Ben Kay Column
Lions coaches will set the benchmark
December 12, 2012
The England coaching duo of Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell will provide the backbone of the British & Irish Lions support staff © Getty Images
Warren Gatland has confirmed his support staff for next year's tour to Australia and they look to have the tools at their disposal to lay the foundation for success against the Wallabies.
It was not surprising to see Graham Rowntree retain his place in the Lions' coaching mix having been part of the 2009 tour to South Africa because I think he is an exceptional coach who has a great relationship with his players. He brings out the best in people and that is a priceless asset for the Lions who will have very little time to conjure the kind of team spirit that will be required to take on Australia on their home soil.
Andy Farrell is also another major motivator within the England camp and that was no doubt a factor in his appointment. Some of the England guys have told me that he delivered a key presentation ahead of the All Blacks clash that filled the side with confidence that if they played a certain way they could beat the world champions when nobody else gave them a chance. Given his long-standing relationship with Gatland, it is highly likely that Rowntree has relayed the impact Farrell has had on the England set-up in recent months.
Howley is a coach in the same mould and I am not surprised that Gatland has opted for someone who he knows so well. He may have been at Wales' helm for the recent defeats to Argentina and Samoa but he was also heavily involved when they swept all before them in the Six Nations. You will probably find that one of the main reasons Gatland wants to take Howley is because he is a reliable sounding board within the Welsh camp and he will be keen to maintain that relationship in Australia where it is imperative that they hit the ground running.
A Lions tour is so different to other international trips because you have got to bond a team of relative strangers together in a very short time and at the same time create something special. To do that you need to conjure a belief within the squad and develop a coaching set-up that has the ability to lift every member of the squad to the point where the Lions feels like the most awesome thing you have ever been a part of at which point you just want to give as much back to the coaches and the team.
The rest of the support staff also play an important role in creating that environment with the likes of Dr James Robson also working immensely hard to make sure everyone feels brilliant. Most of those guys will know long before the players that they are going to Australia and will help create that unit and set the benchmark so that when the players arrive they just slot into what feels like the best team environment possible.
Robson and tour manager Andy Irvine may well be Scots among the support staff with Ireland not even able to call on that level of representation I think it is largely irrelevant these days when players are so well known. There may be more appointments in the coming months but they are not going to go down the route taken by Clive Woodward in 2005. He took a huge coaching team to New Zealand with the aim of alleviating the pressure on the Test side but it was widely criticised with many pointing to a divide within the squad. That was reversed last time out in South Africa where the unity was a huge factor in the overall success of the tour.
Rowntree and Farrell will leave a sizeable hole in the England coaching team that goes to Argentina next summer but that will create opportunities for others and also help the likes of Mike Catt and even Stuart Lancaster develop. Some may also suggest that the recruitment of two of England's coaching team bodes well for them claiming a large number of the seats on the plane to Australia but I don't buy that.
I think Gatland will have been more concerned about finding the best people to support him for this specific challenge and identifying those coaches who can bring out the best out of the players in the short timeframe of a Lions tour. In a national set-up you can afford personnel that are a bit more authoritarian because there is always a bigger, long-term goal like the World Cup. A Lions tour offers a totally different, short-term challenge where the demands and the type of coaching mix are different and you can't necessarily afford such a figure.
The Home Nations' return from the autumn internationals may not have been ideal, with the Six Nations set to be a pivotal proving ground for tour hopefuls, but Gatland can take comfort from the fact that he has a coaching team that certainly has the potential to flourish against the Wallabies.
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN