Gatland to lead Lions on mission impossible to New Zealand
New Zealander prepares for the toughest task in rugby as he prepares to take charge of the British and Irish against his own countrymen
Warren Gatland has, as expected, been named as head coach for the British and Irish Lions rugby tour of New Zealand next summer.
The 52-year-old was officially unveiled at a press conference in Edinburgh and will take a second sabbatical from his role as Wales coach with immediate effect
Gatland was in charge of the last Lions tour in 2013, when they beat Australia, and while he is hoping for a repeat of that success in New Zealand, the tour represents an even tougher test for the cream of British and Irish rugby talent.
The fact that Gatland will spend the entire season preparing for the gruelling trip only serves to emphasise the extent of the challenge.
The Lions have only ever won once in New Zealand in 11 attempts, and that was in 1971. On their last tour, in 2005, they were demolished 3-0 by the All Blacks. However, Gatland did his best to sound upbeat at his unveiling.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we had the ability to go to New Zealand and win," he said. "I know from having been in New Zealand recently how much excitement there is ahead of next year... For the All Blacks a Lions series is the ultimate test, but I'm 100 per cent confident that we can go and win in New Zealand."
But the odds are stacked against the Lions, reports Owen Slot of The Times. "Gatland will fly to New Zealand tonight to start preparing for a tour – which takes place in June and July 2017 – that became even harder yesterday when it was announced that All Blacks players will be available for three of the Lions warm-up games before the Test series starts.
"They face a schedule that was already preposterously ambitious; they will have been in the country for only eight days before they play, in the space of a week, three Super Rugby sides who will now be at full strength and loaded with their All Blacks."
In total the Lions will play ten games featuring three test matches against "perhaps the most dominant outfit in any sport at any time", says Dan Jones of the London Evening Standard. "We should probably pause to give credit to Gatland for taking on the job".
The New Zealand born coach "will now have to go back to his nation of origin as the leader of the tormented; to try to beat his compatriots in a land where kindness and understanding do not attach themselves easily, if at all, to the secular cult of rugby union. That is the sort of insane, self-sacrificing mission that in wartime would earn you a medal – but probably a posthumous one."
Gatland appears to be in charge of the "most doomed expedition from these islands since Scott embarked for the South Pole", says Robert Kitson of The Guardian.
"Defeatism, though, is not a Lions trait... The bigger they are, the harder they fall. People never forget those who conquer Everest."
But preparation will be key. Gatland must assemble the best backroom team he can muster, fire up his own players to produce the performances of their lives and leave New Zealand "in no doubt something massive is coming".
Lions tour 2017: Warren Gatland is the right man for New Zealand
Wales rugby coach Warren Gatland will lead the British and Irish Lions on their tour of New Zealand next year.
The New Zealander is expected to be named as head coach this week and will take charge of his second tour after leading the Lions to victory in Australia in 2013.
Gatland was also a member of the coaching staff on the 2009 tour of South Africa, led by Ian McGeechan. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, McGeechan endorsed his former lieutenant, insisting "he is undoubtedly the right man for the job".
"He is a New Zealander who understands New Zealand rugby, especially what it means to play against the Lions, but he has also been a part of British rugby for a long time now," he says. "He truly understands what the Lions means and has enormous respect for the concept."
The Lions have picked the right man, but possibly for the wrong reasons says Stuart Barnes in The Times. The Lions made hard work of victory in 2013 against "the worst Australia team since the game turned professional" and Gatland also has a poor record against southern hemisphere teams with Wales.
However, while previous results do not make him the stand-out choice, unlike his rivals he has plenty of Lions experience and that will be crucial.
"The simplicity of his game plan, in some ways a weakness against the world's best, is, paradoxically, a strength with the Lions, especially with preparation time shrinking as professionalism grows at club and regional level.
"A half hour with Gatland and a team knew their game plan. With time at a premium, short-hand coaching is as crucial as previous Lions experience."
There were also encouraging signs during Wales's summer tour of New Zealand. The All Blacks won 3-0 but the Welsh matched them for long periods, something a much-improved Australia failed to do last month in the Bledisloe Cup.
There are hopes that the Lions can beat New Zealand for the first time since 1971. Former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies told the BBC that the Lions could surprise the world champions.
"New Zealand away is daunting, but... I've got a sneaky feeling that they might have an opportunity to shock the All Blacks," he said.
Once again there have been questions raised about the viability of a Lions tour in the current crowded schedule, with players under pressure to produce their best for club and country throughout the year. But McGeechan has no doubts about the importance of the side, which tours once every four years.
"If there is a team that can take more than 20,000 fans to the other side of the world, that sells so many replica shirts that every other rugby fan walking down the street seems to be wearing one, then the game clearly has something that it has to hang on to.
"Quite simply the Lions are the flagship side of northern hemisphere rugby, both in terms of finance and also being the pinnacle for the players."
Lions tour 2017: Lancaster could rival Gatland as head coach
As new England rugby coach Eddie Jones prepares to lead his side into battle for the first time in next month's Six Nations, his much-maligned predecessor has emerged as a shock candidate to head the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand next year.
Stuart Lancaster, who oversaw England's worst-ever performance at a World Cup last year, has "a lot of the credentials" required for the job, says Lions chief executive John Feehan.
Feehan told The Times that the selection panel tasked with picking the coach for the daunting trip to New Zealand would "potentially" consider Lancaster, who was sacked by England in November.
"I am certainly not ruling anyone out at this stage. We have to keep an open mind and see who is available to us, who wishes to do it and whether they fit the criteria," he said.
The Lions coach will be announced in August after the Six Nations and summer tours have concluded. The successful candidate will be required to take a year-long sabbatical from their existing job to take the role.
That requirement would appear to rule out Irish coach Joe Schmidt, who has confirmed he has no agreement in place with his current employers in Dublin that would allow him to take the job.
But with six months to go, the Lions are "confident that they could secure Schmidt's release, should the man who has led Ireland to successive Six Nations titles emerge as their preferred candidate".
However, it is Wales's coach, Warren Gatland, who remains "the clear favourite", says the Daily Telegraph, notwithstanding the claims of Lancaster.
Gatland, who led the victorious tour of Australia in 2013, said it would be hard to turn down the offer of another tour, although he expressed reservations about the schedule, which includes ten matches in five weeks on the other side of the world, including three Tests against the World Champions.
But the New Zealander would presumably relish the chance to lead a team to his homeland. He "has been given the Welsh Rugby Union's blessing to take the job and could yet work with Schmidt, who would be free to be an assistant coach as he could remain in charge of Ireland until the end of the Six Nations next year," adds the paper.
Lions tour 2017: Gatland favourite for New Zealand
Wales rugby coach Warren Gatland is the early favourite to take charge of next year's Lions tour of New Zealand as preparations for the trip begin to gather pace.
With 17 months until the pride of the British Isles heads to the home of the world champions, the hunt for a head coach is underway, with this season's Six Nations tournament, which starts next month, sure to be key.
However, according to the Daily Telegraph, New Zealander Gatland looks to be the obvious early choice, while new England coach Eddie Jones is unlikely to be considered.
Gatland oversaw the successful tour of Australia in 2013 and is "almost certain to head up the shortlist", which will be drawn up in the summer.
Jones, meanwhile, is "unlikely to be involved unless he opens his tenure in spectacular fashion by guiding his side to a Grand Slam in the Six Nations Championship this season", adds the newspaper.
Second-favourite is Joe Schmidt, the New Zealand-born Ireland coach. He reportedly has a break clause in his contract to allow him to take the job, which would start in late 2016 and run through until the end of the 2017 tour, says the Telegraph.
However, the Irish Examiner is not so sure, saying the need for the coach to take a year out from their usual role means Schmidt's chances have "received a setback" because he would miss the final year of his contract with Ireland.
Scotland coach Vern Cotter, yet another Kiwi, is the other name in the frame after John Feehan, the Lions chief executive, told the Telegraph it was "unlikely" anyone other than a home nations coach would be chosen.
The final decision will be made after the summer tours, which could also prove critical to Gatland's prospects as he has the unenviable task of leading Wales on a tour of New Zealand.
Jones takes England on a tour of his homeland, Australia, while Schmidt's Ireland will visit South Africa and Scotland travel to Japan.