Warren Gatland confirmed as Lions coach for tour of Australia

 

Warren Gatland is prepared for "one hell of a challenge" after being confirmed as the British and Irish Lions' head coach for the 2013 tour of Australia.

Gatland was the outstanding candidate for the post after leading Wales to the semi-finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup and last season's Grand Slam triumph.

The Lions will tackle Australia in a three-Test series as part of a 10-match tour, which opens with a fixture against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1.

"There is no question it will be one hell of a challenge," Gatland said.

"Playing in the southern hemisphere is one of rugby's hardest challenges. The Lions came close in South Africa (in 2009) and our ambition is to win the series in 2013 - and I believe we have the players to do that."

Gatland, 48, will coach Wales in their autumn Tests against New Zealand and Australia but otherwise he will be seconded full-time to the Lions.

Gatland is expected to confirm his full coaching team in October and it would be a surprise if the likes of Graham Rowntree and Shaun Edwards are not involved.

All three were part of the 2009 Lions management in South Africa and received the backing of head coach Ian McGeechan to carry the torch to Australia.

"I am really honoured to have been asked to take the position of head coach," Gatland added.

"I really enjoyed the experience as one of the assistant coaches in 2009 and since then have harboured the ambition to lead the tour to Australia next year.

"Over the coming months I will give careful consideration to the make-up of my coaching staff and of course the playing squad itself.

"A Lions tour is unique, it is the ultimate career pinnacle for coaches and players. I want to ensure that we get the tour environment right so that we are hugely competitive and that our fans are proud of the team."

The Lions had initially planned to hold the announcement in April but were forced into a delay after Gatland broke both his heels in a fall at his house in Waikato.

"It has been no secret that after the initial selection process, Warren was our preferred candidate," tour manager Andy Irvine.

"We naturally had to ensure he was fit to take up the post. Those concerns have now been addressed.

"Warren has an outstanding coaching record and he has been fully embedded in rugby in the UK and Ireland since 1989."

Gatland coached Ireland for three years between 1998 and 2001 before taking charge at Wasps, where he won a hat-trick of Premiership titles and the Heineken Cup.

In 2006, he moved back to New Zealand and coached his native Waikato to the New Zealand provincial title before Wales came calling.

Gatland took charge of a Wales side that had just crashed out of the pool stages of the World Cup and he made an immediate impact, guiding them to the first of two Grand Slam titles during his tenure.

The second was this year and it followed hot on the heels of Wales' greatest World Cup performance since 1987, when they came agonisingly close to beating France to earn a place in the final.

Gatland will become the second New Zealander to lead the Lions on tour to Australia, after Graham Henry's failed attempt to beat the Wallabies in 2001.

Rob Howley led Wales on their summer tour of Australia in Gatland's injury-enforced absence and will continue in that role through the 2013 RBS 6 Nations.

Next year's tour to Australia will mark the 125th anniversary of Lions tours.

"It's a massive responsibility," Gatland said.

"It's a responsibility to the players and coaches that have gone before me and to 125 years of Lions history.

"In 2009 it was a case of coming in and keeping my head down and quickly learning what the Lions meant to the players and the management involved.

"For a player it is the pinnacle of their career. It is the same for the coaches involved.

"This is the highest honour, to be selected as the Lions coach.

"It is the pinnacle of anyone's coaching career. To be given this opportunity is a huge privilege.

"I have coached in Ireland, in London with Wasps and with Wales.

"That gives me an understanding of the different cultures and it will be important bringing the four countries together."

Gatland played against the Lions for Waikato in 1993.

"As a player who played against the Lions I remember that fondly. Being on the other side is just as important," he said.

"We were bouncing off the walls. We were playing against the traditions of the British and Irish Lions."

Gatland's first task will be to travel to France tomorrow to meet with potential Lions and Top 14 coaches to discuss player release.

The French club final is on June 1, the same day as the Lions' tour opener against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.

"I am going to France tomorrow. I will talk to players down there," Gatland said.

"I will watch Perpignan and Bayonne over the weekend. It is a chance to meet with coaches and talk to players and talk about potential release for the Lions players.

"Ultimately it may be up to the players.

"In 2009, Nathan Hines left Perpignan before a final because the Lions meant so much to him as a player.

"He said 'bugger playing in a French club final I want to be part of a Lions tour'.

"As a management board and coaching staff we will have to discuss that because preparation is so tight.

"If it means players aren't available to get on the plane, it may rule them out."

Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips plays for Bayonne while James Hook, another 2009 Lions tourist, moved to Perpignan at the start of this season.

PA

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