Beating the Wallabies? Easier than dropping Edwards, says Gatland
Lions coach tells of agonising decision to opt for Farrell rather than his old friend
Warren Gatland likes to tell it straight – straighter, word for word and opinion for opinion, than any other coach in international rugby – so there was no reason to disbelieve him today when he suggested that the challenge of guiding the British and Irish Lions to victory over Australia next summer would prove a whole lot easier than the task of denying Shaun Edwards, his long-time friend and go-to man, a place on the coaching staff. "That decision," he confessed, "was pretty agonising for me."
Gatland, appointed head coach of the Lions in September, has spent the intervening weeks identifying the optimum back-room team for the 10-match trip, during which his side will play three Tests and meet each of the Wallaby nation's five Super 15 franchises – a relentless programme by Australian standards. The England forwards specialist Graham Rowntree, the Wales attack strategist Rob Howley and a majority of the medical, conditioning and analysis staff were involved on the last Lions trek, around South Africa in 2009. The glaringly obvious exception is Andy Farrell, who has beaten his old Wigan mucker Edwards to one of the most prized jobs in the sport.
"It was the most difficult decision I had to make: Shaun is a world-class operator," said Gatland, who partnered Edwards on the '09 tour and still works with him in the Wales set-up. "I felt continuity was important. Sir Ian McGeechan [the most experienced Lions coach of them all] told me a lot of mistakes were made in the past by people starting afresh every four years and trying to reinvent the wheel, and I believe Graham and Rob will draw on their valuable experience in South Africa. But from a selfish perspective, I also wanted someone with fresh ideas, someone who would challenge my own thinking. So many people have spoken so highly of Andy. At the end of the day, that is why the call was made."
The degree of difficulty accompanying the decision was illustrated, all too graphically, by Howley, a close observer of the symbiotic relationship between Gatland and Edwards – something he first witnessed when playing under them at Wasps in the final years of his career as a scrum-half of the highest calibre. Asked how disappointed Edwards felt to have been passed over by so familiar a colleague, his response was of the one-word variety. "Very," he said, quietly.
Farrell has been an international coach for the sporting equivalent of five minutes: a rugby league great whose cross-code switch to union did not bear fruit in the way he had hoped, he spent three years on the Saracens staff before being summoned to England duty a mere 11 months ago by Stuart Lancaster, the man charged with breathing new life into red-rose affairs after the near-death experience of the 2011 World Cup.
Pretty much as honest and up-front as Gatland, the 37-year-old Lancastrian made no bones about the sensitivity of the situation surrounding his appointment. "We come from the same background, Shaun and me," he said. "We come from the same town, we played rugby league together, we're patrons of the same charity, we both won things as players for club and country, I consider myself to be the same kind of competitor… we couldn't be any more similar, could we? We're good friends: when we beat New Zealand a couple of weeks ago, the first text message of congratulations I received was from Shaun, who had just seen Wales lose to Australia in the last second. That was much appreciated. Our paths cross a hell of a lot and we'll speak about this along the way." Had there not been a discussion already? "No, but we will speak."
In Wallaby country, Farrell will major in defence matters, but as with England, he will bring his natural authority and instinctive ability as a motivator to bear across the piece. "The biggest challenge of this gig," he remarked, "is getting a new team to gel fast. It will be all hands on deck, in all areas."
On Tuesday night, the new coaching team picked an "as of now" playing party, thought to include the folk-hero Irish centre Brian O'Driscoll as captain, although the Lions manager, Andy Irvine, said he expected significant changes to the make-up of the squad between now and April, when names are finally named.
Gatland wrapped things up by offering the thought that Australia was "maybe the easiest" of the three Lions touring destinations, New Zealand and South Africa being the others. It was the first of his "grenades", designed to spray a little dirt around the place and put his opponents on edge. It will not be the last.
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