As amazing as a 2017 Lions coaching team of Warren Gatland, Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter sounds they are all bosses – all number ones – and that’s why it is unlikely that you will get all three working together. It’s almost like asking Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger to get together. It sounds brilliant, but the likelihood of it happening, and working, is minimal.
The power of Gatland, Schmidt and Cotter together is 60 years of invaluable coaching experience. On paper it’s incredibly impressive, but someone has to have the ultimate decision-making role. Also, Cotter has a lot more to do with Scotland, and Schmidt likewise with Ireland. By contrast, Gatland has been through it before, and has been successful as head coach in 2013, so his appointment makes most sense, and it is inevitable that he will have a say in the other appointments to his coaching team.
However, if they are all being interviewed – as we reported a week ago – they must be up for the job, and they are first rate coaches, who, because they are all Kiwis, have a grasp and grip on the culture of the teams facing the Lions. Against that, my view is that the culture the coaches need to get right is that of the Lions, not New Zealand.
Ultimately, it is about how the Lions plan to beat the All Blacks with a cohesive 40-man unit, and it is the head coach who sets the tone, and gets the ambience within the group right. He influences the captains, and other leading players, and sets the playing agenda, and the code of conduct.
My Lions tours all had Ian McGeechan as head coach, although there were different managers. The selection of the forwards coach is crucial to the success of a Lions tour, because it is the forwards who are in for the biggest battle, and in my time Jim Telfer, Dick Best and Roger Uttley were very influential.
Graham Rowntree has had a couple of stints with the Lions on the 2009 and 2013 tours, and done well, but he is not on the international scene anymore, so that is a likely change. The Lions is very hard to do if you are in a full-time club job – like Rob Baxter at Exeter – so my hunch is that the 2017 contingent will be international coaches.
That’s why Andy Farrell, who is now with Ireland, cannot be discounted. He has been on one successful Lions tour, and also has the advantage of inside knowledge on two teams, Ireland and England. Another option has been presented by England’s recent success, with everyone outside Eddie Jones a possible candidate. For instance, Steve Borthwick could attract interest as a forwards coach for his detailed, analytical approach.
At the moment I don’t have any favourites for the assistant coach positions, although I’ve said before that I would like to see Gregor Townsend in the mix as attack coach because he brings a fresh approach, and you have to score tries against the Kiwis. Townsend could unlock defences as a player, and he’s doing the same as a coach with Glasgow.
My head tells me that if Gatland is appointed he will take either Farrell or Shaun Edwards as defence coach, but you don’t want to bring in too many specialists on a Lions tour because you simply haven’t got the time to utilise them. Also, from a player’s perspective you don’t want too many voices.
I can remember hearing the head coach and the coach working with the backs, and that was usually the same guy – McGeechan. I was never confused because Geech was very good at setting the tone, and the other coaches backed him up.
The head coach has to take a year out, and you would have to say the same should be the case with the forwards coach. You may also need coaches who are capable of doing anything, so that they stay fresh by sometimes rotating jobs like Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith did with New Zealand ahead of the 2011 World Cup.
It’s their knowledge and experience that will convince these Lions they can operate at the highest level against the All Blacks, and win. Many of the players know how difficult the task is because they have played New Zealand home and away already.
As for the coaches, they have to accept that for the entire tour the Lions are a work in progress. Although the head coach will almost certainly have a premeditated plan based on the players he’s picked, he will have to make constant adjustments. It would be a mistake to go with too many preconceived ideas, because injuries, form, and results are all imponderables.
It’s a tough assignment, and it’s those elements that make it such a challenge – and where some shrink, the best thrive. Essentially, not much has changed with Lions tours, and I’m sure that Gatland will not hesitate to bring in any coach if he thought it would mean the Lions winning. The biggest change is in the character of the players, because they are pure professionals whose job is rugby, and their view of the world outside it is limited.
However, the players know with Gatland that they can go off-piste a little and have a few beers as long as they are on-mission when they have to be. The importance of team-bonding, and keeping players interested and tight as a group, remains the same.
It is impossible for the Lions to win if everyone is not pulling in the same direction. That’s why it’s so crucial to have grown-up players in the squad who understand that for some reason it wasn’t their time for Test selection. That’s where personality comes in, because you have to do it for the Lions even if you are having to deal with deep personal disappointment. It only takes two people to start blaming others and moaning to create the wrong environment.
Lions tours are about creating such a positive force that the squad gets ahead of the game, and won’t be derailed. To beat New Zealand you have to be as fit, or fitter, than the side you’re playing against – and that will be bloody difficult.
It will be different from Australia three years ago because Gatland’s default position then was to rely mainly on Welsh players whom he knew well, and who were playing well. It worked against the Wallabies, but you will not be able to bully and boss New Zealand for an entire Test series. You can do it in a one-off match, but they are too smart to allow it to continue – and that’s why the Lions have to be able to adapt and change.
During their recent whitewash by the All Blacks the Welsh scored tries, but they just couldn’t maintain the intensity. The addition of English and Irish players will bring that intensity – and with goal-kickers of the calibre of Owen Farrell and Leigh Halfpenny the Lions know they can play a high-pressure game against a New Zealand side that would rather concede penalties than tries.
I have no doubt the players already being considered will have the confidence they can go well against New Zealand. It’s exciting because of the big resurgence in the fortunes of the Northern Hemisphere game – and being a Lions year will only galvanise that further.
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