Rugby: Gatland confirmed as Lions coach

Warren Gatland. Photo / Dean Purcell
Warren Gatland. Photo / Dean Purcell

Warren Gatland became the second foreigner to be selected as coach of the British & Irish Lions on Tuesday, with the New Zealander calling his appointment for the series against Australia "the ultimate honour."

Gatland was an assistant to Ian McGeechan for the 2009 tour of South Africa, making him the heavy favorite for the role after leading Wales to the Grand Slam in this year's Six Nations and the semifinals of World Cup in 2011.

Gatland will 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 that features three tests.

"For a player, it is the pinnacle of their career. It is the same for the coaches involved," Gatland said. "It is the pinnacle of anyone's coaching career. To be given this opportunity is a huge privilege."

Graham Henry, also a New Zealander, is the only other non-Briton to coach the Lions - in 2001 when the Lions lost the series 2-1 to Australia 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," said Gatland, who is expected to confirm his full coaching team in October. "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 will play six matches against regional teams and also a tour curtain-raiser against an invitational Barbarians side in Hong Kong on June 1.

Lions tours are big business off the pitch but the team's poor results on it since 2001 have led some to question whether they still deserve a spot in rugby's already-crowded calendar.

However, most northern-hemisphere players consider playing for the Lions as big as competing for their countries at World Cups and the prospect of bringing together the stars of Welsh, English, Irish and Scottish together in one team never fails to excite rugby fans.

"When they put their Lions jersey on, they can see it's another step up," Gatland said. "There is definitely history that goes with the Lions, and it's important we go and be successful."

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 after falling heavily while cleaning windows at his beach house in New Zealand. That forced Lions officials to delay the announcement.

A hooker in his playing career, Gatland competed against the Lions in 1993, when the Waikato team he captained beat the touring side 38-10.

"We were bouncing off the walls," Gatland recalled. "We were playing against the traditions of the British and Irish Lions."

He played 17 matches for New Zealand but not a single test, with a regular starting spot for his country being blocked by Sean Fitzpatrick. As a coach, he has enjoyed more success, leading Ireland between 1998-2001 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 Grand Slams in the Six Nations.

"It has been no secret that after the initial selection process, Warren was our preferred candidate," Lions tour manager Andy Irvine said.

In Gatland's absence, Rob Howley will take charge of Wales for its last two autumn tests and for the 2013 Six Nations. By that time, Gatland will be in full Lions mode, checking out players for the squad.

"Particularly during the Six Nations, I need to show people the impartiality I'm going to bring to this role," Gatland said.

Nevertheless, with Wales the standout team in the northern hemisphere at present, it will be a major surprise if the Welsh aren't the best-represented nation in the squad.

Wales captain Sam Warburton is the early favorite to take the armband, too.

- AP

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