Expectations high for Gatland to end Lions' series drought when they visit Australia
An injury lay-off for coach Warren Gatland could prove a blessing in disguise when the tourists hunt for a long-awaited series victory in Australia next year, writes Alvin Sallay
Warren Gatland might have unlocked the secrets behind the success of the All Blacks after falling "heels-over-head" in trouble.
An enforced break due to an accident at his holiday bungalow in New Zealand in April produced a silver lining as the Kiwi took the opportunity to "chew the fat" with the All Blacks coaching staff. Now refreshed, and re-energised, the newly appointed British and Irish Lions coach might just have got the inside track on what it will take to lead the team to victory over Australia and their first test series win since their 1997 success in South Africa.
"In the end my injury was a positive experience. I was up on the deck trying to clean a window with a broom and I was standing on a railing when I lost my balance and fell, landing on a concrete floor. At the time, I thought it couldn't have got any worse as I had broken both my heels, but looking back, that injury helped me reconnect with different people and help me refresh my thinking," Gatland told the Sunday Morning Post.
On Tuesday, Gatland's appointment was confirmed for next summer's visit Down Under which will start in Hong Kong against the Barbarians. Gatland, who has led Wales to two grand slams, had been expected to be appointed earlier.
But four months in a wheelchair gave Wales' national coach the chance to catch up with many of his peers, including Wayne Smith, who was part of the coaching trio with Graham Henry and Steve Hansen who steered the All Blacks to World Cup victory last year, and current members of the champions' coaching staff.
"The immediate bonus was I was back in New Zealand with my family, but I also spent a lot of time with the All Blacks coaches. It has helped me rethink my own coaching philosophy and look at how the game is being played, for instance at the breakdown," Gatland said.
"Sometimes when chewing the fat with different people, you get different ideas and I believe all this will help me. I wouldn't have been able to do this if not for being off my feet for more than four months. In the end, something good came about from my injuries," said Gatland, who will be the Lions' second overseas coach, following fellow Kiwi Henry, who was in charge during the 2-1 series defeat in Australia in 2001.
Gatland, 48, will need to draw on every bit of his experience and outside resources for the three-test series against the Wallabies. Three successive tour defeats - in 2001 (Australia), 2005 (New Zealand) and 2009 (South Africa) - have placed a question mark over the future existence of the Lions, especially in today's crowded international calendar where the major players clash regularly.
Gatland, who spearheaded Wales' progress into the semi-finals of the World Cup in New Zealand, agrees the pressure will be full on when the tour starts with a June 1 kick-off against the Barbarians at Hong Kong Stadium.
"There are a lot of expectations on us to win. The Lions haven't won a series for some time now, although we came close last time [2009 when he was an assistant coach] in South Africa. We start under immense odds. Not only do we have to get together and gel a group of players from four different countries, we only have a limited frame of time to do it, with the added difficulty of playing away from home on every occasion."
Gatland promises fans the Lions will play an entertaining brand of rugby. "We will play a style and brand of rugby which will be open, and hopefully this will pave the way for victory," he said.
A former hooker, Gatland never earned a test cap despite making 17 appearances for the All Blacks with his path blocked by Sean Fitzpatrick (although he did play against the Lions for Waikato). So at the relatively young age of 31, he retired (in 1994) and took up coaching, with his first stint as a national coach being with Ireland in 1998. He has been part of the Welsh fabric since 2008, leading them to a second grand slam last season.
This has led to the belief in some circles the Lions tour party will be heavily dominated by men from the valleys and that Wales openside flanker Sam Warburton, who led the team at the World Cup last year, is odds-on to captain the side.
In 2005, the tour party to New Zealand under Clive Woodward comprised 20 Englishmen in a massive 44-man squad. Woodward's team for the first test included eight England players in the starting lineup.
There are also concerns Gatland's unhappy tenure as Ireland coach, which ended in 2001, would see him turn a blind eye to that country's players. Gatland scoffs at suggestions that parochial interests would come first or that he is carrying past baggage.
"I will look at selection with an impartial eye," he promised. "The next few months will be spent watching the players from afar, but once the autumn series and Six Nations starts, I will get more involved. My aim will be to pick the best side available and I will be starting with a clean slate.
"As for my captain, yes Sam is an impressive young man but so are a lot of other candidates. The thing about a captain is that he has got to be an automatic choice to make the squad and be guaranteed a spot week in, week out."
The recent summer excursions by the home unions have boosted Gatland's belief the Lions will be a well-rounded team from all four unions - England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland - and will pose a huge threat to the Wallabies next year.
"There were a number of positives to take from all the series this summer. Wales pushed Australia while England drew against South Africa in the second test. Ireland could have beaten the All Blacks but of all the series, the most encouraging signs came from Scotland who defeated Australia and then went on to beat Fiji and Samoa. This is a massive result for Scotland," Gatland said.
"The Lions came close in South Africa and our ambition is to win in 2013, and I believe we have the players to do that."
SIX KEY CHALLENGES GATLAND MUST TACKLE
AN EQUAL SQUAD BALANCE FROM THE FOUR NATIONS
Gatland has had a hugely successful stint as Wales coach, claiming two Six Nations grand slams and a fourth place at last year's World Cup but picking the majority of his own players in his squad to tour Australia could lead to problems.
The 2005 tour of New Zealand suffered numerous issues and is frequently labelled as one of the worst of the modern era with the troubles starting as soon as coach Clive Woodward picked 20 Englishmen, including some who had retired from international rugby, in his 44-man squad.
He stuck by many Englishmen who won the 2003 World Cup under his leadership but had performed disappointingly in the 2004 and 2005 Six Nations. Wales, in comparison, had only 10 representatives despite winning a grand slam that year. Woodward picked eight Englishmen in his starting line-up for the first test, with five others on the bench as the All Blacks eased to a 21-3 win and a 3-0 series hammering.
PATCHING UP RELATIONS WITH IRISH PLAYERS
Gatland's three-year spell in charge of Ireland came to an acrimonious end in 2001 when he was replaced by Eddie O'Sullivan and there has been a simmering unhappiness ever since.
As Wales coach, Gatland had questioned Ireland's mental strength in the build up to the final game of the 2009 Six Nations in Cardiff which Ireland won 17-15 to seal their first grand slam in 61 years.
Paul O'Connell criticised Gatland afterwards.
"You need a big ego to do that, which he [Gatland] seems to have from his recent success as a coach. Perhaps he needs to get his feet back on the ground now," the Irish lock said.
"A lot of the stuff that came from Warren Gatland's side this week, you wouldn't see an Irish coach doing that, or an Irish person doing that."
O'Connell was captain for the Lions 2009 tour of South Africa and played all three tests in the 2005 series defeat in New Zealand.
Despite the disappointing performances of the team since that grand slam win, the Irish, who provided the most players for the last tour, are expected to contribute big numbers again with Gatland perhaps needing to rebuild relations with a number of their experienced players.
FIXING TEAM DISCIPLINE ON THE FIELD ...
Wales headed to Australia for three tests in June talking up their chances of a rare series win but the team's ill-discipline ultimately proved their undoing in a trio of narrow defeats. Team discipline has also plagued the English in recent seasons with Martin Johnson's reign as manager famed for his angry reactions in the stand as his team continually gave away penalties.
New England coach Stuart Lancaster appears to have rectified the issues and the Scotland team demonstrated their ability to keep the penalty count low when they defended for long periods of their famous 9-6 win over the Wallabies in June. With the test series with Australia expected to be close, the penalty count needs to be low if the Lions are to be victorious.
... AND OFF THE FIELD
England's disappointing World Cup display in New Zealand last year was remembered more for their players' actions off the field that on it.
Centres Mike Tindall and Manu Tuilagi were involved in incidents that grabbed newspaper headlines at home and, with the boom in social media, the every move of the Lions team during their recreation time as much as their on-field actions will be recorded.
Gatland is credited with improving the team discipline and unity amongst the Welsh side during his tenure and similar methods will be required to ensure the touring party are all happy and on side.
Gatland is expected to name a squad of between 35 and 40 players for the tour and while all will head to Australia with hopes of playing in the first test match in Brisbane on June 22, it will quickly become apparent which ones will not make it.
The Lions 'midweek' team is often the key to a successful tour. In 2005, Woodward split his squad and gave little hope to those players featuring in the midweek matches of making the side for the tests, leading to grumbles and an unhappy party.
This was rectified in the tour of South Africa three years ago with a smaller squad and all the players believing they had a shot of featuring in the weekend test matches. Gatland will do well to continue that pattern to ensure a happy squad.
GETTING A WIN
After 50 minutes of the first test of the South Africa series in 2009, the Lions trailed 26-7 in Durban and many feared for the future of the touring team coming off the back of the 3-0 humbling by New Zealand.
But the Lions fought back and were agonisingly close to victory in the second test before a Morne Steyn penalty from his own half snatched a 28-25 victory and the series win.
The Lions won the third test 28-9 to boost morale but without a series victory since 1997, and some heavy defeats along the way, the touring side badly need a strong display in Australia to justify their place in a crowded rugby calendar.
Birthdate: September 17, 1963
Birthplace: Waikato, New Zealand
1986: Made his debut for Waikato in the New Zealand provincial championship as a hooker.
1988: Helped Waikato beat the touring Wales team and won his first All Blacks call-up, for the tour to Australia in 1988 and became a regular in the squad.
1994: Retired from playing having made 17 appearances for the All Blacks but he never won a test cap, because his path was blocked by Sean Fitzpatrick.
1996: Appointed Connacht coach.
1998: Appointed Ireland head coach.
2001: Appointed Wasps director of rugby and keeps club in the Premiership.
2003: Wasps win Premiership title and European Shield.
2004: Wasps win Premiership title and European Cup.
2005: Wasps win Premiership title.
2006: Coaches Waikato to the New Zealand provincial championship.
2007: Appointed Wales coach, replacing Gareth Jenkins after Wales are knocked out of the pool stages of the World Cup following a defeat by Fiji.
2008: Coaches Wales to a Six Nations grand slam.
2009: Appointed British and Irish Lions forwards coach for the tour of South Africa. The Lions lose the series 2-1.
2010: Signs a new four-year contract with the Welsh Rugby Union that included a sabbatical to cover the northern hemisphere summer of 2013.
2011: Coaches Wales to the semi-finals of the World Cup their best performance since the inaugural tournament in 1987.
2012: Wales win their second grand slam under Gatland.
September 4: Confirmed as British and Irish Lions head coach for 2013 tour of Australia