11 things we learned from Warren Gatland at his inauguration as head coach of the 2017 Lions

The 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand had a huge impact on him.

You are brainwashed as a kid growing up [in New Zealand] and as a seven-year-old I thought the game of rugby was invented in New Zealand and I thought the All Blacks never lost, so it had quite a psychological impact on me when they lost to the ’71 Lions and understanding that there’s a team come and played some great rugby and taken the game to a new level. It was heart-breaking actually.

He could find himself caught between a rock and a hard place if his son, Bryn, has a good season playing for North Harbour in the Mitre 10 Cup (New Zealand provincial championship).

I hope he doesn’t have too good a season or he could end up in the Blues squad. It would be quite ironic if I end up coaching against my son in one of the Super Rugby sides.

He can’t remember a time when the All Blacks were further ahead of the rest of the world than they are at this moment.

They’ve taken the game onto a new level. The way that they are playing – some pretty exciting rugby, some pretty direct rugby – they’re playing a little differently from other teams. Defensively they look like they are changing as well, coming a lot quicker off their line and being a lot more aggressive, and I think their transition from defence into attack is the most devastating part of their game.

But they are beatable as long as the Lions start well.

When games are tight they still play the numbers and are still a little bit conservative, and that’s when they are potentially the most vulnerable. But when they get 15 or 20 points ahead of you, that’s when the shackles come off and you are in a world of pain.

Gregor Townsend will have to skip Scotland’s summer tour to Australia if he is to be involved with the Lions this time round.

If it was someone like him, he wouldn’t be going with Scotland. I don’t know what the situation is with a lot of people, so in the next few weeks I will be finding that out. I will be talking to people to see if they are interested and available. Then they will have to get released from the national bodies and club sides. All of that takes time.

Vern Cotter should look to stay in Europe after his Scotland contract is up if he wants to be involved.

I don’t know. I’m not sure what Vern’s situation is. What is he doing after that (Six Nations)? Is he going back to France? Is he going to New Zealand? What’s his situation going forward? I think there is a bit of responsibility – and it’s not a hard-and-fast rule – to take support staff who will be staying in the northern hemisphere after the tour.

Contact specialist Richie Gray might be a surprise inclusion in the coaching team.

I spoke to someone the other day who said that he was going to potentially put his name forward. I haven’t spoken to him. I know he did quite a bit of work with South Africa and have spoken to him on a number of occasions and had dinner as a coaching group. The next few months are about putting a list together – looking at people’s circumstances and then starting to chat with them.

Players who narrowly miss out on selection should make sure they are nearby when the Lions play the Chiefs in Hamilton on 20th June (four days before the first Test match).

The hardest game is the Chiefs game before the First Test. How do you protect that Test match 23? I know Wales are in the (Pacific) Islands, Scotland are in Australia, England are in Argentina and Ireland are in Japan – so there is potentially an opportunity to bring in four or five to maybe sit on the bench. That is my thought process at the moment.

It’s getting the balance right, you don’t want the squad to be too big and unwieldy, how do you keep it small enough so everyone feels a part, feels like they have an opportunity, so you are not carrying two or three just for the sake of it.

There is a very good chance that there will be more Scottish players on the tour than he took in 2013 (when there was only three in the initial 37 man squad and Ryan Grant was called in as injury cover for Gethin Jenkins).

In the last tour there was a debate about the number of Scotland players taking part and what I think is pleasing is that we have seen some progression in Scottish rugby. We’ve seen the emergence in the last couple of seasons of Glasgow – they’ve done incredibly well in the Pro 12. And I think Scotland were incredibly unlucky not to make the semi-finals of the World Cup, and we’ve seen some progression in terms of their performances in the Six Nations – not in terms of the table but definitely in terms of performance. Hopefully that reflects the number of Scottish players that go on tour because you want to make sure that the four nations are represented. I think there is definitely a number of Scottish players who are going to put their hand up and be in contention – which I think is brilliant.

But he has no issue with loading the team with English players if they continue to be the dominant force in northern hemisphere rugby.

People know me… I think that I’m pretty honest, pretty straight. The team will be selected on merit. It’s not my role to have any favourites and we’ll pick who we think are the best players – if that’s 25 Englishmen and two Welshmen, that’ll be the squad. At the end of the day players are aware who should be in the team.

If you were going to pick the squad now then, yes, there would be a large contingent of English players. But if they have an average autumn and a poor Six Nations then that’ll soon turnaround. Club form will be important for players as well. There’s a lot of water (still to go) under the bridge and some of the form in the Six Nations will have an impact on the 50:50 calls and the balance of the squad.

He welcomes the news that leading All Blacks players could be released to play for their Super Rugby teams in early tour matches.

I think it makes our job easier. When I heard that I thought it was the best thing.

If you look back at 2009, South Africa took a lot of their Test players out and we went into the first Test underdone because we hadn’t played strong enough opposition. And the opposition in Australia was mixed as well –there were some big scores we racked up before the first Test. Playing these sides and preparing against the hardest opposition in New Zealand is, I think, going to help to be in pretty good shape for the Test.

To hear that New Zealand have spoken about releasing their All Blacks to play in those Super Rugby games – I think that’s brilliant for us. We want to be playing against the best teams and making those games as hard as they possibly can be so that we are battle hardened and match ready for what is going to be a tough series.

 

 

Image courtesy of British and Irish Lions.

About David Barnes 3032 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.