THE big positive from the announcement of the 2021 Lions itinerary this week is that there is continuity, because it is the same tour schedule in South Africa as it was before the COVID lockdown.
Continuity could also be a crucial factor when it comes to Warren Gatland selecting his coaching group, because as tour leader he will need to rely on those who are tried and tested. Gatland is on his fourth Lions tour, and his third as head coach, which has been matched only by Ian McGeechan, who led the 1989, 1993 and 1997 tours that I was part of.
What we know for certain is that the Lions are always behind the host nation in terms of preparation, and South Africa 2021 is no different. They have no time to spare to break-in an entirely new group of coaches who have no previous Lions experience.
This is made even more critical because next year’s tour of South Africa is the shortest Lions tour there has been. It means that Gatland needs coaches who understand immediately what it takes to prepare and select a Lions side capable of winning the series, despite having next to no time to work in.
Ideally, that means coaches who have already been there and done it alongside Gatland, like Rob Howley, will be involved again. It gives you a head start, because as attack coach Howley was an integral part of the Lions victory over the Wallabies in 2013, and the drawn series against the All Blacks in 2017 – and also tasted the narrowest of defeats against South Africa in 2009.
The same is true of Graham Rowntree (forwards), and Neil Jenkins (kicking), so if they have that depth of touring experience with the Lions, and are available, why wouldn’t Gatland take them?
The two coaches missing who were on recent tours are Andy Farrell (Australia 2013, New Zealand 2017), who will probably have his hands tied as Ireland’s head coach, and Steve Borthwick (NZ 2017), who has just taken over as head coach at Leicester, but might be able to negotiate a Lions release.
Shaun Edwards is a possible replacement for Farrell as defence coach, and also has the invaluable experience of having been part of the 2009 Lions coaching team, when Gatland was forwards coach.
Edwards has said already that it is unlikely that he will be available having joined France, but it is always different being asked directly and having to say no, rather than just being mentioned in the media as a possible candidate.
It is always about what release clauses people have in their contracts, and it is possible that Gatland could consider his old Waikato team-mate, John Mitchell, as a candidate. The England defence coach spent a number of years living and working in South Africa, and knows the landscape.
We are in a fluid state due to Covid, but if everything was back to normal there would be no caveats in the approaches that Gatland would be making now to those he wants in his 2021 coaching group.
In the meantime, given that the pause button has been released, and that plans need to be made in any case, Gatland will lose nothing by still having those conversations and finding out who can come – and, possibly, whether they can do so at quite short notice.
However, the tour is not set in stone yet, because we do not know how this pandemic will continue to affect the world – which means having to accept that at any stage between this announcement and the warm-up game before the Lions leave for South Africa, things could change.
It is also a plus that Lions supporters can start planning, although, because no one can be 100 per cent sure of the tour going ahead on those dates, I guess they will be looking to see if 100 per cent refunds are available.
This will probably be Gatland’s last Lions tour because long-term he has decided to return to New Zealand, and it’s hugely important that he gets the coaching group he wants around him, because they will be crucial to the Lions chances of success against the Springboks.
I don’t believe that his recent losing streak with the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa has anything much to do with the Lions tour. All I would say about the Chiefs is that there is a difference between not doing well, and playing very badly. None of their defeats have been by much in a competition in which there are some very good teams.
We all thrive off being in different environments, and I’m sure that there will be benefits for Gatland in being back in New Zealand for the first time in 12 years. He’s done well to get a Super franchise, and he will mug-up on the different coaching methods being used down there.
Gatland would have been at a massive advantage as Lions coach if the Super Rugby format had not been changed by the pandemic, because he would have had sight of a lot of the South African players ahead of next summer’s tour.
It is likely, based on previous tours, that the Springbok internationals will disappear from the provincial sides the Lions face, and so his chance to see the South African teams in Super Rugby would have allowed him to build a great dossier on the opposition. You cannot get better information than being there first hand, and it would have been a great opportunity for a recce.
We will see whether Gatland gets another chance to go to South Africa before the tour, especially as his main objective during next year’s sabbatical will be watching matches up here as a Lions selector.
The 2021 Lions tour itinerary is easy to follow, because it goes from the coast to the high veld, with a couple of midweek games, against a South Africa invitation side, and then South Africa ‘A’.
It looks sensible enough, although as a Lion you would have wanted two sea-level Test matches. Instead, South Africa have got what they wanted, with two Tests on the high veld suiting them in terms of playing at altitude, and in terms of commercial benefits.
I’m not sure how a year-long season in Europe will impact the Lions players. They have had over three months off, but they now face a season in which they will have a longer body of work to get through than they will ever have faced before.
However, your big players have minds of their own, and a say in how they maintain freshness. It’s important, because everyone knows that you will not get the best out of your players if they are shattered. My view is that the majority of Lions players will not be exhausted going into the tour, and I think they will be okay.
A key factor is that you get a huge mental lift by going on a Lions tour to South Africa – from meeting your new team-mates, to getting on the plane to one of the most exciting rugby countries there is. There is no jetlag, the support for the Lions will be off the chart, and you are playing the world champions.
If you cannot summon the energy to play five games for the Lions in that sort of atmosphere, then there’s something wrong.
Full 2021 tour schedule
Saturday 3 July: Lions v Stormers, Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Wednesday 7 July: Lions v South Africa ‘Invitational, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Saturday 10 July: Lions v Sharks, Jonsson Kings Park, Durban
Wednesday 14 July: Lions v South Africa ‘A’ Team, Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
Saturday 17 July: Lions v Bulls, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Saturday 24 July (first Test): Springboks v Lions, FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
Saturday 31 July (second Test): Springboks v Lions, Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Saturday 7 August (third Test): Springboks v Lions, Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg