Lions manager Warren Gatland wants to take time over captaincy selection
Gatland not concerned with Ireland’s poor Six Nations
British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland says Brian O’Driscoll’s performance over next few weeks will be important. Photograph: Inpho
“‘Reading between the lines’, an audience with Warren Gatland and Andy Irvine”, could have been the sponsor’s tagline for yesterday’s meeting with the British and Irish Lions coach and manager at St Michael’s College on Ailesbury Road, Dublin.
It’s a ridiculously difficult task facing Gatland, who must announce a 36/37 man squad on April 30th, the Tuesday after the European semi-finals. Never mind the many captaincy candidates, it is almost impossible to find two people who agree on the same Test XV. But that’s, ultimately, what prompted the Lions committee to endorse Gatland, who follows in the footsteps of Graham Henry, being a Kiwi who coached Wales before leading these unique tourists to Australia.
“In selecting the coach one of the factors that people sometimes forget about is that sometimes they can be great coaches but not great selectors,” said Irvine.
“One of the reasons we were keen on Warren is he has a great track record in selections as well and being bold and adventurous and bringing on youngsters. If you look at the four home nations, one team more than any other had the balls to bring on young lads.”
It’s a trait Gatland can claim back to Ireland’s 1999 tour of Australia, when the 35-year-old recently-retired hooker called up a largely unknown kid named Brian O’Driscoll. He’s already pencilled in most of the tourists with his Welsh players making that task much easier by thrashing England 30-3 last Saturday. “It was a level up on any other game,” said Gatland. “That intensity, that physicality that we are looking for, and we expect to face in Australia.”
But yesterday’s questions focused around who will lead the side out at Suncorp stadium on June 22nd, an honour that delivers instant iconic status. Sam Warburton was the early favourite, being Gatland’s captain at the 2011 World Cup, but he lost his place in the Welsh team, then won it back, but not the captaincy, as that went to Gethin Jenkins, another shoo-in to tour.
But Cian Healy and Andrew Sheridan, who is picked ahead of Jenkins at Toulon, may have something to say about that. Much like Justin Tipuric, Seán O’Brien and Chris Robshaw can argue the certainty of Warburton starting. Same for Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Davies when it comes to O’Driscoll reclaiming the 13 jersey.
“I think it is crucial we get the captaincy right. We just want to make sure we take our time and not commit ourselves to anyone at the moment. The number one thing is looking for someone who is going to be on the starting 15 and someone who carries themselves well on and off the field, is a good professional and has the respect of everyone.
“Whoever that person is we are confident there will be enough leadership qualities in the squad that that person is going to get huge support.”
So it mightn’t be a senior player like O’Driscoll or even Paul O’Connell, who Gatland refuses to rule out of contention, despite the Limerick man doing so a few months ago. Right on cue, O’Connell returns for Munster tomorrow against Connacht in Musgrave Park.
“The older players with a bit more experience have the upper hand because they have that behind them, don’t they? We know a lot about Paul O’Connell.
“We know what he brings to the party so we will be keeping a pretty close eye on him. Someone like Tommy Bowe, if he gets back from injury, Dan Lydiate as well. There is a young, talented player in Simon Zebo – is he going to run out of time? We’ll keep a close eye on these sort of players over the next six weeks.”
Gatland chuckled at O’Driscoll’s three-week suspension for stamping Simone Favaro. In New Zealand the Italian flanker would’ve had tractor marks down his back for lying that far offside. “Brian’s got to serve his misdemeanour; it looked like a bit of frustration. Again, it’s a position where there is reasonable depth. His performances for Leinster will count in the coming weeks.”
Gatland was also keen to play down the idea Ireland players will suffer due to their disastrous Six Nations. There’s a lot of rugby to be played over the next six weekends and he’ll be watching all of it.
“We’ve seen how decimated the Irish team have been with injuries. You got to take into account everything. For sure some of those players are disappointed with the way they finished but you cannot rule them out.”
Irvine and Gatland launched the FirstCape wine rugby coaching master class competition exclusive to Tesco Ireland.