Belfast Telegraph

Gatland returns to Lions hotseat for All Blacks trip

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Back in January, Warren Gatland was playing hard to get when he said "Joe Schmidt can have the Lions job if he wants! Have you seen the schedule?! He can have it!"

This afternoon in Edinburgh, the New Zealander will be unveiled as the man who will lead the touring party to his homeland next June. The daunting schedule hasn't changed, but his tune has.

Before the Six Nations, there appeared to be a race for the job, but Eddie Jones had made it clear that he wasn't interested and Schmidt has never appeared enthusiastic. Perhaps they knew it was Gatland's if he wanted it.

Having guided the Lions to their first series win in four attempts in 2013, he had earned the right to go again.

The circumstances of that victory over Australia may still rankle in these parts, but there can be no denying his credentials. However, beating a mediocre Australia side and going to New Zealand to face the All Blacks three times are different matters.

"It's a really tough tour," Gatland said in January. "I'm not saying the Lions can't win but it's tough. You're facing the World champions. It's not unwinnable but very, very tough.

"I've been very lucky to have been involved in a couple of tours. If you were offered it you'd find it difficult to turn down but if you weren't offered it you might thank your lucky stars."

Since then, he has been home with Wales; suffering three heavy defeats to the All Blacks and one, perhaps most humiliating of all, to his home province the Chiefs in their midweek game.

So, news from New Zealand that the All Blacks will be available for their Super Rugby coaches for the early games of the tour won't have made him feel much better about the task in hand.

Unlike previous tours when they faced weaker teams from the National Provincial Championships, the Lions will face four Super Rugby sides and the Maori before they take on the world champions. Only their opening game against a Provincial Union team in Whangarei offers any potential solace.

Over the course of seven days, the tourists will face the Blues of Auckland, the Canterbury Crusaders and the Otago Highlanders who will all be able to pick their Test players for the visit.

While the Lions could do with a break before taking on this massive task, instead the squad will likely depart before the English Premiership and PRO12 finals take place. Whether this gives the Lions a fair shot or not will be a source of much debate.

After his coronation, Gatland's next task will be to pick a backroom team and he has candidates even if Schmidt and Gregor Townsend are not available.

For the players, you only had to watch Sky Sports' coverage of Saturday's clash between Connacht and Glasgow Warriors to understand what they're in for. Stuart Hogg's every touch was given Lions-season significance.

Ireland's two November meetings with the All Blacks will take on added significance, while the Six Nations will be framed by the tour. It comes with the territory.

Today, Gatland will lay out his blueprint for an historic second Test series win in New Zealand, the first since 1977.

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Belfast Telegraph


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