Gatland finally gets the rubber stamp
September 4, 2012
Warren Gatland was unveiled as the Lions' new coach on Tuesday © Getty Images
The worst kept secret in international rugby since South Africa's lineout code at the 2003 Rugby World Cup that England's Ben Kay cracked by learning to count to five - in Afrikaans - was finally confirmed with the British & Irish Lions unveiling of Warren Gatland as the man who will lead them to Australia next year.
The New Zealand-born Wales boss, the stand-out candidate long before his side captured the second Six Nations Grand Slam of his tenure six months ago and even before their semi-final appearance at last year's Rugby World Cup, has been tasked with following in the footsteps of arguably the greatest Lions coach - Sir Ian McGeechan.
Selected in April but denied the chance to sing and dance about his ascent to the 'pinnacle' of the coaching tree due to the small matter of two broken ankles suffered in a domestic accident, Gatland was not the only contender with other unnamed candidates interviewed for the post but in reality he was the only option.
However, success with Wales does not guarantee the same with the Lions. As Lions tour manager Andy Irvine warned the gathered masses at Gatland's coronation as Lions king, "To coach the Lions is more demanding than being a national coach."
Many may query the decision to appoint another overseas coach - following Graham Henry's troubled time in charge of the Lions in 2001 - but Gatland is not like his Kiwi predecessor who took charge with just two years with Wales under his belt.
Gatland has spent all of his coaching career in Europe and served with distinction in Ireland, England and Wales. Very few can claim to know the strengths and weaknesses of European rugby as well as him.
One path Gatland will do well not to follow is that taken by Henry. His fellow Kiwi may have since hit the heights on the international stage with the All Blacks on a glory-filled run that ended with World Cup glory last year, but his coaching CV is blighted by the Lions' 2001 tour to Australia.
A talent-laden Lions squad came agonisingly close to a series victory over the Wallabies but Henry's input was labelled "uninspiring" and the squad's preparation "crazy" in a damaging public outburst by England scrum-half Matt Dawson that highlighted squad unrest. Do not expect a squad under Gatland's charge to splinter in such devastating fashion. He already commands the respect of the current generation of elite players and his coaching rivals.
One trump card that Gatland possesses that Henry did not is the fact that he knows what it is like to play against the Lions. His memory of Waikato's clash with the 1993 tourists is one that remains vivid in his mind - "We were bouncing off the walls before the game" - as do the scars of the Lions' victory over New Zealand in 1971 he witnessed as a boy. Both will ensure no side on their gruelling 10-game schedule will be taken lightly.
McGeechan injected new life into the Lions four years ago by adopting old fashioned values and while it may not have resulted in a series victory over South Africa, the giant strides that the elite tourists took back towards respectability after a battering on and off the field in New Zealand four years prior to that memorable trip will not be lost on Gatland.
As assistant coach the last time the Lions pulled on their world-famous red jersey, Gatland will have seen firsthand how McGeechan revitalised what is arguably the biggest brand in world rugby. An eminently qualified technician, Gatland will clearly want to do things his own way and carve his own piece of history, but he will be wise not to venture too far from McGeechan's blueprint.
McGeechan's finger prints are all over everything good about the Lions with his commitment to tradition a key element to the Lions enviable status both on and off the field. That fondness for continuity was a key factor in Gatland's appointment and will no doubt also come into play as he formulates his support staff.
"I'll be making some phonecalls," he admitted when pressed on his preferences. He was loathe to admit much more but his own reference to 'continuity' is yet more evidence that the likes of his Wales assistant Shaun Edwards and England assistant coach Graham Rowntree will see Gatland's name appear on their phone in the coming days. The seconding of another Wales cohort, Rob Howley, is not so clear.
Like Gatland, he served under McGeechan in 2009 and can also point to the Lions tour to Australia in 2001 on his playing CV with both making him an obvious contender for a return to their ranks. But the Welsh Rugby Union, who granted Gatland a temporary release from his contract to take up the Lions post on the condition he would remain in the mix for the clashes with Australia and New Zealand later this year, once again hold the key to any involvement. Gatland will clearly want him on-board, it is just a matter of whether the WRU are happy for a caretaker coach to take Wales to Japan next summer.
Gatland hopes to have his coaching team in place before the autumn internationals but support may also come from other quarters. Squad selection is a more epic task. It will ultimately be Gatland's call but the 'trusted advisors' that Irvine hinted that the coach will use as a sounding board will surely come into play and they will no doubt include McGeechan.
"We want tough players but good buggers too," commented Gatland when asked about the potential shape of his squad - it would appear they already have a man in charge with the same characteristics.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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