The big story in rugby this week was the announcement of Warren Gatland as the Head Coach of the 2017 British and Irish Lions.
The announcement of the Head Coach signals the start of Lions fever. Before the head coach is announced the Lions are on the horizon, in the mind but not the focus, with the head coach now in place, every performance from now until the tour is an audition for a place in that touring squad.
Was Gatland the right man? Well, in an awful lot of ways he was the only man. A Lions Head Coach needs to be three things above all else; good at the job, to have a deep understanding of and passion for the Lions, and to be available.
Being good is not good enough, as Clive Woodward and Graham Henry showed, you need that passion and understanding. Gatland has that, this is his third tour, and anyone who has seen the DVDs of the previous two and heard the stories knows that he is passionate about the Lions.
Availability was key too. Gatland has a clause written into his contract with the WRU effectively allowing him a sabbatical to coach the Lions (which also serves to underline his passion for the job), nobody else has that. In the availability stakes that put him right at the top of the pile, before you even factor in the other credentials.
That is not to say that there were not other possibilities, Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt working together as they did at Clermont Auvergne would have been exciting. It would have taken some tricky negotiations with the SRU and IRFU though, and no little compensation too.
What is very peculiar though is the sheer amount of Lions bashing from media outlets and, in particular, Premiership Directors of Rugby.
The schedule is tough, no doubt, but that was also true in 2009 and 2013, the most successful tours since 1997 by the way. That is the format of Lions tours, and talk of abolishing the provincial games is folly on two counts, one the Lions need it to actually learn how to play together, and two it is part of what the Lions are all about, it is not just about the Test matches, it is supposed to have a bit of the old fashioned about it.
I listened to Matt Dawson’s, very good by the way, Rugby Show on 5 Live Sports before the season started, where the Premiership DoRs were all bashing the number of games, Dawson himself was suggesting culling some. The only man in disagreement was Jamie Roberts. What was significant about that? Roberts was the only man with any experience of that schedule and its benefits and pitfalls, he regarded the provincial games as vital.
Sure, it would be ideal to have a bigger gap from the end of the domestic season to the start of the Lions. But rather than moan and try to predict the demise of the Lions, why not get Premiership Rugby, the Pro 12, the Lions, and SANZAAR in a room to work on moving things around. That could mean the Rugby Championship starting later, the Premiership and Pro 12 finishing earlier, or both. Stop moaning in the media though and just get in a room and fix it for 2021, it is not actually that difficult.
I am unashamedly infatuated with the Lions. For me a Lions tour remains the most special thing in rugby, a unique challenge, and a unifying force for fans and players of Scotland, Wales, England, and Ireland. It is supposed to be hard to win a Lions tour, the odds are stacked against us, that’s ok. Hell, if we won every time people would probably call for it to be scrapped because it is too easy.
Of course the next big thing on the Lions radar is the announcement of the backroom staff, which should happen in the first week of December. Warren Gatland has said that he would like to see a blend of continuity from ‘09/’13 plus some new blood. The likelihood is that there will be a backs/attack coach, a forwards coach, and a defence coach as the main support staff. There may be a couple of technical additional coaches such as a kicking coach and a scrum coach, but not too many.
I would look at having Gregor Townsend as backs/attack coach, Steve Borthwick in charge of the forwards, and Paul Gustard running defence. If a kicking coach is needed then Neil Jenkins fits the bill for continuity, while Graham Rowntree would be a good continuity option as scrum coach, if he is happy to give up the wider ranging forwards coach role. That does not give a lot of continuity in the main roles though, so do not be surprised to see Rob Howley, Andy Farrell, or Shaun Edwards in there come the start of December.
Either way, June cannot come soon enough for me.