Lions meant so much to him as a player.

“He said ‘stuff playing in French club final – I want to be part of a Lions tour'.

“As a management board and coaching staff, we will have to discuss that because preparation is so tight.

“If it means players aren't available to get on the plane, it may rule them out.”

The Lions will head off on tour just two days after the Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect PRO12 finals.


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