Why Warren Gatland seems to have that Lions job all but in the bag
WARREN Gatland does not yet have the Triple Crown, the Six Nations title or the Grand Slam this season. But just two games into this Championship and it already appears he has sewn up the Lions' head-coaching job.
Certainly the Welsh Rugby Union believes he has done enough to see off the challenge of the Ireland and Scotland coaches, Declan Kidney and Andy Robinson respectively. The WRU was recently approached by the Lions committee about how long they would be prepared to release the Kiwi for over the 2013 tour to Australia, and a board meeting last week approved a six-month absence, suggested by chief executive Roger Lewis.
Andy Irvine, the Lions team manager, had previously declared the head coach would have to be full-time and "be available effectively a year out". There is a five-month break clause in Gatland's contract, but in the spirit of compromise the WRU has offered the Lions another month. This means Gatland will be in charge of this year's autumn Test matches for Wales, but would then hand the reins over to Rob Howley, the current skills coach, for the Six Nations.
The decision will ultimately be made after the current Six Nations, but, in reality, the choice is made. It is a role for which Gatland has hankered since he was Sir Ian McGeechan's assistant on the 2009 tour to South Africa. "That was a huge honour and if the opportunity came along again it would be fantastic," said Gatland. He left the WRU in no doubt about his enthusiasm.
Yesterday Gatland was waiting on the news of a scan on the ankle George North sprained in Sunday's 27-13 victory over Scotland. The 19-year-old will hope to be fit for the collision with England at Twickenham a week on Saturday, when Wales could win the Triple Crown. Yet the fretting over North is negated by the impending return to fitness of several potential first-teamers.
Captain Sam Warburton is almost certain to recover from the dead leg which led to his late withdrawal on Sunday, while Alun-Wyn Jones, the lock, played for the Ospreys on the weekend, Matthew Rees, the hooker, is believed to be close to recovery from a calf injury and another flanker in Justin Tipuric is also expected to be fit.
Scrum-half Mike Phillips believes that Wales, despite England's struggles so far, will need to be at their strongest to stay on track for a third Grand Slam in eight years. "It doesn't matter if we're favourite or not," he said, no doubt mindful Wales have won at Twickenham only once in the last quarter-century. "We will go up there full of confidence and do what we have been doing. But we know it will be tough."
Nevertheless, Phillips was far from impressed with England's performance in Rome. "Italy threw it away," he said. "They were up by nine points and in control, and then they threw the game away. But to be fair to England, they have had two wins, and a win is a win. It is important we go up there with a solid defence because they have got some threatening, dangerous players."
Yesterday, England assembled at their base in Surrey, with the coach Stuart Lancaster running his eye over the likes of Toby Flood and the fit-again Courtney Lawes and Manu Tuilagi. The trio were called up for the 30-man squad on Sunday and could provide the cutting edge England have been missing.
1Tom Palmer, the England second-rower, will rejoin Wasps next season after agreeing a two-year contract yesterday. The 32-year-old left Adams Park for Stade Français in 2009. Palmer will again team up with the England back-rower James Haskell, who has been playing in Japan and will have a season of Super 15 with New Zealand's Highlanders before rejoining Wasps.