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Not a popular choice for some, but Gatland brings experience to Lions role

Gatland will name his Lions assistant coaches on 7 December.

Murray Kinsella reports from Edinburgh

THE LIONS ATTEMPTED to maintain the illusion of surprise right up until the final moment, before Warren Gatland appeared from whichever office he’d been hidden away in as 2017 tour manager John Spencer finally confirmed his appointment.

Warren Gatland Gatland takes control of the Lions with immediate effect. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Spencer, Tom Grace and John Feehan lauded the Lions’ history and stressed how exciting the tour of New Zealand next year is, then Gatland took his place on stage alongside the three wise men.

Gatland’s appointment has been explicitly flagged for some months, with a photo of him in Lions gear taken yesterday circulating widely and somewhat humorously on social media to ensure that nobody was going to be shocked.

“The secret is out,” produced a hearty laugh all round this afternoon.

Gatland put on an enthusiastic and confident display thereafter, rejecting the idea that the 10-game itinerary in New Zealand will be overly demanding, pointing to the Lions’ possible strengths and calling on players to prove themselves in the coming months.

He may not be a popular choice in some quarters, but the Kiwi is relishing this challenge.

Gatland has stepped back from his Wales role with immediate effect, Rob Howley taking his place, and plans to announce his assistant Lions coaches on 7 December. A touring party will be confirmed in April of next year.

Lions chairman Grace stated that Gatland had “interviewed extraordinarily well” in July, whereafter CEO Feehan offered him the job.

Perhaps my experiences of learning from the 2009 and 2013 tours,” said Gatland when asked what he had focused on in that convincing interview.

“Probably just understanding a little bit about New Zealand as well, understanding the culture. A lot of the players, and particularly those going to New Zealand for the first time, have got to understand certain challenges.”

Gatland has the job now and an extremely difficult job it will be. The consensus away from the stage in Edinburgh was that the Lions haven’t got a genuine hope of upsetting the already-brilliant and ever-improving All Blacks.

Has any New Zealand side ever been this far ahead of the chasing pack, Warren? A brief pause, a smile, possibly memories of being whitewashed with Wales in June, and then his honest answer.

Warren Gatland Gatland was an assistant coach in 2009 and head coach in 2013. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Probably not at the moment. I think the way they play, in terms of some pretty exciting rugby, some pretty direct rugby – they’re playing a little bit differently to other teams.

“Defensively, they look like they’re changing as well. You look at the teams coming a lot quicker off their line, like in Super Rugby the Hurricanes started defending that way. Other teams have started being much more aggressive in the way they’re defending too.

“They’ve played in a very attacking formation and stay pretty square, so when they do get in behind you they cause a lot of problems with their support. Their transitions from defence to attack are another area of the game where they stand apart.

“Wales were possibly exposed a little bit in New Zealand, there was a little bit of a lack of pace in certain areas and going to New Zealand, there won’t be any lack of pace in a Lions team that we select.

“You look at the All Blacks – when they’re in close games, they still play the numbers and they’re still a little bit conservative. That’s when they’re potentially the most vulnerable.

“But when they get 15 or 20 points ahead of you, that’s when the shackles come off and you’re in a world of pain.

“We know it’s going to be tough, but we can go there with a huge amount of confidence that we can put together a hugely strong Lions team from the four nations, a team that’s going to be hugely competitive and good enough to win.”

Gatland named 37 players in his initial squad for the 2013 tour of Australia and indicated that he will bring a similar number this time around, as he looks to balance between covering possible injuries and ensuring every player feels part of the group.

“The important thing about the Lions is to try and get things right off the field,” said Gatland.

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Warren Gatland Gatland was in Edinburgh for the announcement. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Sometimes having a night out together does really gel or bond a team together, but one of the things that I learned from 2013, was to say to the whole squad, ‘You will get a start in the first three games.’

“If a player knows he’s going to start in one of those first three games, not come off the bench, then he’s going to feel like he’s in the shop window and has a chance to be selected for the first Test.”

Gatland also confirmed that previous Lions experiences may be decisive when there are narrow selection decisions for the final touring squad.

“The bottom line is that you’ve got to be playing well,” said the former Ireland coach. “You’ve got to be playing well enough and if it comes to a 50/50 selection call, someone who’s been on a previous tour and is going well, that may count.”

Regarding his Lions assistant coaches, Gatland said they will be free to continue in their full-time roles with national or club sides for the entire season. He is aiming for “some continuity and some fresh voices” in his support staff.

The Lions boss is looking forward to visiting the national set-ups of England, Scotland, Ireland and his own Wales in the coming months to observe coaches and players in their day-to-day environments.

Gatland may not be a widely popular appointment, but he brought energy and confidence to his first appearance in a Lions blazer this season.

He will need to maintain those attributes – and add many, many more – if the Lions are to have any chance next summer.

“It’s a really tough country to go and tour,” said Gatland with another smile. “I didn’t learn that until I left there. As a Kiwi playing provincial rugby and travelling around the country, you don’t realise how hard it is to come from abroad and tour New Zealand.”

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Murray Kinsella

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