Advertisement

Potential Lions assistant coaches face big auditions this summer

Andy Farrell posing in Lions kit
Farrell could make some left-field selections in his coaching team - Getty Images/David Rogers

Thursday marks a year to the day until the 2025 British and Irish Lions take on Argentina in Dublin before they set off for Australia. And it feels as though intrigue is gradually swelling.

Andy Farrell has been confirmed as Lions head coach and is set for a fascinating face-off against Joe Schmidt, his Ireland predecessor. Having assembled his backroom staff, including a Lion in Geoff Parling, Schmidt will be burning to re-establish the Wallabies as a prominent force at Test level over the coming months.

We should never underestimate the competitive nature of coaches. For Schmidt, a significant influence as New Zealand reached the World Cup final last year, the Lions series represents a chance to reinforce his own standing. Farrell officially begins in December, following Ireland’s stacked autumn programme the previous month. The last game of that sequence, fittingly, is against Australia at the Aviva Stadium.

After that, with his Lions hat on, one of Farrell’s first jobs will be to finalise and unveil his team of assistant coaches. There are complex variables at play. But the coming weeks, as England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales tour the globe, will be part of the audition. Farrell is likely to have jurisdiction over an immediate coaching team and other backroom positions such as analysts and conditioners. Here are the contenders in three major departments.

Attack

Straightaway, we come to two variables: how much coaching will Andy Farrell do and in which area? He is a defence guru of some renown, and looked after that facet on the Lions’ last visit to Australia in 2013, yet has assumed responsibility for Ireland’s collective shape and attacking principles since 2020. Mike Catt is understood to have had more of a focus on strike moves and skills.

Andy Farrell and Mike Catt in conversation
Farrell and Catt have worked together at Ireland - Sportsfile/Ramsey Cardy

It may be that Farrell wishes to maintain a similar arrangement with the Lions. He and Catt are heading to South Africa for a mouth-watering series against the Springboks, with the latter leaving his current post after that. Andrew Goodman is joining Ireland from Leinster as backs coach.

Scotland, keen to develop depth, are bound for Canada, USA, Chile and Uruguay. Gregor Townsend oversaw the Lions’ attack in South Africa three years back. That may be an option again if Farrell takes a more hands-off approach or switches back to defence. Otherwise, Scotland skills coach Peter Horne has impressed in his early steps.

Richard Wigglesworth, himself coached by Farrell at Saracens, deserves credit for England’s intrepid performances against Ireland and France at the back end of the Six Nations, which were characterised by sharp ball movement and verve on kick-returns. Will that impetus continue in Japan and New Zealand?

Wales, taking on South Africa at Twickenham and then Schmidt’s Australia, appeared to have an unfussy yet effective template at the World Cup before a poor Six Nations. Alex King is their attack coach, while Rob Howley, part of the Lions ticket in 2009 and 2013, is a technical advisor under Warren Gatland.

Familiarity tends to be an important factor in putting together these groups and Neil Jenkins has been on the past four tours as a kicking specialist. But Farrell does not have to pick merely from international sides. Dan Vickers of Saracens is a respected strategist. Returning to attack, Nigel Carolan is doing a fine job at Glasgow Warriors, as is Noel McNamara at Bordeaux-Bêgles. The stock of Sam Vesty keeps rising.

One chief problem with reaching outside of Test set-ups is disruption. Any coach that leaves a northern hemisphere club role for the Lions would probably be compromised for the back-end of one campaign as well as the beginning of the next pre-season. Clark Laidlaw, who enjoyed a successful rookie season as head coach of the Hurricanes in New Zealand, and Peter Murchie of Glasgow are wildcards to throw in.

Defence

Simon Easterby, charged with leading an Emerging Ireland trip to South Africa in October, would surely be stopped from joining Farrell with the Lions as defence coach, even if the Springboks are toppled in convincing style this July. Unions have to retain some degree of continuity in 2025 and Ireland need a figurehead in Farrell’s absence.

Steve Tandy, one of Gatland’s Lions lieutenants in 2021, is certain to be a strong candidate. Maro Itoje and Tom Curry were just two players to offer gushing endorsements of him on their return from South Africa. Only Ireland (60) conceded fewer points than Scotland (115) during the 2024 Six Nations.

England’s meetings with Japan and the All Blacks will examine the blitz of Felix Jones, who has two World Cup victories on his CV. Jones can contribute to various areas – not just defence – and Steve Borthwick knows the developmental value of heading on a Lions tour having joined Gatland himself in 2017.

Felix Jones coaching England
Felix Jones' immediate priorities are England's summer fixtures against Japan and the All Blacks - Getty Images/David Rogers

One wonders whether Farrell would want such a distinctive defensive system. That said, an undoubtedly healthy Leinster contingent will be used to the methods of Jacques Nienaber. Jones and Aled Walters, who could come into contention for a strength and conditioning position, have existing synergy from their past at Munster and with South Africa.

That might make them attractive as a package, though they are still short into their time with England. Kevin Sinfield, whom Jones succeeded, will end his stint with Borthwick’s side on his return from New Zealand, having switched to a skills remit.

Do not discount Mike Forshaw, who moved from Sale Sharks to Wales in 2023 and was described as “one of my best mates” by Farrell, a former Wigan Warriors colleague, last year. Forshaw will have a close look at Schmidt’s Australia soon enough. Another Wiganer, Shaun Edwards, would require clearance from France. Ronan O’Gara, meanwhile, is a fun possibility, with the 47-year-old having held defensive roles at Racing 92 and the Crusaders. Relieving himself from La Rochelle duties seems a non-starter.

Forwards

Any of these sections could spawn more than one position and different technicians may be included for aspects such as the breakdown. That will be up to Farrell. In 2013, Graham Rowntree was the sole Lions forwards coach before being joined by Borthwick four years later. Then, in 2021, Robin McBryde was on his own again. Both have suffered disappointment this season but, provided that Munster or Leinster could mitigate for their sabbaticals, and they fancied another tour, either Rowntree or McBryde could be recalled. The former knows Farrell especially well.

John Fogarty, the Ireland scrum coach, and Paul O’Connell, their line-out lead, have the immense challenge of South Africa ahead. Again, though, one doubts that Ireland would want either of them to join Farrell and compound the disruption to their national side.

Scotland’s scrummaging over recent years has proven the worth of Pieter de Villiers, while John Dalziel, looking after the line-out and the contact area, was also said by a senior source to be “operating well at Test level.” Without meaning to disrespect the opposition that Townsend’s men encounter this summer, games against Fiji, the Springboks and Australia in November at Murrayfield appear more significant in a Lions context.

A Lions call-up would be another step in the meteoric rise of Tom Harrison, the England scrum coach who is still just 32. Harrison is a vital figure in Borthwick’s ongoing bid to strengthen the propping pecking order behind Joe Marler and Dan Cole. Jonathan Humphreys, Wales’ forwards coach since 2018, has far more experience.

Adam Jones would be a left-field selection as a scrum specialist, if Harlequins let him go. He is a charismatic operator with a proven coaching record in the club game and happy memories of touring Australia with the Lions as the front-line tighthead in 2013.