By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – Warren Gatland says he could take a smaller squad for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa and fly in stop-gap replacements if necessary for what will be the shortest tour in Lions history.
Gatland was confirmed as coach for the third successive tour on Wednesday and though the final details of the itinerary are still to be settled, there will be only eight games, including three tests, compared with 10 in New Zealand in 2017.
The tour is also likely to run from July into August, given the extension of the European domestic seasons, piling pressure on Gatland in terms of preparation.
His policy in New Zealand and the victorious Australian tour four years earlier was to guarantee everyone in the squad at least one start in the first three games. Now he says he might have to take a different approach, beginning the tour with the nucleus of a starting test team already pencilled in.
Asked if the squeezed programme could lead to a smaller squad, the New Zealander said: “Yes, absolutely. “We’ve also discussed the potential of not having a midweek game before the first test. The biggest challenge is trying to prepare for that first test in such a short time.
“If you did pick a smaller squad, you may announce extra players who could come out to cover us for a midweek fixture. We’re having discussions around that sort of thing.”
He said that giving everyone an opportunity to stake their case – a Lions tradition that has seen players force their way into the test side ahead of pre-tour favourites – might not be practical this time.
“We may have to look at that,” he said. “Do you go with a few more pre-conceived ideas about a test team and perhaps pick accordingly? It’s a long way off but those thoughts have been going through my head already.
“One of the hardest things is what you do off the pitch to try to achieve that harmony and make everyone feel a part of it.“
Gatland said he wanted to avoid the approach taken by Clive Woodward for the 2005 tour of New Zealand, when the former England coach effectively split the squad into test and midweek teams.
“That’s probably the easiest solution in some ways but it’s not the pathway we want to take. We want to keep the group pretty tight,” he said.
Without Sam Warburton, who led the last two tours but who has since retired, Gatland said he would choose as captain someone respected by the entire squad and, ideally, from a successful team.
“If I was looking at players today, (Wales lock) Alun Wyn Jones comes to mind, (England flyhalf) Owen Farrell has been incredibly successful,” he said.
“They are the sort of players you would talk about. But two years is a long time and a lot can happen.”
Gatland, who stands down as Wales coach after the World Cup in Japan later this year, says he has unfinished business with South Africa. The Springboks won the 2009 series 2-1 when Gatland was an assistant to coach Ian McGeechan.
“I couldn’t turn my back on this challenge,” he said, having ended the New Zealand tour by saying “I’m done.”
“I know it’ll be tough, it will be a real rugby hotbed. The Lions have always found it quite difficult in South Africa. 2009 was some of the most physical rugby I’ve ever seen and the challenge for me as the head coach is to go undefeated in a test series.”
After sharing the spoils with the All Blacks Gatland said he was not convinced that a similar scenario in two years’ time should be settled by extra time.
“Something pretty special happened after the third drawn test,” he said. “We had the All Blacks and the Lions intermingled and with Sam Warburton and Kieran Read holding the trophy aloft and that’s now one of the most iconic rugby photos of all time.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Jon Boyle)