The British and Irish Lions squad will be announced on Thursday when the chosen few will be named to tour South Africa this summer. But their best asset is already known according to Scotland coach Gregor Townsend as Graham Thomas reports.
The wisdom and wide experience of Warren Gatland will be the Lions’ key weapon when they take on world champions South Africa this summer, according to Gregor Townsend.
Gatland and his attack coach Townsend will be deep in final selection talks next week, ahead of the announcement of the 36-man British and Irish Lions tour squad on Thursday.
But although they will be planning to pack as much heavy artillery as possible, Townsend believes the real strength lies in their battle-hardened leader.
Gatland has twice led successful Lions tours before and was an assistant to Ian McGeechan in 2009, while the former Wales coach has also been topping up his knowledge back in New Zealand with the Chiefs.
His recent influence with the Chiefs was evident before he took his 12-month sabbatical from Waikato, and their resurgence has survived his departure.
On Saturday, the Chiefs played the Blues at Eden Park – with highlights being shown on S4C – having already secured a place in the final next week against the Crusaders.
“Warren has so much experience, back in New Zealand, then Ireland, Wales and three Lions tours so that know-how is massive for us,” says Townsend, who turned down Gatland’s offer to be his assistant four years ago as he had only just got his feet under the desk in charge of Scotland.
“He’s been open and I have, too, to what we believe will work and be successful, in not just the Test series but over those early weeks.
“I really enjoyed our selection discussion and discussion around what a coaching session and week will look like, whether we’ve got a midweek game or just building up for a Test match.
“It’s obviously important as a coaching group we all connect and work well together, and contribute in different areas. That’s the impression I’ve got already, and the environment I wanted to create with Scotland, where even though you may be a defence coach you’re contributing in attack and vice-versa.”
Townsend also has history as a Lions winner. He was the creative force at fly-half when the 1997 Lions beat another South African team, 2-1, who were also world champions at the time.
“Going to South Africa, that won’t have changed. We’re playing probably the most passionate rugby country in the world, the world champions who produce some very good rugby players and very big men.
“Those are similar challenges, but the game has moved on a lot, how you coach, the game’s been fully professional for 20-odd years.
“It’s very different to what it was like in 1997. Especially for me, I’ll be learning a lot from people who have been on recent tours, Gats in particular, who has led those tours really well.
“He knows the formula that works well for the Lions, and that’s not just on the field but off it, to make it an enjoyable time for the players and for them to bond together as a group.”
Gatland was a loser on his first Lions tour, as forwards coach under McGeechan 12 years ago, when the Springboks’ power proved too much for the tourists, who lost the series, 2-1.
He was then made head coach for the tour to Australia in 2013, which the Lions won, 2-1, and earned a comeback series draw in New Zealand four years ago, where, with one win apiece, the final Test was drawn, 15-15.
That was a tour Gatland said he did not enjoy at the time because of much personal criticism directed both towards himself and his son, Bryn, who was with the Blues at the time but now plays for the Chiefs.
Both father and son have since proved their durability and resilience. Gatland senior is heading off on another Lions tour, having said in 2017 he’d had enough of them, while Bryn will wore he No.10 shirt for the Chiefs on Saturday.
With a place in the final of the competition already assured, the Chiefs opted to rest key players such as skipper Brad Weber, Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown.
The Blues also rang the changes and gave a debut at full-back to 20-year-old exciting talent Zarn Sullivan.
Worcester Warriors fans will recognise a familiar face on the right wing where Bryce Heem – who spent four seasons playing in the Gallagher Premiership – played his second game in Super Rugby.
S4C – Sunday, 10.00pm.
Clwb Rygbi: Super Rugby Aotearoa: Extended highlights from Super Rugby Aotearoa, a competition between New Zealand’s five professional teams.
This week’s programme will feature highlights from the weekend’s matches: Hurricanes v Highlanders & Blues v Chiefs.