Warren Gatland will start his role as the 2017 British and Irish Lions head coach with immediate effect once he is officially installed in Edinburgh on Wednesday. Gatland took charge of two of Wales’s autumn Tests before heading up the successful 2013 tour to Australia but this time around will be pouring all his energies into defeating the All Blacks next summer.
Gatland’s assistant coaches for the New Zealand tour are not due to be confirmed until December but Wales are poised to unveil a reshuffled coaching panel within hours of the Lions announcement. Rob Howley is expected to take over as Gatland’s temporary replacement, just as he did four years ago.
No Lions side have won a series in New Zealand since 1971, making it one of the toughest assignments in sport. A demanding 10-game tour has been made no easier by the news their early provincial opponents will be allowed to field their leading All Blacks. On recent tours host unions have mostly wrapped their Test stars in cotton wool but the New Zealand selector Grant Fox has indicated that teams such as the Blues, Crusaders and Highlanders will be “loaded up” with All Black hopefuls ahead of the three-Test series.
With the Premiership and Pro 12 finals being staged the week before the Lions’ opening fixture, it adds up to a daunting equation for everyone connected with the 2017 tour. The Leicester hooker Tom Youngs, who shared in the series victory against the Wallabies, is confident, even so, that the Lions will be competitive under Gatland. “I liked the way Gats made us gel pretty quickly last time,” said Youngs. “He was a good guy to have at the top. He told us exactly what he wanted and set out a clear plan for us to buy into. It probably helps to have someone with experience who understands New Zealand pretty well.”
Youngs also said that no self-respecting northern hemisphere player will ever turn down a Lions tour, despite concerns over player welfare. “I’d rather play 10 extra games and be a British and Irish Lion than not go on tour. If it means playing a lot of games that’s the way it is. Yes, it’s a strain but it’s still something every player wants to be involved in.”
Saracens’ Owen Farrell, a strong contender for Lions selection when the squad is named in April, has recovered from the back problem that sidelined him from the opening weekend of the Premiership season. Wasps’ Kyle Eastmond is also in contention for a possible club debut against Leicester this Saturday but Bath’s Toby Faletau is facing a potential three-to-four week absence with a knee ligament injury.