New Zealander Warren Gatland is to become the second foreigner to take charge of the British & Irish Lions after being named yesterday as head coach for next year’s tour of Australia.
The Wales coach, who was assistant to Ian McGeechan for the 2009 tour of South Africa, was the favorite for the role after leading Wales to the Grand Slam in this year’s Six Nations and the semi-finals of last year’s World Cup.
Gatland is to coach Wales in the autumn Tests against New Zealand and Australia before being seconded to the Lions — a squad made up of players from the home nations — on a full-time basis ahead of a 10-match tour which takes in three Tests.
“I am really honored to have been asked to take the position of head coach,” Gatland said. “I really enjoyed the experience as one of the assistant coaches in 2009 and since then have harbored the ambition to lead the tour to Australia next year.”
“A Lions tour is unique, it is the ultimate career pinnacle for coaches and players. I want to ensure that we get the tour environment right so that we are hugely competitive and that our fans are proud of the team,” he said.
Graham Henry, also of New Zealand, is the only other non-Briton to coach the Lions — in 2001, when the Lions lost the series 2-1 after winning the first Test.
They also lost in New Zealand (3-0) in 2005 and South Africa (2-1) three years ago, meaning they will be bidding next year for a first series win since 1997.
“There is no question it will be one hell of a challenge,” Gatland said. “Playing in the southern hemisphere is one of rugby’s hardest challenges. The Lions came close in South Africa and our ambition is to win the series in 2013 — and I believe we have the players to do that.”
Apart from the three Tests — in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney — the Lions are to play six matches against regional teams and also a tour curtain-raiser against a Barbarians side in Hong Kong.
Gatland’s appointment was one of the worst-kept secrets in rugby and would have been confirmed in April, had he not fractured bones in both heels in a heavy fall while cleaning windows at his beach house in New Zealand. That forced Lions officials into delaying the announcement.
A hooker in his playing career, Gatland actually competed against the Lions in 1993, when the Waikato team he captained beat the touring side 38-10. He played 17 times for New Zealand, but found regular spots for his country blocked by Shaun Fitzpatrick.
He coached Ireland between 1998 and 2001, before being hired by English club London Wasps — where he won the European Cup in a trophy-laden spell. With Wales since 2007, he has won two Six Nations Grand Slams.
Rob Howley is to take charge of Wales in Gatland’s absence.