Warren Gatland to lead Lions NZ tour

British and Irish Lions Coach Warren Gatland
British and Irish Lions Coach Warren Gatland

Warren Gatland has welcomed the challenge of leading the most arduous tour in British and Irish Lions history knowing the rewards for glory would be great.

Gatland has been placed in charge of next summer’s odyssey to New Zealand and will begin a 10-month sabbatical from his post with Wales immediately by heading to the home of the reigning world champions on Thursday.

The 52-year-old Kiwi masterminded a 2-1 series victory over Australia three years ago, but knows that three Tests against opponents he claims have “taken the game on to a new level” is a different proposition.

Adding to the task facing the Lions is an itinerary that includes five fixtures against Super Rugby teams and a clash with the Maori and scheduling that sees domestic finals being played just a week before the tour opener on June 3.

It has been described as mission impossible but while Gatland accepted the odds are stacked against the elite of British and Irish rugby, he is convinced they can prevail after spotting chinks in the All Blacks’ armour.

“We know how tough it’s going to be, but that’s what athletes and coaches get excited about at this level,” said Gatland, who admitted the gap between New Zealand and the rest of the world has never been greater.

“The bigger the challenge, the more excited you are about it. And if you do succeed, the rewards are massive.

“We know it’s going to be tough, but we go there with the confidence that we can put a really strong Lions team together that is good enough to win.

“If you look at the All Blacks, when the games are tight they still play the numbers and are a little bit conservative and that’s potentially when they’re at their most vulnerable.

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

“We’ll have pace, footwork, size, physicality and experience, so I’m really excited about the prospect of putting a hugely competitive squad together.

“I have the ability to pick some players with some really good footwork that are going to cause them some problems.”

Strengthening Gatland’s belief that 2017 could produce only a second series victory over New Zealand in 12 visits is the success of England since last autumn’s dismal World Cup.

Under new head coach Eddie Jones they have won the Grand Slam and swept Australia aside with a 3-0 whitewash in June, lifting them to second in the global rankings.

“The best thing at the moment about the Lions, and purely with my Lions hat on, is the improvement in England over the last 12 months,” Gatland said.

“Given the strength in depth of English rugby, they should always be in the top two of three in the world.

“Every year or second year they should be winning or knocking on the door of winning the Six Nations.

“For the Celtic nations, they should be the benchmark and we should be chasing them, but that hasn’t happened for the last seven, eight, 10 years.

“It’s pleasing that England’s players are playing well and with confidence, that’s going to be good for the Lions.”

Gatland will spend the coming weeks choosing his coaching assistants and hopes to spend time with each national team, expressing the need for a mixture of continuity and fresh voices, with an announcement due to be made on December 7.

Apart from the Lions experience accumulated from three tours, Gatland’s knowledge of his native country was also instrumental in his reappointment.

“When I looked back at the games in 2005, what the New Zealand public learned was how to support a team,” Gatland said.

“It wasn’t the most successful tour, but they admired the Lions in terms of how faithful they were, following the team around and chanting.

“Judging from the talk in New Zealand, people are incredibly excited about it and are really looking forward to next year.

“A lot of friends are planning to travel around and I don’t think you can get a motor home in New Zealand! The nation will be gripped by it in 10 months times.”