Gatland’s Lions Optimism

Gatland's Lions Optimism
7 December 2016; British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland, left, with his coaching team Rob Howley, Andy Farrell and Steve Borthwick during the announcement of the British & Irish Lions management team at Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks has given real hope for a successful tour

by Phil Rice

Last week Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland announced his team of coaches for next summer’s Lions tour to New Zealand.

In addition to Robert Howley and Andy Farrell, who both assisted in Australia three years ago, Gatland has added Steve Borthwick who has done an impressive job with England’s forwards recently.

Gatland added: “We may look to bring in a specialist coach but, fundamentally, this is the core coaching team we believe can help a talented group of players win a Test series in New Zealand.”

Asked further about the prospects for success on the tour, Gatland replied that the landscape had changed considerably with Ireland’s recent success over the All Blacks.

Gatland's Lions Optimism
5 November 2016; Conor Murray of Ireland is congratulated by team-mate Simon Zebo, right, after scoring their side’s third try against New Zealand during the International rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago, USA. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Borthwick added, “We’ve seen some fantastic results from the home nations in the recent autumn series and some brilliant performances by the players. That all bodes well for the Lions.”

“One of the great challenges of a Lions tour is to bring together players from four different countries that are used to playing against each other and help them bond to create a forward pack with the right mentality and collectiveness, and willingness to work for each other.”

Farrell, part of the Ireland coaching group that master-minded the win over New Zealand last month, said: “The Lions is a unique experience for players and coaches.

“To bring together the best players from four countries and go to the home of the World champions to take them on in their own backyard – that’s pretty special.”

“As a group we are going to be tested across the board against the number one ranked team in the world.

“The challenge for us will be to get on the same page as quickly as possible, appreciate fully the danger they pose and find solutions to their attacking threats.”

Gatland's Lions Optimism
Gavin Hastings, who led Lions in 1993. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

The Lions have toured New Zealand on 11 occasions and have won only one series. That was in 1971 when the likes of Mike Gibson, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and Gerald Davies produced rugby that even mesmerised the All Blacks.

There have been other close calls, notably in 1993 when a Gavin Hastings led side lost the series 2-1 but were controversially beaten by two points in the first test when the All Blacks were awarded a dubious penalty in the last minute to win 20-18.

That was the final tour of the amateur era and since then the All Blacks have relentlessly dominated the Northern Hemisphere teams, only England once and France twice, have reversed that trend.

Gatland's Lions Optimism
19 November 2016; Beauden Barrett of New Zealand reacts on the final whistle of the Autumn International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Of course Ireland can be added to that list now, and it was the nature of Ireland’s win and the fact that a full All Black team were matched by Ireland in the second test this Autumn as well. For much of that second game Ireland outplayed the All Blacks and it was only three individual clinical pieces of brilliance from Beauden Barrett that swung the match result.

Since then France ran the All Blacks close too, so the invincibility of the men in black is no longer the same. Eddie Jones said after England’s recent defeat of Australia “I’d like to play the All Blacks tomorrow,” believing that England would be more than a match for New Zealand now.

Gatland's Lions Optimism
27 February 2016; England head coach Eddie Jones. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, England v Ireland. Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London, England. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

All of this points to a far closer affair next summer when the Lions go down under, than was being talked of before the November series of matches.

John Feehan, the Chief Executive of the Lions said this week, “For the last tour of New Zealand in 2005, 29,000 supporters went down under from our part of the world.

“We had huge ticket and jersey sales. That said we have never seen the level of interest of this time for any other tour.

“It is just phenomenal. Our website has over seven million views in the last three months, which is ridiculous. The tour isn’t until next summer!

“We have made it relevant and vital. Commercially it is doing very well. The travel programme is almost sold out.”

Of course this all adds to the interest in the forthcoming Six Nations tournament, as supporters decide on their favourite players to make the tour. England are the early favourites for the championship with the bookies, although Ireland are now a close second.

And, with encouraging Autumn performances from France and Scotland, it promises to be an exciting tournament.

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