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Word games begin as coach Gatland names assistants

Warren Gatland played to his reputation as one of Test rugby's most enthusiastic players of mind games when the New Zealander suggested yesterday that the British & Irish Lions have their best chance of winning a series when they meet the Wallabies.

Warren Gatland with assistants Andy Farrell, left, Graham Rowntree and Rob Howley at Hopetoun House, South Queensferry yesterday. Picture: SNS
Warren Gatland with assistants Andy Farrell, left, Graham Rowntree and Rob Howley at Hopetoun House, South Queensferry yesterday. Picture: SNS

"If you said to me to pick your choice of where you'd like to go I'd say Australia. It's maybe the easiest from the Lions' perspective," said the Lions head coach at a briefing held at South Queensferry's Hopetoun House where the widely trailed news that his assistants would be Andy Farrell, Rob Howley and Graham Rowntree was confirmed.

To the suggestion that his words were clearly designed to have an impact Down Under since he knew exactly how they would be received, Gatland protested innocence. Indeed, he even claimed he had simply been trying to give a straight answer before claiming that if his words were interpreted in any way negatively he may not be as open under future questioning. All very well had he not been the man to ask the question in the first place.

Not long afterwards, ex-Great Britain rugby league captain Farrell took his turn to face the press and, without knowing what Gatland had said, pretty much confirmed what everyone in the room had been thinking as he spoke of his own experience of dealing with Australians.

"They'll try to ruffle a few feathers . . . but Warren's good at that as well," grinned the England defence coach.

As for straight answers to straight questions, Gatland had himself apparently unwittingly exposed another of his colleagues.

With the various participants taking turns, as individuals or in pairs, to meet the media, Rowntree, accompanied by Howley, had been asked whether they had chosen a captain when the coaches this week selected among themselves the 36 who would make up their squad if chosen on current fitness and form. He said they had not. A few minutes later Gatland said they had, but he would not say who it was.

So it begins . . . With the ringmasters all in place, the four-yearly circus is properly under way with all its hype and hubris.

Can a team composed of the best players selected from among four of the world's top 12 teams beat the third- ranked side in Test rugby?

As ever, the question should perhaps be: how on earth they can fail to, given that Scotland, far and away the weakest of the four contributing nations, has won its last two matches against the Wallabies, the more recent of them in Australia last summer?

Responding to that, Andy Irvine, the former Scotland captain and SRU president who is the tour manager, sought to tread a fine line between playing down Scotland's achievement and talking up the true capabilities of the Australians.

He also pointed to the importance the host nations place on these tours, receiving them, as each of them does, only once every dozen years; to the shortage of time available to prepare the Lions squad; and to the difficulty of bringing together players from four different rugby cultures and melding them into one team.

Perhaps so, but the Lions, by definition, have a superior quality of player available than England, who thrashed the All Blacks last month and have won two of their last three against the Wallabies; Ireland, who beat the Wallabies last time they met at last year's World Cup and have lost just one of the last three against them; Scotland, who like England won the last Test they played in Australia; and grand slam champions Wales.

The Lions also have, compared with the individual home nations when touring, a huge advantage in terms of preparation with six matches before the first Test.

With all concerned talking about the Lions "brand", the commercial value of these tours is obvious, which in turn adds a certain extra element to this particular tour because, as both Gatland and Irvine acknowledged yesterday, a complete cycle of Test series failures in Australia (2001), New Zealand (2005) and South Africa (2009) has led to questioning about their value.

To do so always bring howls of protest from traditionalists and sentimentalists, but those who believe they serve only to strengthen Southern Hemisphere rugby both psychologically and financially, have felt ever more vindicated.

One very strong case made for the importance of Lions tours was made by James Robson, the naturalised Dundonian team doctor who was confirmed as going on his sixth successive trip and so will, along with Irvine, be among the very few Scots involved.

He made the point that the Lions platform was vital four years ago in getting his message across about the urgent need to re-evaluate player welfare when encountering what he described as his darkest hour such was the casualty rate in South Africa.

"I thought we'd got to a point where we couldn't go any further with injury and illness," he said of the debate he sparked, leading to the International Rugby Board becoming much more actively engaged in the issue to considerable effect.

That said, while Lions' supporters always defend their existence on the basis of an unquantifiable contribution to the spirit of the game, Robson also pointed out, in typically light-hearted fashion, that the effect of being part of the set-up is not always entirely wholesome.

He recalled his return to his surgery in 1993 after his first Lions tour and – name duly changed in line with the Hippocratic oath – welcomed in his first patient and asked her what was wrong, only to be told she was fine but had merely come in to see how he had got on in New Zealand.

"It is a measure of how conditioned you can become to a culture over a period of weeks that I replied 'Oh for ****'s sake Mrs Smith!' before realising what I had said," he explained.

"Thankfully she accepted my apology, but whenever she has come in since she always asks me not to swear."

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