Exclusive: Warren Gatland wants most formidable coaching line-up in Lions history

Gavin Mairs
·4-min read
Warren Gatland wants Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree (left), Gregor Townsend (top right) and John Mitchell (bottom right) on board - GETTY
Warren Gatland wants Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree (left), Gregor Townsend (top right) and John Mitchell (bottom right) on board - GETTY

Warren Gatland plans on assembling the most formidable coaching line-up witnessed in British and Irish Lions history featuring Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, Ireland boss Andy Farrell and England’s defensive guru John Mitchell.

All three are likely to be invited onboard for the summer’s series against South Africa, with the Scottish Rugby Union clearing the way for Townsend to take his place on the coaching team after missing out on the 2017 tour of New Zealand, and while uncertainty about the location of this year’s series against the Springboks remains, both Farrell and Mitchell are being lined up should they get permission from their respective unions.

Given Gatland’s preference for continuity and the unique challenges of the Lions environment, Steve Borthwick, the Leicester head coach, Graham Rowntree, the Munster forwards coach and Wales skills coach Neil Jenkins are also set to make up Gatland’s backroom team.

Confirmation of the coaching line-up has been delayed because of the ongoing uncertainty of the tour due to the global pandemic, which could yet force Gatland to pick between either Farrell or Mitchell depending on how the next few weeks play out, and the decision about whether or not the tour proceeds as planned, is relocated to Australia or played in the UK and Ireland could also have an impact on the line-up.

But it is understood that Townsend is to be offered a key role in Gatland’s coaching team as an assistant coach with responsibility for the team’s attacking play.

The 47-year-old, who guided Scotland to their first win against England at Twickenham since 1983 last month, will become the first Scottish coach to be involved with the Lions management since Sir Ian McGeechan was head coach of the tour to South Africa in 2009.

Townsend, who played in two Tests for the Lions on the historic tour victory over the Springboks in 1997, had been due to take up a place on Gatland’s coaching team for the tour of New Zealand four years ago only to withdraw because of his commitments with the national team. At the time he had only just been appointed to succeed Vern Cotter as Scotland head coach.

Mark Dodson, the SRU chief executive, confirmed however that this time Townsend will be encouraged to accept any offer from Gatland.

“If Gregor Townsend was asked to go we would not stand in his way,” said Mark Dodson, the SRU chief executive, told Telegraph Sport. “We would be very happy for him to go.

“We think it will add to Gregor’s knowledge and be another arrow in his quiver. Coaching the most outstanding players in the UK and Ireland can only do him good.

“I may be a bit biased because he is somebody that I believe in but I think he can be one of the great coaches of the generation. I think he has the ability to inspire people and out-think other coaches, there is no doubt about that.”

If Gatland gets his team, it will be one of the most experienced the Lions have assembled, at least since 2005 when Sir Clive Woodward included the then England and Ireland head coaches Andy Robinson and Eddie O’Sullivan along with McGeechan and Gareth Jenkins, Mike Ford and Phil Larder.

Clive Woodward speaks with Jonny Wilkinson and Eddie O'Sullivan - PA
Clive Woodward speaks with Jonny Wilkinson and Eddie O'Sullivan - PA

Farrell and Borthwick, the former England forwards coach, both played a key role in the historic series draw with the All Blacks in 2017 while Farrell was also a popular and effective defence coach on the tour of Australia in 2013.

Mitchell, also a former All Blacks head coach, is a close friend of Gatland from their playing days together for Waikato, while Rowntree and Jenkins are both are trusted lieutenants of Gatland, with Jenkins having been involved in the last three tours as kicking coach along with Rowntree, who oversaw the scrum in 2009 and 2017 and switched to forwards assistant in 2013.

The appointment of Townsend will address a key issue of the previous two tours when the lack of a Scottish coach involved in selection was seized upon by some supporters who were critical of the low number of Scotland players in the Lions squad and Test teams.