I have always had an enormous amount of respect for Warren Gatland. In the years I spent living in Cardiff I watched him assemble and nurture a Welsh side which, time and time again, instilled a sense of unrest in even the most mature, experienced international squads.
And so it was with a sense of slight disappointment that I listened to Gatland last week confess that his decision to include Andy Farrell in his Lions coaching setup had been influenced in part by the opportunity to get inside the mind of an individual at the heart of the England squad:
“There was, I suppose, a part of me looking long term – knowing that Andy could do a good job – but also, if you are thinking you know what the World Cup pool is and knowing that we were going to have England in our pool, potentially it gives me a little bit of an insight into England and their preparations.
“That’s a little bit of the cutting side of me. You don’t admit those things and that’s probably more of a reflective decision, saying what happens afterwards.
“There was no doubt that by us going on the Lions, we were given away, from a coaching set up and backroom staff, a huge amount of information, so it’s always nice to get something back as well.”
Two years ago I discussed Warren Gatland’s choice to select young, inexperienced players to join his Welsh line up during the latter stages of their Rugby World Cup campaign. I wrote:
‘A commitment from Gatland to place belief at the hands of players with very little experience at International level is, to some, a sign of courage from a coach that values the future of the Welsh game more so than simply the task at hand and, to others, is a somewhat more foolish and unnerving hand to play.’
Back then Gatland’s decision to prioritise the future prospects and long term success of his side, above and beyond the task at hand, was something I admired. This time around, however, that same approach is a little harder to swallow.
Gatland’s move to appoint Farrell as Lions defence coach over long term colleague Shaun Edwards was one that surprised many of us. He had chosen, as expected, Wales coaches Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins, as well as multiple other Welsh backroom staff and so the move to ignore Edwards left a question mark in the minds of many of us.
And that is not to say that I was in any doubt over Farrell’s capabilities. He has, without question, been a fundamental element of the coaching setup in the England camp and there have been few turnarounds as noteworthy as that of the new generation England squad under the direction of Lancaster, Rowntree and Farrell. But there was something about Edwards’ omission from the coaching squad, and Farrell’s inclusion, which at the time did not sit right.
Like most people, though, I chose to focus on the exciting prospect of a combined England and Wales teaching force, rather than the possibility that there may be ulterior motives at work. I am, of course, hopelessly naive.
To me, a successful British and Irish Lions head coach possesses the ability to lead the Lions in the absence of any bias stemming from another position held. Whether this is ever a truly realistic objective, I do not know.
Regardless, Warren Gatland’s declaration, sprinkled with laughter as it were, did not sit well with me. I wonder, too, whether his words will go on to plague the minds of Lions coaching contenders in the future. Surely any coach willing to enter the Lions cage should be granted the freedom to do so in the absence of fear that their instructions will be recorded and used against them in the future.
Brian O’Driscoll joked that Warren Gatland had been struck off his Christmas card list after leaving him out of the final Lions test in Sydney. Now, for Gatland’s words this week alone, I hope he gets a big old lump of coal in his stocking this year.
To view Warren Gatland’s interview with Walesonline, visit:
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