Edinburgh, Scotland: Warren Gatland risked incurring the wrath of Australia more than six months out from the British and Irish Lions tour by claiming the Wallabies are the ideal opponents for his team to end their 16-year wait for a series win.
“It’s maybe the easiest [opponent] from a Lions perspective,” the head coach said on Wednesday, when comparing Australia to fellow southern hemisphere powers New Zealand and South Africa. “In the past there are teams that have had some success against the Australian sides.”
Gatland’s comments, which are sure to fire up the Australians even at this early stage, are backed up by the rankings with Australia the lowest of the three teams at No. 3.
Australia were thrashed 33-6 by France last month and only scraped past England, Italy and Wales in their other three end-of-year internationals.
“Going to one of the top-three teams in the world, playing away from home and being successful is incredibly challenging,” Gatland said. “But if you’d said to me, out of the three southern hemisphere teams, pick your choice of where you’d like to go, I would’ve said Australia, probably.”
Gatland is the second straight Lions coach from New Zealand to tour Australia, after Graham Henry in 2001. The team lost that series 2-1 and were beaten by New Zealand (3-0) in 2005 and South Africa (2-1) in 2009, leading some to question the value of the touring institution that began in 1888.
“The Lions, as a brand, to be successful, it’s got to win some tours,” Gatland said.
Lions squads always generate plenty of discussion, with the playing group set to be announced after the 2013 Six Nations. However, Gatland has already made a controversial call by snubbing longtime No. 2 Shaun Edwards and choosing Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Rob Howley in his coaching team for the tour.
Rowntree, England’s forwards coach, and Howley, the attack coach with Wales, were retained from the backroom staff that toured South Africa in 2009.
Edwards, though, was overlooked for the role of defence coach in favour of the highly-rated Farrell, who is also part of England’s coaching team and will be on his first Lions tour as a player or coach.
“It was a difficult decision to make ... he’s a world-class coach,” Gatland said of Edwards. “But it was about keeping continuity and also making sure fresh faces came in.”
Edwards and Gatland have enjoyed considerable success together for the past decade, linking up first for a trophy-laden spell with London Wasps in the English Premiership from 2002-05. Edwards has worked under Gatland for Wales since 2008, during which time the team have won two Grand Slams in the Six Nations.
It will have been a difficult decision for Gatland to break up one of the northern hemisphere’s top coaching partnerships, but he has been impressed with Farrell’s recent work with Saracens and then England.
“To be honest, picking Andy is a bit of a selfish appointment,” Gatland said. “It gives me the chance to work with someone with fresh ideas who I haven’t worked with before. It will enable me to develop and look at the game differently as well.”
“I am delighted with today’s appointments,” Gatland added, “and confident that Rob, Graham, Andy and myself can come together quickly to face one of the hardest rugby challenges. Lions tours are unique as we have to mould together players from four countries in an incredibly short space of time.”
Edwards will, instead, be part of the Wales coaching staff that will tour Japan next summer, Wales announced later on Wednesday.
The Lions’ four-man coaching team have already begun choosing hypothetical squads, with Rowntree acknowledging on Wednesday that it took more than an hour to select the back-row positions alone.
The Lions tour begins on June 1, when the representative side from the four home unions plays the Barbarians in Hong Kong. The first of three Tests against Australia will take place in Brisbane on June 22.