2013 British & Irish Lions
McGeechan hails Gatland's leadership credentials
Graham Jenkins
November 9, 2012
Lions assistant coach Warren Gatland and head coach Ian McGeechan cast an eye over training, Bishops School, Cape Town, South Africa, June 22, 2009
Warren Gatland served as assistant to Sir Ian McGeechan on the Lions' tour of South Africa in 2009 © Getty Images

The battle for a place on the British & Irish Lions' tour of Australia next year is set to intensify in the coming weeks during a busy international season with fans set debate the pros and cons of dozens of players. But while there may be a difference of opinion when it comes to the squad, there can be no doubt that they have the right man at the helm according to Sir Ian McGeechan.

Warren Gatland will spearhead the Lions' quest for a first series victory over the Wallabies since 1989 and as far as McGeechan is concerned, they could not be in safer hands. No one is more qualified to offer such an opinion than McGeechan, a Lions legend who has coached five tours having also featured on two as a player. But it is his understanding of Gatland rather than the role that perhaps makes his viewpoint incontrovertible.

Coaching rivals and then comrades with Wasps and the Lions in 2009, McGeechan is now set to act as a sounding board for his friend having seen him handed the honour of coaching the elite tourists. "We know each other very well and I have known him for quite a while now," McGeechan told ESPNscrum. "When I was back at Northampton he was at Connacht and obviously following at Wasps. We think similarly in a lot of ways with similar principles and it was very important from my point of view that I had him involved in 2009."

Gatland's own credentials stretch beyond a glowing reference from McGeechan. He coached Wasps to the English and European titles having also taken charge of Ireland and would go on to his current role with Wales. And in addition he also played against the Lions during his days in his native New Zealand with Waikato with those Kiwi roots adding to his coaching armoury according to McGeechan.

"He has a huge respect for the Lions and understands what it means to the players in the four countries," he explains. "I think he understands having played against the Lions in one respect but also having been part of the rugby in three out of the four countries, the perspective the Lions gives to northern hemisphere rugby.

"Interestingly enough, in 2009 he felt he had to earn the respect before he felt he could speak to the players about the tour. Having said that, he spoke brilliantly before the 3rd Test to them in the dressing room and it was pretty clear that he has that understanding as to what the Lions are all about, the ethos and that Lions environment that is so unique."

After deciding to draw a line under his Lions coaching career in the wake of the brutal series with South Africa three years ago, McGeechan, who has been recruited as an ambassador by the Lions and sponsor FirstCape, finds himself in an unfamiliar position of an outsider but can still provide an insight into Gatland's likely train of thought ahead of a key proving ground and a word or two of advice.

"We probably had the net as wide as 100 players at the start of the season," he explained. "We had an initial heads up with players after the November Tests but no more than that and subsequently with Europe and the Six Nations we gradually got the sort of combinations we wanted to look at so by the end of the Six Nations we had got probably 25 players inked in.

"We spent another three weeks or so looking at 20 players or so to get that final 10. The likely chemistry and how players would work together was one of the real challenges of selecting a Lions squad. It is the same when you get them on tour. You have to let them all play and not pick your Test team until Test week and he [Gatland] has the confidence to take that challenge and understands the impact and the positive side of working that way."

Gatland's attempts to build a winning blend are set to be hampered by a schedule clash that sees France's Top 14 season reach a conclusion in Paris on the day of the Lions' first game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong with a host of tour hopefuls currently plying their trade in France and potentially involved in the title-decider.

"You get things you don't expect, combinations that work really well and kick on a level and you only see that when you have different nations playing with each other."

Gatland faces a major dilemma - does he leave the selection door open and jeopardise the harmony of the squad? Or does he draw a line and perhaps deny himself the services of some world-class and in-form talent? It is an issue that could have been avoided according to McGeechan who feels the Home Unions have let their coach down.

"The disappointing thing is that we haven't given the Lions an extra week's preparation," said McGeechan referring to seven days between the Premiership and Top 14 finals and the Baa Baas clash. "I think that is something going forward that we have to look at. I don't think the Unions have been strong enough with the two league programmes in supporting that."

Commenting on the Top 14 problem, he added: "It has handed the coaches an additional challenge. Warren has probably a week less than I had in 2009. Back then we had the European final on the weekend we flew out so we prepared two teams. The first team that played was with us in London all week and the players who played that weekend came out and had their initiation week so to speak in South Africa and played the second game. So we did try and do two planned programmes for the players and how we would work them and by game three we had everyone up to speed."

Despite the apparent barriers to success that Gatland must surmount, McGeechan remains confident that the potential is there for a first series success for the Lions since their memorable triumph over South Africa in 1997.

"I think you have got talented players but the key thing is the environment and chemistry," he said. "You get things you don't expect, combinations that work really well and kick on a level and you only see that when you have different nations playing with each other. That is the uniqueness of the Lions from a coaching perspective, you will find things that become quite special.

"You hope you will see these evolve but sometimes something so good and so right will just fall into place. For example, Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts in 2009. For that moment in time they were the best centre pairing in world rugby and hadn't played together before and haven't played together since and that is the complete uniqueness of the Lions to coaches and players. You find you can do things and achieve things that you cannot get in any other context.

"That is what Gats will be looking for, that chemistry and challenge that is totally specific and individual to the Lions, But you have got to keep it simple, you can be too complicated, you only have five weeks so tactically you have got to be very clear about how you want it and then good players take it on and play. I like to think the 2009 series was the best seen in the world that year and if our players produce again then they can show the great rugby that can be played by northern hemisphere players."

Sir Ian McGeechan is the ambassador for FirstCape wine which has launched www.lionswineclub.com in association with The British & Irish Lions. For more information about FirstCape wine visit www.firstcape.com

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.

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