If South Africa was the Lions’ Everest in 1997, then New Zealand in 2017 will be the touring squad’s attempt to fly to the moon, such is the magnitude of the task awaiting them.
However, before a squad can be assembled a coaching team needs to come first. Who will lead the Lions against the All Blacks? We put together a potential dream coaching ticket that might be in with a chance of winning.
If rumours are to be believed then Wales head honcho Warren Gatland is the favourite to lead the Lions to his homeland. Whilst some fans have reservations about the cantankerous Kiwi because of the apparently predictable style of rugby he favours, he is the only coach to have tasted series success for the Lions since Scotsman Ian McGeechan way back in 1997.
Although Gatland may not espouse an expansive and elaborate style of play, his power-based, almost ‘British Bulldog’ approach to the sport is suitable for an invitational side like the Lions where a group of players not particularly familiar with each other is thrown together and given a few weeks to form a cohesive unit.
Indeed, current England coach Eddie Jones has gently eased his team into moving away from a very prescriptive style of rugby when they first played together at the beginning of the Six Nations against Scotland. It’s important to get a good set piece platform first and a strong defensive system in place before any thoughts can turn to attack. It is a shame that the Australian Jones has turned his back on the Lions, but one cannot but praise his dedication and integrity for sticking by England to develop them as a team.
Joe Schmidt has an excellent coaching pedigree when one considers that he has achieved magnificent wins over both Australia and South Africa with Ireland, but his team narrowly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when they last played the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium in 2013. He is a smart operator and gets his teams to play intelligently on the pitch, something that might prove invaluable against the All Blacks, but like Gatland’s Wales Ireland have been inconsistent as of late.
Vern Cotter will not be Scotland coach for much longer after the SRU announced they would not be renewing his contract, but the hard-faced New Zealander has overseen some impressive performances for a Scottish team that lacks the player pool of some of the other northern hemisphere nations.
Finally, whilst most fans would balk at the suggestion, there is only one coach in this half of the world that has actually beaten the All Blacks. Stuart Lancaster has very little chance of getting the Lions gig, but in difficult circumstances he put together an England side at short notice that almost won the Six Nations in 2012 after a disappointing World Cup.
Given his experiences of two Lions tours as a coach and his knowledge of New Zealand rugby, however, Warren Gatland does seem the logical choice. Yet it seems unlikely he will take many of his Wales back room staff with him.
A couple of Englishmen are at the front of the queue for the job of organising a Lions pack in a short period of time: Graham Rowntree and Steve Borthwick. Whilst the former lost his position of England coach in January, he is a man highly regarded by Gatland and was involved in the victorious tour of 2013.
However, new man Borthwick worked with Eddie Jones as Japan forwards coach and has now overseen a Grand Slam win and a whitewashing of Australia with seriously powerful performances from the Red Rose pack. Although Jones is reluctant to tour, he will definitely be encouraging his young back room staff to go.
Irishman Simon Easterby will additionally be in with a shout, although Scotland coach and former Wales player Jonathan Humphreys has little chance of making the tour. Robin McBryde, Wales’ pack guru, will again likely miss out.
The outstanding candidate at the moment has to be England’s Paul Gustard. From revolutionising the way Saracens played to turning England into a fantastic defensive outfit in a short period of time, Gustard will almost certainly tour unless the head coach decides to turn to Andy Farrell once more.
Despite a disappointing World Cup for England in 2015, Farrell is well thought of as a defence coach and it was not really a surprise when the astute Schmidt picked up the former Wigan and Saracens man as Ireland’s new defence coach. If Gatland or Schmidt are appointed then Farrell is in with a chance of making the tour.
Shaun Edwards is always a name bandied about, but the Wales man was given the cold shoulder by Gatland for 2013 and Wales’ recent performances do not suggest he has done enough to earn a recall, particularly with Wales’ defence being completely outclassed by the All Blacks this summer.
This is probably the hardest part of the coaching team to select, given the dearth of quality individuals leading on attack in the Six Nations. Jones has been coaching England’s backs himself and appointed fellow Australian Glen Ella as attack coach for the tour to Australia, but the Red Rose do not yet have anyone who is filling the role on a permanent basis.
Wales’ Rob Howley was charged with masterminding the Lion’s attacking plan in 2013, but this time this writer feels a new face should be given the role to bring in some fresh ideas and move away a little from ‘Warrenball’ – particularly in terms of attack.
There are two possible options then: firstly, see if Schmidt is willing to work under Gatland as an attack coach and hope the two characters can form an effective partnership. This might seem ludicrous to some, but remember that Gatland was appointed Lions forwards coach under Ian McGeechan in 2009.
Alternatively, offer the role to current Glasgow Warriors boss and future Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, although it seems unlikely that the SRU would acquiesce to such an appointment given Townsend begins his new role in June 2017 and Townsend himself has ruled out being available for the tour.
Therefore, this writer is proposing the following coaching team for the 2017 tour:
Head coach: Warren Gatland
Forwards coach: Steve Borthwick
Defence coach: Paul Gustard
Backs coach: Joe Schmidt
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena