British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland sat down with the media on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming tour of South Africa.
Three weeks before naming his final squad of 36 players, Gatland unveiled his assistant coaches for the trip.
Ex-Ospreys head coach and now Scotland assistant coach Steve Tandy has been put in charge of the defence, his boss Gregor Townsend is the attack guru, with Robin McBryde looking after the forwards.
Neil Jenkins was installed as kicking coach as preparations for the tour ramp up.
Here's what head coach Gatland had to say...
Question: Warren, can you talk to us about the coaching team you've put together and why you think they're a good blend for the tour?
Warren Gatland: There’s no doubt that it’s been a mental week.
I’ve known for a long time that Andy Farrell wasn’t going to be available to us and we’ve been talking for a number of weeks. That wasn’t the decision last week.
I had spoken to Gregor [Towsend] a number of weeks ago about Steve Tandy as a possibility. He was very complimentary about him and the job he’s done with Scotland in the last couple of years. Their defence has probably been the best in the championship last year and this year.
That, for me, was a relatively easy one in terms of knowing that it was unlikely Andy was going to be available.
Then the situations with Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree were different.
Steve just felt - and he’s an incredibly honourable person - his obligations were with Leicester with changes happening. It’s different for club coaches compared to international coaches in terms of the time frames. He felt it was his day job and that he needed to be there at the helm for Leicester with things going on in the off-season.
With Graham, it was a different situation. My philosophy has always been about family first. He’d been trying to convince his family to come over to Limerick from Leicester for the last couple of years and he’s finally got them over. He’s trying to get them settled in with the challenges of Covid. He just felt that being away for eight weeks, possibly 10 if there is quarantine, was too much. He just said 'I need to be there for my family'.
I understand that.
I’ve always spoken about trying to keep some continuity but get some new faces as well.
So we’ve got Gregor coming on board and then some familiarity with Robin McBryde. He's someone I know incredibly well and trust. He knows me and how I work. Robin has done a really good job at Leinster after leaving Wales. That was an easy fit.
The buzz I really got was having the phone call with Robin and Steve Tandy asking them to come on board. Their responses were unbelievable.
Steve said ‘oh my God, I’m shaking at the knees, I’m just so excited’.
Robin didn’t know what to do with himself, just walking around his apartment. It was exactly what I wanted to hear.
I’m delighted with the team we’ve got. We may get someone else in a little later on. That could be before the tour or during the tour. I’m waiting to see the international schedules for our teams - are they going on tour? Are they playing at home? Who are they playing against?
I think that’s going to be finalised before the end of the month.
We may look to add someone else to the coaching group. We’ll be flexible on that.
Q: There are no England coaches - is that a reflection of how they performed in the Six Nations?
WG: People are trying to make a story out of that. It's nothing to do with 'do I feel like I've got to have an English coach?'
It's about me picking who I think are going to be the best fit for myself, people who I want to work with or people I've worked with in the past and people I think will work well as a group.
It's nothing about... no one made an issue of it in the past when we haven't had Scottish coaches, it's not about that. It's just about trying to pick who you think are the best people to come into your environment, who I think I can work well with and hopefully put a good team together.
Q: With the complications caused by the pandemic, how different will this be to previous Lions tours?
WG: I think it’s a moving feast. One of the big things we’ve spoken about, and that I’m conscious about, is that it’s ‘players first’ and what sort of things we can do when we are in our bubble.
How do we keep them entertained? Mental well-being as much as anything is really important and it’s going to be a challenge.
I’ve spoken to the coaches about the things that they’ve done in the Six Nations to keep the players entertained and lots of ideas are coming to us at the moment.
Teams had card nights, games nights, pool games, golf simulations, they did a lot of different things to try to keep some sense of normality and to alleviate some of the issues of boredom. So it’s going to be a challenge but hopefully we’ll get that right.
Q: What's the latest medical advice regarding the South African variants, there's talk that the vaccines aren't as good against them?
WG: You are talking to the wrong person with medical stuff! I will leave it to the medical team. I have not heard anything about the vaccination in terms of the South African variant.
We are going to have to make sure that we’re definitely putting things in place in terms of the protocols and the bubble that we are in.
We are hoping that before we go on tour there is a possibility that everyone in the touring party is vaccinated and we are working towards potentially getting that in place. We feel that will be important.
The health of the players in the squad is obviously at the forefront of our minds. We have a good medical team who is putting all those plans in place.
Like everyone else, I will be doing my bit to make sure we have a safe and secure environment.
Q: Warren, you didn't pick many Scots on your last two tours - no excuses this time?
WG: Well… I don’t know if you’re talking about an excuse. I don’t care where you come from, I want to pick the best players.
There will definitely be more Scots this time because they have fronted up this year in the Six Nations. Winning away in Paris and at Twickenham is significant because when you are playing for the Lions you are not playing at home.
Four years ago what was probably damaging to the Scottish players and the Scottish team is that you go down to Twickenham and you get 50 points put on you. That’s not a good look.
I think they have had a great tournament. In the past 12 months, a number of players have put their hands up.
It is not about having excuses. It is about picking a squad of players who you think can perform in a Lions jersey away from home on the biggest stage against the world champions.
There’s no doubt that there are a number of Scottish players who have definitely impressed us in this campaign.
Q: Did Alun Wyn Jones prove to you in the Six Nations that he still has more in the tank and that he's a contender to be captain?
WG: He is probably one of the guys that we would be looking at in terms of captain material. I think it does help coming from a team that has done reasonably well in the Six Nations. It does help.
There’s also a process to go through. Whoever is captain, you need to make sure you have that conversation with them to say that you might be captain on tour but there is no guarantee that you are going to play in the Test matches. You still have to perform well and play well.
If you are a player on tour and you are in the same position as the captain then you are probably thinking that if you know the conversation has been had that it is important that the captain plays well enough to be selected and if I play better than him in the same position then I have a chance.
That’s important for me to have that conversation. There’s no doubt that he would be one of the guys that we would be potentially looking at.
As we get a bit closer to naming the squad, I will start thinking more seriously about who might be the captain and what sort of fit that is in the Lions team - the right person, the right personality to lead the Lions tour too.
Q: England finished fifth and the core of their squad are Saracens boys who don't have any big matches now to prove their worth - will you allow yourself to pick on reputation or must you see guys playing well?
WG: It’s a little bit of both. There’s no doubt that some of those players didn’t have the greatest Six Nations this year, but a lot of them have credit from past successes – whether it’s winning in Europe, winning the Six Nations, performing well at World Cups or on previous Lions tours as well.
It’s probably not like it was 12 months ago where some of them would have been the first names on the sheet. Now you’re having a discussion about them and it’s a good discussion to have, in terms of knowing what they can do and what they’ve done in the past.
There’s nothing wrong with having a discussion about those English players.
There’s also… I’ve got to be conscious of the fact that we still don’t know what the situation is with PRL.
It’s not just the English players – looking at the [possible] squad there could be 16-20 English-based players.
There’s so much competition at the moment, so we’re trying to get a resolution on what PRL’s stance is on the release of players.
We understand about the Premiership final and players in that, but we hope to be together for a couple of weeks of preparation leading into the warm-up game against Japan in Edinburgh.
If some of those players are not available for that preparation time, we can only have a small group or we’ve got to call in extra stand-by players to play in that game, then when we are doing our final selection, with the amount of competition, unfortunately some of those players may miss out.
There are some tough calls to make and I’ll be looking at it and thinking, 'is two weeks’ preparation for that game and the tour better than trying to put a squad together at the last minute, to get on the plane and play the following week? Is that going to be a harder challenge than actually picking players who you can work and prepare with?'
So it’s about form and a stance on that situation too.
Q: Does it not drive you insane that you still don't know whether or not you can pick some of these guys?
WG: I fully understand about the Premiership [final] but once players are finished with their clubs… There have been agreements in the past and the Lions have always compensated clubs for the release of players – something they didn’t really have to do because the regulations allow for release on a certain date.
What we are asking for is can they be released a little bit earlier, when they’ve finished their club campaign.
I’m just hoping we can get some resolution and common sense will prevail, so we don’t have to go through the squad and start looking at 50-50 calls on players and thinking, 'well, he’s based in England so unfortunately he’s not going to be available to us'.
We are looking at going to Jersey for a two-week camp so the last thing I’d want is for players to miss out on the tour because of [not being available for] that.
Q: Just to confirm you're not just talking about the clubs playing in the Premiership final, are youe talking about not having access to all Premiership clubs?
WG: That's the current situation as I understand at the moment.
All those players. It's not just English players either, you're talking about Welsh players and Scottish players playing there as well. So that's the situation.
I think the Lions are talking to the PRL this week and I'm just hoping we'll get some resolution. It's a big one for us, that when those players are finished with their clubs, they are available to us.
Q: Given the circumstances and the potential for having to quarantine upon return, do you worry that some players might turn you down?
WG: That's a huge possibility. It's something we've already spoken about.
We had our first selection meeting [on Monday]. It's going to be a real challenge for us. One of the things I said to the coaches was to send me a squad of 36 and on that we probably had 20-25 of the same names and then quite a variance in the others, so we had 50-odd names in a potential squad.
So looking at that, plus there are others who are injured at the moment that will get some rugby who we will discuss. It's about contacting those players and saying you are on a list to be considered for the tour.
We fully understand the challenges of being away from your family, being in a bubble and maybe having to quarantine, but we're hoping to get the squad of players, coaches and staff vaccinated beforehand, that would be a real boost for us.
I fully understand if players maybe don't put their hand up to tour, so we want to sound them out before we do finally select the squad.
The last thing I want to do is pick a squad and then have half a dozen players pull out, but I wouldn't hold it against any player and I'd understand their personal situation of being away from home, family and the challenges that's going to bring.
We've got to be flexible and innovative. We've got to make sure the players' welfare is paramount for us to get things right and hopefully have a successful tour.
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Q: Do you think you'll be facing a top Springbok side given the fact they may not have played for 18 months by the time you arrive?
WG: It’s been hard to look at South Africa and watch them. My understanding is that they are hoping to have a couple of warm-up games before they play the Lions.
In the tour agreement, the South African players will potentially play against the Lions in those warm-up games as well.
It has been hard to look at South African rugby. There are a number of players based out of South Africa as well that we’ve been having a bit of a look at.
We’ve been watching Faf de Klerk pretty closely at Sale. It’s going to be a challenge, it’s going to be different.
South Africa were outstanding and got better as the World Cup went on. They’ve gone back - Rassie’s gone back - to their DNA in terms of their physicality.
We’ve got to be mindful of that. Whatever South Africa team we play is going to be tough. Playing against the world champions is incredibly exciting and also a massive challenge.
Q: You said Andy Farrell wasn't available to you - was that his call or was it an IRFU call?
WG: He’s been in discussion with them [IRFU]. We waited as long as we could in terms of what was happening with Ireland.
Having spoken to Andy, the best thing for him was staying with Ireland and working with Ireland, building towards the next World Cup.
Q: What did you make of Wales' turnaround in the Six Nations?
WG: It was a strange Six Nations. There’s no doubt that you need a little bit of luck and some momentum and Wales took the luck with the two red cards.
I thought the Six Nations was brilliant from the perspective that there were five teams who, on their day, were all capable of beating each other.
With the bounce of the ball and a couple of things, Scotland could have been playing for a Grand Slam, Ireland could have been playing for a Grand Slam as well, same situation with France.
It was pleasing from a Wales perspective that they had improved from the autumn. I went and watched them train one day of the Irish week and they looked sharp.
I was lucky enough to see Ireland train before they played England and I thought they were sharp as well.
I was pleased for them [Wales] and pleased that they did well.
But I also thought it was a great Six Nations from a neutral perspective and how close the games were and any team was capable of beating another team.
Q: Can you talk us through your plans for a pre-tour camp and the reason for potentially picking Jersey?
WG: We had an approach from Jersey and we have had confirmation from the government. We are definitely looking to go there.
The gym facility next to the rugby club is outstanding and fits our needs.
Looking at the Covid situation and Jersey being open, we still need to be really, really careful. We will be testing the players on a regular basis and being in our own bubble and understanding we may need to quarantine.
But there is a sense we could almost have some normality in preparing for that first game against Japan before we have to go into a pretty secure bubble when we get to South Africa. That was one of the factors we looked at.
The positivity that we have had from the Jersey people and the government about us potentially going there has been absolutely outstanding.
I can't speak highly enough about how welcoming everyone has been. It's been a real positive.