Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

Tyrone Howe: Lions right to unleash Gatland as leader to Oz

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland

The announcement that Warren Gatland is to lead the 2013 British and Irish Lions into battle against Australia next summer came as no great surprise to anyone.

When you considered the other candidates and their recent playing records no one else in the Northern Hemisphere came close.

The inconsistency of Ireland’s Six Nations performances did for Declan Kidney, Stuart Lancaster has not accumulated enough international experience to be a viable contender, while Scotland’s record and the fact that only a few of their team will be selected ruled out Andy Robinson.

It might seem then that Gatland is the right man almost by default, but that would do him a disservice as his record is one to be proud of and success seems to have followed him like a shadow over the years.

Whether it be Waikato, Ireland, Wasps or Wales he seems to have the Midas touch and his ready smile has been a consistent feature of the rugby calendar for over a decade.

It was Gatland who gave me my first run for Ireland.

As a 28-year-old winger, I was hardly a spring chicken, but he was one for taking risks and simply sent me out with the message and vote of confidence — ‘I believe you are good enough’.

In hindsight, my selection must have been a piece of cake when you compare it to the call-up almost two years ago of the 18-year-old, George North, who only had six matches for the Scarlets under his belt. The giant Welsh winger scored on his first outing against South Africa. A good call.

Gatland has the job on merit. Given Wales’ Grand Slam in the most recent Six Nations and their showing in Australia in the summer when they came within a whisker of beating Australia in their final two Tests, Gatland has the tactical nous and management technique to register a series win Down Under.

This would, of course, go one better than fellow-Kiwi Graham Henry whose tour party lost 2-1.

Former Ulster player Justin Harrison had a major say in that. The giant Aussie second-row did what few teams do — he competed for the lineout right on the Australian tryline and plucked the ball from Martin Johnson’s grasp just as it looked like the Lions were set for glory in the dying embers of the final game at Stadium Australia.

Their nationality is only one of many parallels between Gatland and Henry. Both came into the tour as the current Wales coach.

Henry was known as ‘the Great Redeemer’, yet it was obvious to all that there was a clear tension between the Welsh players and their coach. They criticised his communication style or lack of it behind his back, and as a result he found it hard to get the buy-in necessary from the other players.

On his return, Welsh performances worsened and a record 54-10 defeat to Ireland in the 2002 Six Nations finally saw Henry’s resignation.

The premium of Gatland’s stock has never been higher, but his armoury is far more secure than Henry’s was.

The former has a far more acute awareness and appreciation of how players from different countries interact and the cultural difference and barriers that need to be crossed in order to unite a large squad comprising of four rugby nations.

This experience has clearly been honed through extended spells with Ireland, Wasps and Wales.

Gatland knows what matters to individuals like Dallaglio, Shaw and Worsley, dyed-in-the-wool English players, but he also knows the nuances of the Celtic nations.

He himself seems to effortlessly cross these boundaries and has an uncanny knack of putting players at ease. He doesn’t do a great deal of coaching — his style is more of player-management.

To complement this, he assembles a strong, robust and expert panel of support staff around him. He won’t do much shouting but it is unlikely that he will need to.

A Lions season has an extra edge to it and do not underestimate how much the players know it.

For sure, their sights are on domestic and European glory, but come the end of the season, even greater personal glory will beckon for some of Ulster’s players — entrance to one of the most exclusive rugby clubs in the world.

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