Backroom staff key if Lions are to achieve the improbable

Lions must let All Blacks’ young stars know something massive is coming their way

The selection of a British and Irish Lions coach seldom involves a trip into the less trodden grass of left field. For years it was largely a matter of phoning Ian McGeechan and asking what role he fancied next time. Increasingly a text or WhatsApp message to Warren Gatland is the modern equivalent. Let’s just say the “mystery” man to be unveiled in Edinburgh on Wednesday will need little introduction to rugby in New Zealand.

No, the fun before the 2017 tour is to be had in second-guessing how Gatland can possibly make a success of next summer’s grand adventure. By common consent the Australia side triumphantly beaten by Gatland’s Lions in 2013 was not the strongest of all time. This time around there is a truly daunting obstacle, potentially an even tougher All Black nut to crack than the 2005 side who crushed Clive Woodward’s best-laid plans. There is also the fiendish tour timetable, making it theoretically the most doomed expedition from these islands since Scott embarked for the South Pole.

Defeatism, though, is not a Lions trait. To be a 21st-century Lion is to be an optimist by definition, with all the positive vibes that brings. If Gatland is half the coach he has shown himself to be during a long, successful career he will have long ago spotted the opportunity to join the game’s immortals. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. People never forget those who conquer Everest.

So what will Gatland do? Lob the odd early verbal grenade, hopefully, because next year’s key battles will be waged as much between the ears as on the field. Creeping meekly into town and talking up the All Blacks at every opportunity is only permissible if, behind the scenes, every player is being individually fired up to produce the performance of their lives. In this instance a primary aim must be to sow pre-tour seeds of doubt in the minds of younger Kiwi players who have only experienced the intensity of a Lions series from their childhood sofas. Let them be in no doubt something massive is coming.


That may mean acknowledging early on that Gatland needs a specific kind of help. If ever there was a tour which will resolve around mental preparation it is this one. England under Eddie Jones have successfully used the former international cricketer Jeremy Snape and it may be someone of his ilk should be the first back-room signing. Given the lack of preparation time – and thanks for nothing, yet again, to those who have ensured the players will arrive in New Zealand only four days before their opening fixture – a lot of the advance groundwork will have to be done away from the training field.

Next up will be a talisman, someone the entire squad will instantly respect, listen to and consult day and night. That used to be the captain in the days when he had the time to be all things to all men for the duration of a six-week tour. I don't know what Paul O'Connell is planning to do next summer but I would be enquiring about his availability, perhaps in an assistant manager capacity. The tour manager, John Spencer, is a proud Yorkshireman who toured New Zealand with the all-conquering 1971 Lions but a sidekick with more recent experience of the professional game would help all concerned.

Along with the assorted other medics, physios, masseurs, bag-carriers and bottle-washers – all crucial, by the way, because a Lions tour is only as strong as its weakest link – Gatland will need a touch of luck when it comes to his coaching assistants. Because of the tour schedule, buffering up against the end of the Pro12 and Premiership seasons, it will be all but impossible for the coach of a successful club side (and who would want any other kind involved with the Lions?) to devote himself to such an all-consuming tour.

That, sadly, would appear to rule out Gregor Townsend, who would make an excellent choice as backs coach and, as Scotland coach-in-waiting, could be a future Lions head coach. To a large extent Gatland will have to choose from the assistants already in situ around the four home unions, with no one set to be formally confirmed before December.

There is a clear case for someone like Paul Gustard, whose infectious methods as a defence coach have been a hit with England, to take charge of defence. The technical ability of Steve Borthwick would also clearly be useful, particularly if a number of English tight forwards are destined to tour. Then again, no one knows more than Shaun Edwards or Andy Farrell about all-or-nothing collisions in the southern hemisphere; if Ireland, Farrell's employers, have a good autumn it could yet work in his favour.

Somewhere, though, a hard-nosed forwards coach with an innate knowledge of the All Black psyche will be required. Vern Cotter is entering the final straight as Scotland coach next year but that gives the former Bay of Plenty man just as many reasons as Gatland to impress the NZRFU.

When it comes to backs coaches, however, the field is slightly sparser. In sevens few have had more success at beating New Zealand then Fiji under Ben Ryan; might the Englishman, fresh from his Olympic success, be a surprise contender? If not a quiet call to Glen Ella, a popular member of Jones's staff in Australia, may not be the craziest idea. Ella is not based in the northern hemisphere, admittedly, but when it comes to beating New Zealand an Aussie will always be first in the queue.

The same rationale may bring Nathan Hines into the equation in some capacity; for a scrum guru, what about another Kiwi, Greg Feek, at Ireland? Ultimately, though, Gatland will also need to select the right players, a band of brothers determined to go where the boys of 1971 went before. With the final party not expected to be named until after Easter, all sorts can happen in the intervening seven months.

(Guardian service)