Gatland relishing challenge of leading the Lions

Warren Gatland believes the British and Irish Lions have the personnel at their disposal to win their tour series with Australia next year.

The New Zealand-born Wales head coach was yesterday confirmed as the man to lead the 
Lions next summer.

They have not won a series since the 1997 vintage reigned supreme in South Africa, when they defeated the world champions.

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Nor have the individual British teams had much success touring the southern hemisphere nations in recent years.

But Gatland, who in just four years has transformed Wales from under-achievers to World Cup semi-finalists and double Grand Slam winners, believes the best players from the four countries of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are capable of beating the Wallabies in their own backyard.

“There is no question it will be one hell of a challenge,” said Gatland, whose Lions will face Australia three times in a 10-match tour that begins against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1.

“Playing in the southern hemisphere is one of rugby’s hardest challenges. The Lions came close in South Africa (in 2009) and our ambition is to win the series in 2013 – and I believe we have the players to do that.”

Gatland will remain as coach of Wales for their autumn Tests against New Zealand and Australia before being seconded full-time to the Lions.

He is expected to confirm his full coaching team in October and it would be a surprise if Graham Rowntree – the forwards coach underneath Stuart Lancaster at England – and Shaun Edwards, his sidekick at Wales, are not involved.

All three were part of the 2009 Lions management in South Africa and received the backing of head coach and current executive chairman at Leeds Carnegie, Sir Ian McGeechan, to carry the torch to Australia.

“I am really honoured to have been asked to take the position of head coach,” said Gatland, 48, who becomes the second New Zealander to lead the Lions to Australia, after Graham Henry in 2001.

“I really enjoyed the experience as one of the assistant coaches in 2009 and since then have harboured the ambition to lead the tour to Australia next year.

“Over the coming months I will give careful consideration to the make-up of my coaching staff and of course the playing squad itself.

“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.”

It was his role within the Lions set-up that toured New Zealand in 2009 that so impressed the tour committee, who have publicly courted the Kiwi since the Six Nations.

Tour manager Andy Irvine said: “It has been no secret that after the initial selection process, Warren was our preferred candidate.

“Importantly he was one of Ian McGeehan’s specialist coaches on the 2009 Lions Tour to South Africa so has an intimate knowledge of the Lions, the challenges they face and the processes that need to be put in place to ensure the squad has every chance of being successful.

“Warren has an outstanding coaching record and he has been fully embedded in rugby in the UK and Ireland since 1989.”

Gatland coached Ireland for three years between 1998 and 2001 before taking charge at Wasps, where he won a hat-trick of Premiership titles and the Heineken Cup.

In 2006, he moved back to New Zealand and coached his native Waikato to the New Zealand provincial title before Wales came calling. Gatland took charge of a Wales side that had just crashed out of the pool stages of the World Cup and he made an immediate impact, guiding them to the first of two Grand Slam titles during his tenure.

The second was this year and it followed hot on the heels of Wales’ best World Cup performance since 1987, when they went agonisingly close to beating France to earn a place in the final.

Rob Howley led Wales on their summer tour of Australia as Gatland recovered after breaking his heels, and will continue in that role through the 2013 Six Nations.

Next year’s tour to Australia will mark the 125th anniversary of Lions tours. “It’s a massive responsibility,” said Gatland.

“It’s a responsibility to the players and coaches that have gone before me and to 125 years of Lions history.

“In 2009 it was a case of coming in and keeping my head down and quickly learning what the Lions meant to the players and the management involved.

“For a player it is the pinnacle of their career. It is the same for the coaches involved.

“This is the highest honour, to be selected as the Lions coach.

“It is the pinnacle of anyone’s coaching career. To be given this opportunity is a huge privilege.

“I have coached in Ireland, in London with Wasps and with Wales. That gives me an understanding of the different cultures and it will be important bringing the four countries together.”