Taking on the All Blacks is Gatland’s greatest coaching challenge

WARREN GATLAND WILL be confirmed as the 2017 Lions head coach in Edinburgh at 12pm this afternoon, allowing the Kiwi to begin plotting the greatest challenge of his coaching career.

Beating a wobbly Wallabies outfit in 2013 is on a completely different level to what the Lions will face in New Zealand next summer.

Gatland during the 2013 tour of Australia. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Any worries that the Test retirement of the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith would mean a decline in the All Blacks’ standards have so far looked unfounded.

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Beauden Barrett is playing the rugby of his life, Sam Cane’s international experience is obvious on the openside, while the likes of Kieran Read, Ben Smith, Dane Coles, Isreal Dagg and Jerome Kaino continue to exude class.

Perhaps the midfield is the area of most concern for Steve Hansen at this point, but there is no doubt that New Zealand rugby has enough talent in that area to land on a convincing partnership by next year.

Indeed, it seems likely that the All Blacks will be even better by the time the Lions land in 2017. Barrett is 25, Cane is 24. Cane’s understudy, Ardie Savea, is just 22. Crucially, many of the All Blacks’ mid-20s group are already experienced Test players.

The list of reasons why the Lions are going to lose the Test series in New Zealand is lengthy. Gatland will certainly respect his native land, but the Wales head coach will relish every moment of plotting to bring them down.

Headstrong, confident, intelligent, direct, and sometimes cunning; Gatland will feel he is built for this task.

Assembling a world-class coaching staff around him will be one of Gatland’s major priorities.

Gatland was an assistant coach on the 2009 tour of South Africa. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

What chance of Irish involvement? Andy Farrell was lauded for his impact as defence coach on the 2013 tour, impressing a number of Ireland internationals who went on to give him a fine reference when Joe Schmidt was looking for a defensive specialist after Les Kiss’ departure.

However, Paul Gustard’s standing has continued to soar with England, who have adapted and developed the Saracens system to drive towards their Grand Slam and series whitewash in Australia. Gatland knows Shaun Edwards’ qualities better than anyone.

Simon Easterby was part of the 2005 Lions tour as a player, although Steve Borthwick would appear to be favourite to coach the forwards on next year’s trip to the Southern Hemisphere.

Scrum coach Greg Feek may have the best shot of any of Ireland’s coaching staff, particularly as it is difficult to see Joe Schmidt acting as an assistant.

Feek’s Ireland scrum has been impressive in recent seasons, with a focus on providing clean possession for the backline to play off. Having seen the importance of a dominant scrum in the third Test in 2013, Gatland may prefer a coach with a more aggressive stance.

Selecting a captain will be another major part of Gatland’s duties.

England skipper Dylan Hartley, a New Zealand native, would be a fascinating choice. His disciplinary issues now seem a distant memory and his leadership of Eddie Jones’ side has been impressive this year.

Warburton captained the Lions in 2013. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Sam Warburton was the victorious captain in 2013, while his Wales team-mate Alun-Wyn Jones is another contender. Again, Irish prospects do not appear to be very strong in this area.

As for involvement in the final squad – will Gatland bring 35 players or more? – Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Jack McGrath would have to have nightmare seasons to miss out.

Iain Henderson, Jared Payne [another Kiwi native], Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien will feel they have strong claims, although the Leinster pair must get fully fit and stay injury-free first of all.

Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander will back themselves to book a ticket, Jamie Heaslip will believe he has another tour in him, while young men such as Ultan Dillane and Stuart Olding have the potential to bolt.

National team success is one of the important aspects to weigh up. Right now, it looks as if England will provide the bulk of the squad but an excellent November series and 2017 Six Nations campaign would aid the Irish cause.

We have many, many months of debate and disagreement ahead of us around these conundrums, but everything becomes very real for Warren Gatland tomorrow.

His CV already boasts three Premiership titles, a Heineken Cup, a NPC trophy in New Zealand, three Six Nations crowns – two of them Grand Slams – and that 2013 series success with the Lions.

Next comes the ultimate test.

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