Gatland set to step into the Lions' den again
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Warren Gatland will face arguably the toughest challenge of his career should he be appointed coach for the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
The combined side, made up of the best players, from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, are due to name their coach at a press conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday, with New Zealander Gatland set to be put in charge for a three-Test against the All Blacks in June and July next year.
Wales boss Gatland, who has also coached Ireland and English Premiership side Wasps, as well as New Zealand's Waikato, after a playing career that saw the hooker appear for the All Blacks without winning a Test cap, guided the Lions to a 2-1 series win in Australia on their last tour in 2013.
That success ended the Lions' run of three straight series defeats.
The Lions, however, have won just one series in New Zealand, back in 1971, and there is a widespread belief that whoever is appointed coach for the 2017 tour faces Rugby Union's equivalent of 'mission impossible'.
Next year, the Lions' first match in New Zealand takes place early in June, just a week after the English Premiership and Pro12 finals.
With many potential squad members set to be involved in those matches, the Lions coach will have reduced preparation time with key players prior to the Tests.
Mark McCall, Director of Rugby at English Premiership champions Saracens, has labelled the Lions' schedule "ludicrous" and concerns over their fixture programme are compounded by the knowledge they will be up against a superb All Blacks team, even by the exacting standards of New Zealand rugby union.
The world champions recently saw off Gatland's Wales 3-0 in a three-Test series in New Zealand.
But Wales' performance looked positively encouraging after the All Blacks subsequently overpowered Australia, a team that gave them a scare in last year's World Cup Final, 42-8 and 29-9 to win the Bledisloe Cup.
With the contracts of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt and England's Eddie Jones - whose Six Nations Grand Slam champions are set to be well-represented in New Zealand - not allowing for secondment to the Lions, officials appeared to have opted for Gatland over Scotland's Vern Cotter without much hesitation.
Ian McGeechan, who had the 52-year-old Gatland as his assistant when coaching the 2009 Lions in South Africa, was in no doubt his former deputy should be in charge next year.
"He [Gatland] will be named as the head coach on Wednesday and I think he is undoubtedly the right man for the job," McGeechan wrote in his Sunday Telegraph column.
"Gatland will have some tremendous players at his disposal...If they can have a real clarity of thinking in their game plan they can challenge New Zealand.
"All this talk about the players being smashed because they have to play 10 games is misleading. Not every player will play in every game."
Since Gatland took charge of Wales in 2008, they have won just two out of 33 Tests against the 'big three' of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
That has led to accusations that Gatland, who has led Wales to two Grand Slams, is too reliant on a limited tactical game plan built on a rush defence.
But former England and Lions flyhalf Stuart Barnes, writing in The Times, said: "I remember talking to Paul O'Connell about the Kiwi Welshman and his methods.
"The Irish great rated him an ideal Lions coach; a half hour with Gatland and the team knew their game plan. With time at a premium, short-hand coaching is as crucial as previous Lions experience."
Barnes also highlighted Gatland's "guts" in dropping Ireland great Brian O'Driscoll for the 2013 series-decider in Australia, saying it proved he can "handle the pressure that comes with being a Lions coach".