B&I Lions coach Warren Gatland opens up about his coaching staff appointment, squad considerations, captaincy options and facing the Boks.
Gatland named Gregor Townsend (attack), Steve Tandy (defence), Robin McBryde (forwards) and Neil Jenkins (kicking) as his assistant coaches.
He explained why big names Andy Farrell, Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree, whom had all previously been linked to the Lions, were not chosen.
‘I’ve known for a long time that Andy Farrell wasn’t going to be available to us and we’ve been talking for a number of weeks. That wasn’t the decision last week.
‘Then the situations with Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree were different.
‘Steve just felt – and he’s an incredibly honourable person – his obligations were with Leicester with changes happening. He felt it was his day job and that he needed to be there at the helm for Leicester with things going on in the off-season.
‘With Graham, it was a different situation. My philosophy has always been about family first. He just felt that being away for eight weeks, possibly 10 if there is quarantine, was too much.
‘He just said, “I need to be there for my family”. I understand that.’
In the absence of Borthwick, Rowntree and Farrell, Gatland is nevertheless thrilled with the coaching group he has chosen.
‘So, we’ve got Gregor coming on board and then some familiarity with Robin McBryde. He’s someone I know incredibly well and trust. He knows me and how I work. Robin has done a really good job at Leinster after leaving Wales. That was an easy fit.
‘The buzz I really got was having the phone call with Robin and Steve Tandy asking them to come on board. Their responses were unbelievable. I’m delighted with the team we’ve got.’
Glaringly absent from the coaching group are any England coaches, something Gatland played down.
‘People are trying to make a story out of that. It’s nothing to do with “Do I feel like I’ve got to have an English coach?”
‘It’s about me picking who I think are going to be the best fit for myself, people who I want to work with or people I’ve worked with in the past and people I think will work well as a group.’
Gatland also hinted that the absence of England might extend to the playing personnel as well as the coaching staff.
‘It’s probably not like it was 12 months ago where some of them [England players] would have been the first names on the sheet. Now you’re having a discussion about them. There are some tough calls to make and I’ll be looking at it.’
On the other hand, the coaching set-up has a distinct Scottish feel to it with both Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend and defensive coach Steve Tandy involved. There is a feeling that this could mean more Scotland players will be selected.
‘There will definitely be more Scots this time because they have fronted up this year in the Six Nations. Winning away in Paris and at Twickenham is significant because when you are playing for the Lions you are not playing at home.
‘I think they have had a great tournament. In the past 12 months, a number of players have put their hands up.’
Pressed on whether Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones would be chosen to lead the Lions, Gatland didn’t give anything away but maintained that he was one of the players being considered.
‘He is probably one of the guys that we would be looking at in terms of captain material.
‘There’s also a process to go through. Whoever is captain, you need to make sure you have that conversation with them to say that you might be captain on tour but there is no guarantee that you are going to play in the Test matches.
‘As we get a bit closer to naming the squad, I will start thinking more seriously about who might be the captain and what sort of fit that is in the Lions team – the right person, the right personality to lead the Lions tour, too.’
Questioned on whether he thought that the Lions would be facing a top Bok side given the lack of rugby South Africa has played over the last 18 months, Gatland was quick to dismiss any notions that the Boks would be unprepared.
‘Whatever South Africa team we play is going to be tough. Playing against the world champions is incredibly exciting and also a massive challenge.
‘It has been hard to look at South African rugby. There are a number of players based out of South Africa as well that we’ve been having a bit of a look at.
‘We’ve been watching Faf de Klerk pretty closely at Sale. It’s going to be a challenge, it’s going to be different.
‘South Africa were outstanding and got better as the World Cup went on. They’ve gone back – Rassie’s gone back – to their DNA in terms of their physicality.’