The news that Warren Gatland is about to be, or has already been, offered the Head Coach position of the British and Irish Lions for next year’s tour to Australia will surprise few. By simply employing a process of elimination he is the one name that emerges strongly from the pile.
In terms of international coaches, you would get long odds on Andy Robinson still being Scotland’s coach in a year’s time, Stuart Lancaster does not yet know his own future, while Declan Kidney’s last two Six Nations campaigns have been undermined by conservatism and inconsistency.
Gatland is the only Six Nations coach who can honestly make a serious claim to be the best man for the job.
To make a choice based on this criteria, however, does him an injustice because Gatland is, on his own merits, the outstanding candidate.
Does it matter that he is not homegrown? Not one jot. As a Kiwi, Gatland will be as keen as anyone to beat Australia. Moreover, he is now virtually as naturalised in the Northern Hemisphere as his former Waikato man, Andy Ward. While Wardy has the phrase ‘you know’ firmly embedded in his Norn Iron phrasebook, Gatland has spent time in Ireland, London, and now Wales. Neither has looked back.
It would be interesting to ask which experience Gatland has enjoyed the most. He might struggle to find the answer — he is a man who settles easily into a situation and location, gets on well with those around him and seems to make a positive difference wherever he hangs his rugby boots.
While embracing all the science, technology and cutting-edge methods, he is also a man with his roots in the old school. This, as much as anything, makes him the ideal candidate for a Lions tour.
There is an intriguing similarity with the tour of 2001 when fellow Kiwi, Graham Henry, was the head coach. Labelled the, ‘the Great Redeemer,’ Henry’s credentials were also based in his success with the Welsh national team. While one might expect Gatland to bring along Shaun Edwards, Henry had ex-rugby league defence guru, Phil Larder, alongside him. Both Henry and Gatland are understated and men of few words.
In other ways, the two are completely different animals.
Henry, a former headmaster, came across like a professor. Not a mad one, but a cool, composed, highly intelligent and tactical thinker. Gatland is interesting simply because no one really knows what makes him so successful. He doesn’t do a great deal of on-pitch coaching, he is not an enormous fan of time spent at the whiteboard, he is not Churchillian in his speeches. Often it is been said — what exactly does he do?
What Gatland does possess is an uncanny ability to create and manage happy and united rugby environments while not dropping his demands for the best possible performance. As we have seen with Wales, he is not afraid to make big decisions in terms of selection and he has this McGeechan-esque ability to make you believe in yourself. It is a simple formula; he has selected you because he believes in you and you want to repay this faith.
In many ways, Gatland shares far more similarities with Ian McGeechan than Graham Henry. Having assisted Geech on the last Lions tour, Gatland will have naturally embraced all that is good about the Lions, both on and off the pitch, in victory and defeat. He has the sort of personality and belief system that makes him a natural choice.
It is a shame that Wales did not get a crack at the All Blacks in the RWC final, as they had the physicality and skill to push the crowned champions close. After this year’s Grand Slam, Wales’ next aim is to push on and beat their Southern Hemisphere rivals. To this end, Gatland has a squad with plenty of potential to make further progress.
More importantly for those who look on with interest at all things Lions, he will have an extraordinary group of young men at his disposal in just over a year’s time.
As history shows, Lions test series victories are hard to come by, but Gatland should have a realistic chance to go one better than Graham Henry in 2001.