Yesterday it was finally revealed that Warren Gatland will be the man in charge as the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand looms.
After coaching the 2013 squad to a 2-1 series win in Australia, Wales‘ head coach will temporarily step down from his role with the WRU and begin planning on getting the Lions their first series win against the All Blacks since 1971. Rob Howley has already stepped into Gatland’s shoes with Wales whilst the the Kiwi is on sabbatical, which has split opinions amongst Welsh fans already despite him fulfilling this same role during the previous tour.
Warren Gatland Lands “Best Job” in World Rugby
The 2013 Tour
As far as Gatland’s capabilities with the Lions goes, his track record isn’t all that bad. It was mission accomplished three years ago when he took 46 players in total to face the men in green and gold and come away with their first successful tour in 16 years. At the time there was criticism – of course you can’t please everyone – but the seemingly obvious bias selection of predominantly Welsh internationals over more experienced players from other nations divided supporters. It was a given that Wales captain Sam Warburton would do a good job and, despite being unable to play the third test due to injury, he didn’t disappoint. However his chances at being awarded skipper duties for next year hang in the balance, with England’s Dylan Hartley being hailed as stiff competition. As Gatland praised Hartley for “not being suspended in a while”, questions surrounding the captaincy role will only continue to grow, alongside places in the wider team. The 52 year old has already sent a message out to players hoping to get on the plane heading south, saying:
“I don’t think about favouritism, we will pick who we think are the best… If that means 25 Englishmen and two Welsh then that will be the squad.
“If you picked the squad now, there would be a large number of Englishmen. You have got to get on that plane believing that you can win.”
Gatland vs the All Blacks
Whilst the tour three years ago made history down under, there is a dark cloud lingering over Gatland when it comes to facing his homeland as opponents. Most recently Wales suffered a catastrophic 3-0 series loss against the All Blacks in the June internationals earlier this year, making it ten defeats by the World Champions under the guidance of Gatland. However, describing himself as an “eternal optimist”, the former Waikato hooker claimed this was “not at all” mission impossible.
“Yes, New Zealand have taken the game to another level and are further ahead of everyone than at any time. But the bigger the challenge, the greater the excitement. This is the best job in the world against the best opposition in world rugby. There is no point in negativity.”
The Long Road Ahead
The 2017 tour has already been scrutinised for being too demanding of the players, with talk of three months rest afterwards for those heading back from the North and South islands before taking part in domestic rugby. Last season saw international players compete in the World Cup, Autumn and Summer internationals and Six Nations as well as for their respective clubs in up to two leagues, making it one of the most strenuous years in the sport of recent times. This should be taken into account by those worried that the schedule in New Zealand is simply too much. Yes, ten fixtures against sides harnessing some of the worlds best players is going to be tough, but it is not uncommon to previous tours. Besides, these professionals have the most skilled support structure around them and combined with the application of common sense, there is no reason that those chosen to go on tour will suffer.
“I think players are very well aware of the importance of the autumn Tests, Six Nations and club form as well.”
This season, whilst not being as jam-packed as last year’s, lends itself to players having ample opportunity to catch the eye of Gatland. The standard within clubs has risen considerably since the last time a Lions squad challenged the All Blacks on their home soil thanks to the European Rugby, Aviva Premiership and Pro 12 leagues structured to allow the growth and development of players. If any side is going to stand a chance against the mighty New Zealand, it is going to be this one.
No doubt this series is going to be a huge ask for Gatland, his hand-picked support staff (announced on December 7th 2016) and his players. He will travel to New Zealand in the next few days with tour manager John Spencer to start planning the finer details to ensure the British and Irish Lions of 2017 will end Steve Hansen‘s side’s seven year unbeaten home run.
“It’s a huge honour when you get offered probably the biggest job in world rugby.”
Lions 2017 Tour Fixtures
Game 1 – Saturday, June 3 v Provincial Union Team in Whangarei
Game 2 – Wednesday, June 7 v Blues in Auckland
Game 3 – Saturday, June 10 v Crusaders in Christchurch
Game 4 – Tuesday, June 13 v Highlanders in Dunedin
Game 5 – Saturday, June 17 v Maori All Blacks in Rotorua
Game 6 – Tuesday, June 20 v Chiefs in Hamilton
Game 7 – Saturday, June 24 v All Blacks in Auckland
Game 8 – Tuesday, June 27 v Hurricanes in Wellington
Game 9 – Saturday, July 1 v All Blacks in Wellington
Game 10 – Saturday, July 8 v All Blacks in Auckland