Warren Gatland calls for Lions to get more preparation time for future tours

Paul Rees
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Preparation will be key in New Zealand for Warren Gatland and the Lions staff.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images</span>
Preparation will be key in New Zealand for Warren Gatland and the Lions staff. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

Warren Gatland has called for the Lions to have more time to prepare for tours, even if it means bringing forward domestic finals by one week.

The current tour agreement with the three major southern hemisphere unions ends after the summer tour to New Zealand and the four home unions are considering shortening future trips from 10 to eight matches.

Gatland will have three days to get his side ready for the first game in New Zealand in June. They leave London on the Monday following the Premiership and Pro 12 finals, arrive in Auckland on the Wednesday and are playing that Saturday, against the Provincial Barbarians.

“I said in my report that it comes down to three words: preparation, preparation, preparation,” the head coach said. “There are a number of stakeholders involved and they have to understand the future of the Lions and that things should be done properly.

“Last time we had a week in Hong Kong and arrived in Australia with five days to spare, which feels a lifetime compared to arriving on the Wednesday with the first game that Saturday. Everyone wants more time but what would be reasonable would be to have a week together with the squad in the UK or Ireland before you travel and arrive seven days before your first game.

“And the ideal scenario would be not playing a match in the week of the first Test. I hope the Lions are able to negotiate with the stakeholders, the unions and the clubs. It might mean bringing Europe and the finals forward a week so we can have more warm-up time. It is a challenge to bring players from four countries together and gel them quickly, which is why you need both preparation time and five warm-up matches.”

Gatland believes the thousands of Lions supporters travelling will make a difference. “Their supporters are used to making up 90% of the crowd in New Zealand, but the split could be near 50-50 in this series,” he said.

As a New Zealander, Gatland is expecting some hostile media attention but does not expect the two management camps to indulge in an insult war. “There will no doubt be some comments at some stage, but we want our rugby to do the talking, not stoop to personal jibes,” he said. “The game is bigger than that and it should be about two quality teams on the field.”

Andy Farrell is a rarity among European coaches, having been part of two victories over the All Blacks. The dual international is in charge of the Lions’ defence this summer after plotting the downfall of New Zealand with England in 2012 and Ireland four years later.

The Lions have stressed the significance of Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks in Chicago last November, New Zealand’s first and only defeat since winning the 2015 World Cup, saying the confidence and knowledge gained from it by the Irish contingent in the squad will be passed on to the rest.

The New Zealand head coach, Steve Hansen, said the Lions would be “clutching at straws” if they based their selection on what happened in Chicago, pointing out: “I am pretty happy our guys got confidence in beating Ireland in Ireland [two weeks later]. I do not think it is about picking teams who beat us in Chicago: you pick players who can do the job you want.”

Farrell said that the first Test against New Zealand at Eden Park in June would be different to Chicago and that if the Lions were to emulate the 1971 squad and win the series, they would need to be as adaptable as their opponents.

“New Zealand’s sides are going well in Super Rugby and are showing what we will be up against,” he said. “The All Blacks are not stupid and after we beat them in Chicago, they put in a brilliant performance in my opinion at the Aviva Stadium. They are the best at rolling with the punches and waiting to counter punch. In the couple of games I have been lucky enough to win against them, we have been able to do that.

“They are the world’s best at dealing with pressure, counteracting it and hitting on the counterattack. In the two games we have won, we have been able to deal with their purple patches and keep on imposing our game on them. Too many teams in the past have tried to play like the All Blacks and looked to contain.

“You can talk tactics all day, but it is about being able to deal with the flow of a game and being able to adjust to what is happening. The players need to be good enough on the field and the coaches in the box so you adapt on the run. That is what New Zealand are great at and you have to apply yourself in that manner as well.”

The forwards coach Graham Rowntree, who was part of the England management team in 2012 and is now with Harlequins, believes the tackle area will be the key area in the series. “The breakdowns will be everything,” he said. “We have to be combative as a forward pack and that area will be receiving daily attention from us.

“This tour is about not accepting things, not being intimidated by where we’re going, who we’re playing against. You want men who are fearless, angry characters. Everything has to be controlled and within the law. There are enough opportunities to be angry and get hold of people in a game of rugby legally and I want them to do that, be abrasive around a contact, around a set-piece; I don’t want them getting sent off, I don’t want them getting yellow carded or penalised for being stupid, but I want that simmering on the edge.”

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