A fan’s candid snap of him getting official photographs taken near Edinburgh Castle on Tuesday night ensured it was the worst kept secret in sport, but Warren Gatland was always the “obvious” choice to lead the 2017 British and Irish Lions.
Already the first person to play against the Lions to coach them, Gatland, the long-time Wales coach and the architect of the 2013 series victory in Australia, will be the first New Zealander to coach the Northern Hemisphere’s most celebrated team against the only other team that approaches their storied history in world rugby, his native country’s All Blacks.
The choice of Edinburgh yesterday to announce his re-appointment was slightly ironic, as in two tours as head coach last time and as an assistant in 2009 he hasn’t started a single Scot in the famous red shirt. The last one, somewhat shamefully, is still prop Tom Smith from the 2001 Tour to Australia.
Irish eyes may also be narrowing at Gatland retaining the post as he controversially dropped their hero Brian O’Driscoll from the last test in 2013, causing a storm of protest and anger in the Emerald Isle which still lingers.
Yet truthfully there was no other candidate with the necessary experience – both coaching within the Northern Hemisphere and with the Lions – who fitted the bill as well as the 52-year-old.
And he stressed that selection for the squad and the team – who play ten matches in just seven weeks – will be entirely on merit, and that includes Scots. Last time just three – Stuart Hogg, Richie Gray and Sean Maitland – made the original tour party, and only Gray played in a test, as a replacement in the dying moments of the finale.
“On the last tour there was a debate about the number of Scots who took part, but what has been pleasing is that we’ve seen a progression in Scottish rugby since then,” said Gatland.
“We have seen the emergence of the Glasgow Warriors, Scotland were unlucky not to make the semi-finals of the World Cup and there’s been a progression in their performances in the 6 Nations.
“I hope that will be reflected by the number of Scots on the tour in increased numbers. You want an accurate reflection of the four nations represented with guys who deserve to be on the plane, and there are a number of Scottish players who are going to put their hand up and be in contention.”
But there are no guarantees for respective nations, players or even who is finally named as captain, he stressed.
“People know me as honest and straight up,” he said. “The team will be picked on merit. I won’t curry favour with anyone, I’ll pick the best players, and if that’s 25 Englishmen and two Welshmen, that’ll be the squad. I won’t hestitate to drop a tour captain if I think another player can do a better job.
“There’s always debate and contentious selection, and there’s always going to be 50-50 calls. I think we got a pretty good balance in 2009 and 2013.
“At the moment you’re picking it would probably be lots of English players, but if they have an average autumn and a poor 6 Nations that would change around. There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before we pick the squad.”
Previous experience of Lions Tours would probably tip the balance at marginal calls, he added. But he has an open mind and hasn’t spoken to anyone yet about his backroom team, which will be named in December.
“We’ll want continuity so we can hit the ground running, but we want fresh faces for new ideas as well,” he said.
Gatland said Gregor Townsend, who will be the new Scotland head coach when the Lions Tour, could not be involved if he was taking his new charges to a three-way test tournament in Australia at the same time, and he wasn’t sure of current head coach Vern Cotter’s plans once his contract at Murrayfield was up.
Taking the Lions to New Zealand, or “taking the biggest job in rugby to play against the best team in rugby” was a huge honour he couldn’t turn down, and he added, at a time when the very concept of the Lions is once again being questioned again, it was paramount that the famous touring side from the four nations should be protected.
“At the end of this tour SANZAR and the Lions get together to discuss a new deal and I believe all the stakeholders, from the hosts, to the four nations and the clubs get together and work out what is the best preparation for the Lions,” he said.
“The Lions is different to any other team, they engage a lot more with the communities,there’s far more open training sessions and we’re a lot more accessible; touring teams don’t do that anymore but we see that as an important part of what the Lions stands for.
“That’s something special about the Lions and we need to protect that as much as possible. We believe that 30,000 supporters are going to New Zealand, 80 per cent of the tour packages already are sold, that speaks for itself.
“I wouldn’t be doing this job if I thought it was mission impossible. You look at the players out there, what we have in terms of quality; genuine pace, great footwork, experience, size, physicality and belief and confidence as well.
“It’s a huge challenge but that’s what attracts us.”