Wednesday 21 March 2018

Four-time head coach Ian McGeechan: Assistants will set the tone for Gatland's Lions

British and Irish Lions Coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
British and Irish Lions Coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Ian McGeechan

So, Warren Gatland has been officially appointed head coach of the British and Irish Lions. That was no surprise to anyone, but what will be intriguing now is the identity of the assistants he takes with him on the tour to New Zealand next year.

They will not be announced until December but it will be fascinating to see how Gatland's choices differ from the group of coaches he took to Australia in 2013: Rob Howley, Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Neil Jenkins.

It was interesting that Gatland said he would look at someone who could challenge him with new ideas and a new approach. He is certainly not afraid of that, as he showed when he did not select Shaun Edwards for that Australia tour. That was a big decision, just like his omission of Brian O'Driscoll for the final Test. Gatland never shies away from those big calls. But, equally, you need a base of experience and familiarity, because for a Lions tour you need to make every decision on the support staff as you want them to simplify things rather than complicate them.

The atmosphere of the tour in the first few weeks is actually set by the support staff, along with the tour manager - I think John Spencer will do a fine job in that role. So, when the players come in and some do not know each other that well, the support staff can set the environment. How they work together and help each other can be so easily underestimated, especially when you are looking at such a short run into the tour.

The one person I would pick out immediately in this respect is not a coach but the doctor, James Robson, who has been on six Lions tours already. He will surely go on a seventh now. He knows all the pitfalls, all the things that should not be there and could cause problems later on in the tour. It is vital to have that sort of man around. You can trust his judgment and decision-making, and it allows for the accelerated progress of the squad. If players are suddenly in an environment where they feel comfortable, it builds confidence. Of course, the players take over all this as the tour progresses and will be in charge by the first Test, but initially it is down to the support staff.

When I was head coach on the tour to South Africa in 2009, we got all the support staff together in London for a weekend a few months before the tour. I got everyone to talk about how they saw their responsibility and I spoke about how we would all operate together. We all then gave feedback. It was such a valuable exercise.

People talk about rugby on the field being on the front foot but, believe me, it is just as important that the environment off the field is on the front foot, too. In truth, Gatland will already have a good idea of who his assistants will be, and he will want to see the results of the autumn Tests to gauge how the squad might look.


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