A few weeks ago Graham Rowntree had given up all hope of going to New Zealand with the Lions this summer. He had a vague idea he might get to Glastonbury, but beyond that his plans were scarce. But then Warren Gatland picked up the phone and asked if he would like to become the first club coach since Sir Ian McGeechan in 1997 to go on a Lions tour.
“I didn’t expect the call,” says Rowntree. “Being out of the international scene and then I wasn’t announced in December [when Gatland announced Andy Farrell, Rob Howley and Steve Borthwick as his assistants]. So I didn’t expect it and it didn’t come, and then all of a sudden a few weeks ago it did come. It didn’t take much deliberation. It’s high pressure. I will never forget that pressure in that last series, particularly after the Melbourne second Test, going into the third. But it is still a pressure I crave, that end of the game, and it will be good to be back into it.”
The tour will be Rowntree’s fifth – his third as a coach – but as he looks forward to coaching what he believes will be the most talented Lions squad in 30 years, he freely admits it is the most unexpected of them all. The scars of England’s 2015 World Cup campaign, where he was forwards coach, have not completely faded and it means a lot he still has enough ‘credit in the bank’ with Gatland to be asked to tour again. But this is no favour for an old friend but rather Gatland believing, as Rowntree does, that he is a better coach for England’s World Cup failure.
“I think I am a better coach now, more rounded for my experiences,” he says. “I have learnt a lot through what happened in the World Cup, and problem solving on a daily basis I am enjoying.
“It was an unbelievably tough experience what we went through, probably one some coaches will never go through again – a home World Cup and the pressures of that circumstance. I learnt a lot and I have nothing but pride to see the guys now, the way they are performing. They have been through some tough times now with a very similar looking squad that has learnt from those experiences – and look what they are delivering now for England.”
What they have delivered for England and Eddie Jones since are two Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam and an 18-match winning run. They have done so under Borthwick’s guidance as forwards coach, and the dynamic between Rowntree and his successor with England will be intriguing. Rowntree, though, does not anticipate any problems – Borthwick will take care of the line-out, Rowntree the scrum, and the pair will split the load around the contact area.
Both agree they will have to hit the ground running on what could – considering the fiendish schedule and the strength of the provincial sides – be the most difficult Lions tour in history. As such it helps if, as Rowntree believes, you have the finest crop of players since 1987.
“This will probably be the toughest Lions tour for a long time but we are going to assemble probably the best squad for the last 30 years,” he says. “Forwards-wise we have got a lot of talented lads, good players, dynamic workers and I can’t wait to see them against that All Black pack. We need to be good.
“We are quite capable of winning. If you get to that first Test in the right state of mind, mentally hardened – anything can happen.”
And Rowntree is clearly enthused by the prospect of working with a potentially special crop of front rows. In no particular order he discusses the merits of the England front rows, Irish duo Tadgh Furlong and Jack McGrath and Welshman Ken Owens, although he is particularly enthused about Kyle Sinckler, the Harlequins and England prop he works with on a daily basis.
“He is an angry young man, Sinck,” chuckles Rowntree. “It is about him managing that energy and aggression and it is up to us as well, the national coaches, to manage that and make sure he is thinking about the right thing as he can do things other props can’t with the ball in hand and tackling wise. I would be fairly confident he would be able to do a job for the British Lions. He is a real bolter – literally.”
So too, in terms of the coaching squad, is Rowntree. He has kept a low profile at Quins – where he is held in extremely high regard – and has enjoyed the transition from England coach to fan.
“How has it been watching them as a fan? Less stressful than being sat in the coaching box,” he laughs. “I enjoy it – I’m an Englishman. People ask me what it’s like watching them win everything and I say: ‘It’s b----- great. I love it’. ” He loves the stress of it too, really. Never has a man been so happy to have his summer plans completely ruined.