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Gatland gives early warning to hopefuls

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New Lions coach Warren Gatland

New Lions coach Warren Gatland

New Lions coach Warren Gatland

TO enter London's Ironmonger's Hall, where Warren Gatland was unveiled as Lions coach yesterday, you have to first go through the modern architectural monstrosity that blocks the building's beautiful facade.

Ostensibly the venue was chosen because the first Lions squad to tour had gathered nearby in 1888, but it also served as a neat metaphor for this much-loved relic of the amateur era that somehow works despite a professional game that blocks its path at every turn.

While they function commercially, the reality remains that the Lions have not won a Test series since 1997 and every time they return to the schedule, the game has evolved to provide another obstruction to its flourishing.

This time around, the Pro12 and English Premiership finals take place a mere seven days before the Lions' first match against the Barbarians in Hong Kong, cutting down on preparation time, while the French Top 14 -- containing a host of English and Welsh players -- has scheduled its final for the same day as that opener.

New Zealander Gatland will travel to France this week to talk with a number of players based in France and their clubs before watching James Hook's Perpignan take on Mike Phillips' Bayonne. And he yesterday warned them that they, and 2009 starter Gethin Jenkins, could be left behind if they choose their clubs over the touring side.

"Ultimately it may be up to the players," he said, citing the example of Nathan Hines, who missed Perpignan's Top 14 final to make the tour in 2009. "He got on a plane and said, 'bugger playing in a French club final, I want to be part of the Lions tour'.

"It's something that as a management board and as a coaching staff we are going to have to discuss because the preparation is so tight. If it means that some players aren't available to get on the plane then that may potentially rule them out."

Gatland wants to have his entire coaching ticket in place by the November internationals and, while some of the 2009 team including Shaun Edwards and Graham Rowntree are likely to be involved, he is open to new voices.

"You want some continuity, but you want some fresh faces as well and it is important that that is done," he said, leaving the door open for Joe Schmidt and Conor O'Shea.

Negotiate

"The next couple of weeks is about talking to some potential people to see if they are interested," he added. "Then I'll give a list to (Lions CEO) John Feehan to approach clubs or unions to negotiate their release and then to have a team for November, it would be ideal.

"We need a mix within the coaching and management to reflect the four nations in certain positions. It is about having some continuity from the last tour and getting the best people in the roles as well."

Tour manager Andy Irvine had earlier insisted that all four unions' coaches as well as club coaches had been considered for the role, while some were interviewed, but having brought Wales to the World Cup semi-final and delivered a Grand Slam last season, nothing was going to stop Gatland taking the job.

It was also confirmed yesterday that the build-up games should be tougher this time around, with Australia having verbally committed to allow their internationals play for the Super Rugby franchises right up until the week before the first Test.

Gatland watched the Wallabies lose to New Zealand last week and will travel to Argentina to see them again in October before taking in their November Tests against England, France and Italy. At that stage he will have a good idea of the challenge that awaits him on the field. Off it, it looks difficult already.

Irish Independent