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The Five Greatest Ever British And Irish Lions Coaches

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 27: Ian McGeechan, the Lions head coach looks on prior to the Second Test match between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions at Loftus Versfeld on June 27, 2009 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Warren Gatland may be the coach on everyone’s mind these days. With his potential selections for this year’s tour filling column inches, most people are focused on the players that might make the cut and how the potential 2017 edition of the Lions stacks up to the previous wearers of the famous red jersey.

But what about the coach himself? Gatland is of course taking charge of his second tour subsequent to his successful, if not controversial, first stint in Australia four years ago. He’s one of three Kiwis to lead the Lions to the southern hemisphere. There have also been 14 English, six Irish, five Welsh and two Scottish head coaches or co-head coaches since 1888.

Ahead of Gatland’s squad selection next week, we look back at the top five coaches in Lions history.


5. Leslie B. Osborne

Although the Test results of this tour were mixed, Osborne still achieved 22 wins and one draw from 29 games. The first post-war tour, and the first in twelve years, posed its own issues but Osborne managed to overcome them. In doing so, the 1950 tour redefined the Lions as the team we know today.

In fact they were the first to use the name ‘Lions’ and the first to use the familiar red jersey, white shorts and blue socks kit. They managed a draw with New Zealand and followed that up with three narrow loses, playing some great rugby. Subsequently, they toured Australia, scoring two Test wins against the Wallabies before returning home.


4. Warren Gatland

Some people love him, some hate him, but ultimately his performance is measured on the field. There’s a reason he is preparing for his second tour as head coach. After three straight series loses, Gatland delivered a much needed win four years ago. His selections, not just for the squad but for the Test teams, were controversial but the ends justified the means.

In the end, two Test victories, gave the Lions their first series win since 1997. His team played some scintillating rugby, particularly in the third and decisive test. The Welsh team head coach has a chance to build on that reputation now against his native country in this year’s much anticipated series.


3. Ian McGeechan

McGeechan has proven himself a Lions coaching legend. He was head coach of the team a record four times (the last of which he shared responsibilities with Jim Telfer). His tenure saw two series wins (over Australia in 1989 and then South Africa in 1997) and two loses (against New Zealand in 1993, followed by South Africa in 2009).

The 1993 first Test will always play in the mind as the one that got away, however on the balance of things he proved a great coach. His selections were largely on the money and he got a good team atmosphere in the group. He has come to define what makes a Lions coach in the professional era.


2. Syd Millar

The Irishman really is the man who did it all. Not only was he a great player for Ireland and the Lions, he was a great coach for them both too. Additionally, he was chair of the IRFU before taking charge of the IRB. His coaching contribution to the Lions came in the famous tour of 1974 to South Africa. That year, the tourists won 21 of their 22 games, drawing the last Test match.

He had a great pick of players to choose from but, as the disaster of 2005 proved, having all the right ingredients doesn’t do it alone. His management and team set-up was perfect to take on South Africa. He instilled a sense of team in the players that saw them stand up to the aggression of their hosts and respond as a unit. He remains the only undefeated Lions head coach to this day.


1. Carwyn James

Whereas Millar had all the perfect ingredients three years later in South Africa, many of those players had been hardened in New Zealand in 1971. James is still the only Lions head coach to record a touring series victory against the Kiwis.

He had only been capped by his country twice but made a name for himself as a coach for the ’71 Lions. He was unapologetic about picking many of his compatriots for the tour. Ultimately, he was justified seeing as Wales had just completed an impressive grand slam.

What the coach gave the players though was a great sense of belief in their own abilities. As Gerald Davies put it:

“Somewhere along the line it becomes a mental thing… We grew in confidence; we came to believe it was possible to beat the All Blacks.”

After their first Test victory, they were upended in the second. Where previous Lions teams would have folded, James picked his players back up for a third Test win and forth Test draw to take the series.

Later, James won further acclaim as a coach with Llanelli, winning four Welsh Cups between 1973 and 1976. However, he would never go on to coach the national side. History will always remember him though as the one man to lead the Lions to New Zealand and come away with the win. The greatest Lions coach there ever was. Until later this year perhaps.

Eoin Neylon, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.