Nick Cain talks to Warren Gatland about the 2013 tourists to Australia

Warren GatlandWhen Warren Gatland held court at Cardiff Castle this week to do an early 2013 Lions stock-take with the autumn series in its last knockings, there was a certain irony in the choice of venue. The imposing Castle with its Norman keep, which is the ancestral home of the Lords of Bute, is right in the heart of the city and it is a true fortress –  unlike the nearby Millennium Stadium, or Twickenham way to the east down the M4 corridor, which have been sacked on a regular basis by all-comers.
We heard before the arrival of the Southern Hemisphere big three this autumn, let alone the Argentines and Samoans, how the Welsh and the English intended to make their stadiums impregnable strongholds. England helped make good part of that promise in sensational style against the All Blacks yesterday and Wales fell to an agonising last minute defeat to Australia.
Gatland has a track-record of being both mischievous and controversial if he thinks it will give his teams a mental edge going into big matches, and what is refreshing about the Lions head coach is his refusal to try to spin his way out of trouble. Rather than trying to reposition the early autumn rubble as a ‘learning curve’, Gatland was refreshingly candid.
Asked how many of his potential Lions squad would make a World XV he said, “Not many. You’d probably pick eight or ten All Blacks.”
He was low key also about world-class Lions still available to him from the 2009 tour of South Africa. “Rob Kearney did well, but he’s been injured and has got to come back. Mike Phillips did a good job, so did Jamie Roberts, but there’s a bit of pressure on those players and their form needs to improve a bit.”
Gatland added that he had taken the Bayonne-based Phillips off after 52 minutes against New Zealand because he was blowing hard, and pointed to his decline in fitness since moving to France. He then issued a general warning to any Lions hopefuls across the Channel – Steffon Armitage, Andrew Sheridan, Gethin Jenkins and Jonny Wilkinson among them – that they need to get ahead of the conditioning standards at French clubs if they want to be considered for the fast tracks in Australia.
He gave the same advice specifically to front row forwards, wherever they are plying their trade.
“The one thing about Australia is that you get good weather and good ground conditions.
“What we have to be aware of is that while players might do well in the Six Nations you need players with mobility – players who can get around the park. That is very important for our front rowers. They need to be able to scrummage, but they need to be able to run as well.”
Nor was there any smoke screen from Gatland to hide the slim pickings on offer in terms of quality candidates in key areas this autumn.
Speaking before yesterday’s results, he said:   “In the half-backs and front row there’s no-one really dominating in those positions. At scrum-half you’ve had a good performance one week from Ben Youngs, Connor Murray, Danny Care or Mike Phillips, and the next week not so good. There have been no really dominating performances by a No.9 on a consistent basis.
“The same could be said about hookers – there’s no dominant hooker, with Rory Best and Dylan Hartley injured – and where is your really dominant prop destroying opposition front rows?”
Gatland’s thoughts on his fly-half candidates were blunt: “It’s wide open. There are definitely a lot of players who the Six Nations will be key for, and you also look post-Six Nations to Lions 10s coming out of successful teams and having that bit of swagger about them – a bit of cockiness and confidence. That’s important.”

Tommy Bowe
Tommy Bowe

The Irish emerged in credit according to the Lions coach, with their rampaging win over a tired Argentina.
“The pleasing thing about Ireland is that they went out and played some rugby (against Argentina) and got the ball into Craig Gilroy’s hands – which was great. Then you also saw the experience of someone like Tommy Bowe, and I thought he was outstanding.
“The pleasing thing from an Irish point of view is that they coped without icons of the team like O’Driscoll and O’Connell.”
He said Wales ticked a significant box in wrenching 73 percent possession and 53 percent territory off New Zealand in the second half last weekend, but emphasised that overall the autumn series was not a pretty picture.
“A lot of it’s disappointing. It’s a reminder to us about the Southern Hemisphere coming out of a pretty tough Championship after being together for a long period. It’s a reminder of the intensity they play with week in week out, and it takes us a bit of time to cope with that.
“What was so good in the World Cup as a coach was being able to prepare for the intensity, and our players just do not get enough of that. It does not make any sense to me as a coach to do fitness and then go and do rugby.
“You want guys under immense fatigue (in training) because that is what they have to cope with against the Southern Hemisphere. It is the pace that catches out our players, because they don’t get it enough.”
He also sought to head off any conjecture that his tenure as Wales coach established proprietorial rights to the 2013 tour among last year’s Grand Slam squad in terms of captaincy or selection.
“From a Welsh point of view there were a couple of lines going through a couple of names (after the Argentina and Samoa defeats), so they need to re-establish themselves.  It’s been important for Wales to make their own decisions, and in the Six Nations it’s important for other countries to feel there is a sense of neutrality and that everyone is on the same footing.
“The great thing is we’ve made requests, and England and Ireland have given me dates to watch training. It’s important they don’t think I’m going to go back to Wales and telling them what they’re doing. That’s not my style anyway, but you don’t want them to think that way.
“They have to feel comfortable with me coming into their environment. Hopefully, it can be a bit inspiring. I’ve felt sometimes that we need to share a lot more information and knowledge, because as a coach that challenges you to go to a different level and be creative.
“We beat the crap out of each other, and sometimes we look at each other as the enemy, whereas we should look at the Southern Hemisphere as the enemy – because that’s where the real threat is.”
Tough month: Dejected  Wales captain Sam Warburton
Tough month: Dejected Wales captain Sam Warburton

Gatland said the captaincy was another watching brief, dampening down speculation that Wales captain Sam Warburton is already pencilled in.
“There’s no standout, no favourite for captain. When picking a captain the ideal situation is to have someone who has had some experience of it, who has the respect of everyone else, and who is number one in their position.
“But there are not many in that category at the moment, so it could potentially be picking a Lions captain where you have a conversation with them saying that there is no guarantee they will be in the Test side.
“It’s important because there have been previous Lions tours where captains have been selected who weren’t good enough to be in the Test side.
“We need to have the best players out on the field, and hopefully there are players who will cement that position (captain), but it’s not something we’ll get too hung up about.”
The good news for Warburton, and other true openside flankers, is that Gatland nailed his colours to the mast by saying that he wants a genuine ball-winning scrapper in the Lions No.7 jersey to take on the likes of Wallaby specialists David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
However, the upshot is that the competition at blindside will be ferocious with Tom Croft, Tom Wood, Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Dan Lydiate, Kelly Brown and possibly Chris Robshaw all in the hunt, with Gatland predicting already that, “the debating points will be over who’s left out”.
The Lions coach then spoke about good depth in the back five of the scrum and in the centres, and that his side will also be adaptable.
At that moment, for the first time, you sensed Gatland believes – just as with the unfancied crew in 2009 in South Africa – that he can construct something special in the summer of 2013.
“There will be some size, some physicality, and some pace in the midfield and the back three. We want an ability to play more than one style.
“Ideally, we want to go down there and play rugby, move the ball, and score tries – but not at the expense of winning. If we have a dominance up front, at the scrum, then I’m prepared to do that as well.
“Where Australia have come under pressure from the All Blacks or South Africa is when they have been very direct. Sometimes Australia can lull you into playing too much rugby, and if it loosens up it brings the match-winning quality of some of their backs into the game.
“We have to be smart. If that means being conservative, then let’s be prepared to scrummage them into the ground, without losing the quality that we potentially have in our backline.”
Gatland confirmed at Cardiff Castle that the 2013 Lions have chosen the right commander, because as a strategist he has no peers in British or Irish rugby.

Leave a Comment