Warren Gatland to lead Lions with pride... but angry at schedule

Head coach perplexed that elite squad fly out 48 hours after domestic finals

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The Independent Online

Gerald Davies, one of a handful of men with an indisputable claim to an everlasting place in the British and Irish Lions pantheon, was quite clear on the subject. "Maybe the squad will not spend any meaningful time together before they embark on their tour of Australia next summer," he said amid the dark-panelled splendour of Ironmonger's Hall in London, "and it may be that we're disappointed that the schedule is as tight as it is and that it couldn't be changed. But we're not going to moan or complain about it. I have long believed that whingeing is the first step to losing."

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The Lions have no intention of finishing second when they pay their long-awaited visit to Wallaby country in a little under nine months' time and it is perfectly possible that the world's most captivating rugby side will return to these shores victorious for the first time in 16 years: after all, by appointing Warren Gatland as head coach, the top brass have made exactly the right call – pretty much the polar opposite of the decision to ask Graham Henry, another New Zealander then making a handsome living for himself in Wales, to lead the four-nation collective Down Under in 2001.

And yet, there was more than a whiff of unease as the Lion hierarchy gathered yesterday in Aldersgate Street, a few yards from the Blitz-bombed former site of the hotel where the first Antipodes-bound tourists gathered for a late supper ahead of departure from Tilbury Docks in the spring of 1888. Gatland is the last man on earth to play the victim card – hell, we are talking here about a tough-as-old-boots All Black front-rower who famously helped to reduce the 1993 Lions to their component parts on a murderous afternoon in the farmlands of Waikato – but even he seemed a little unnerved by the latest failure of rugby's diplomatic class to strike a sensible balance between club commitments and Lions requirements.

Gatland and his squad, which will be around 35-strong, fly out on 27 May, a mere 48 hours after the two domestic showpieces of the club campaign: the Premiership and Pro12 finals. "Half the party could be involved in those matches," the coach said with a slight shake of the head. "It may be that we can negotiate the odd day together before that weekend, but even then I wouldn't want to be messing with players' heads by talking about the Lions when they are thinking about major games with trophies at stake. The time frame is far from ideal. It's really hard. It could be that the first time the whole squad is together is at the farewell dinner on the Sunday before we fly. The following Saturday, we play our first game in Hong Kong."

By way of rubbing it in, some off-shore players of significant interest to Gatland have every chance of being caught up in the latter stages of the French Top 14 championship, the final of which clashes with that opening Lions fixture against the Barbarians. Toulon, one of the current powerhouses of the Tricolore game, have the top-calibre Wales prop Gethin Jenkins and the exiled England flanker Steffon Armitage on their books – not to mention a bloke by the name of Wilkinson, whose goal-kicking prowess might, should circumstances dictate, set the coach wondering. What happens if a player wants to have his cake and eat it? "I don't want us cutting off our nose to spite our face by automatically ruling out a player who is really important to us," Gatland admitted, "but, at the same time, we might have to rule him out if it's the best thing for the squad. I'm happy to make the tough decision if it needs making. Nathan Hines [the Scotland lock then playing for Perpignan] found himself in that kind of position when the Lions were heading out to South Africa in '09 and basically said: 'Bugger playing in the French final, I want to go on tour with the Lions.' Perhaps some other people might see it the way Nathan saw it."

Gatland's experience on that Springbok trek three years ago – he travelled as forwards coach under the governership of Sir Ian McGeechan – gave him two things: a understanding of the unique Lions dynamic and the confidence to make a strong pitch for the top job when it came up for grabs. His success in taking Wales to a World Cup semi-final in New Zealand last year gave his candidacy early momentum and when he backed it up by securing a second Six Nations Grand Slam in five attempts, he effectively relieved the pickers and choosers of the need to decide.

"He may be a New Zealander by birth, but he's no outsider," said the grand old Scottish full-back Andy Irvine, who will manage this tour. On the same theme, Gatland offered these thoughts: "I know what it means to play against the Lions – jeez, we were bouncing off the walls that day in '93 – but it's also true that I've been coaching up here in the northern hemisphere for more than 20 years, with the Ireland team and in London with Wasps, and now in Wales. I understand people who say the coach should come from the British Isles, but this means a lot to me. It's the highest honour."

A few months ago, Gatland fell off a ladder while performing some DIY chores at his holiday home on the Waikato coast and smashed both heels to smithereens. He is still limping now. "Am I fit enough to do this? That's what the Lions committee wanted to know and they were right to seek assurances," he said. "Yes, I'm fit enough, and I intend to be a hands-on coach in Australia."

This was reassuring, but when push comes to shove, what counts will be the sharpness of Gatland's rugby brain, not the parlous state of his ex-hooker's body. As things stand, there is nothing to fear in that regard. He is indeed the man for the job.

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