Warren Gatland insists he has assembled the best available British and Irish Lions coaching team after it was confirmed there would be no English assistants travelling to South Africa.
Scotland boss Gregor Townsend will mastermind the attack and his international colleague Steve Tandy will oversee the defence, both of them profiting from a strong Six Nations notable for impressive away wins over England and France.
Completing the trio of Lions coaching debutants is the appointment of Leinster’s Robin McBryde to take charge of the forwards, while Neil Jenkins of Wales returns for his fourth tour as kicking coach.
Gatland had planned to take Andy Farrell, Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree to South Africa, but all three were forced to withdraw.
It means there is no English representation on the coaching team, while England’s worst Six Nations performance on record has also seen Jones’ lieutenants John Mitchell, Matt Proudfoot and Simon Amor overlooked.
Not about that
“It’s nothing to do with ‘do I feel like I need an English coach?’, it’s about me picking who I think are going to be the best fit for myself,” Gatland said.
“It is people who I want to work with, people I’ve worked with in the past and people I think will work well as a group.
“No one made an issue of it in the past when we haven’t had Scottish coaches. It’s not about that.
“It’s just about trying to pick who you think are the best people to come into your environment, people who I think I can work well with and hopefully put a good team together.”
Gatland confirmed that his preference for the three-Test series against South Africa was for Ireland head coach Farrell to run the defence, Borthwick of Leicester to prepare the forwards and Munster’s Rowntree to take charge of the scrum.
But by late last week, it became clear that Gatland would have to activate his contingency plan.
“There’s no doubt that it’s been eventful. I’ve known for a long time that Andy Farrell wasn’t potentially going to be available to us,” said Gatland in reference to Ireland’s summer tour.
“I had spoken to Gregor a number of weeks ago about Steve Tandy as a possibility and he was very complimentary about him.
“We’ve felt their defence has probably been the best in the Championship last year and this year.
“That for me was a relatively easy one, already knowing that Andy was unlikely to be available.
“Steve and Graham were different. Steve is an incredibly honourable person and he felt that Leicester is his day job and he needs to be there at the helm.
“With Graham it was a different situation. My philosophy has always been ‘family first’.
“He’d been trying to get his family to come over from Leicester to Limerick for the last couple of years.
“They’d finally moved over and he was trying to get them settled in. He just felt that being away for eight weeks, possibly 10 weeks with quarantine as well, was too much.”
🗣️ "It has been pretty whirlwind, and I am blown away by it."
🦁 Steve Tandy on the moment he got a Lions coaching job. https://t.co/oRBtiULSax
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) April 13, 2021
Gatland, who is considering adding another coach at a later date, insists the Lions will benefit from “new voices and a fresh perspective”.
“I am very pleased to have assembled such a high-quality coaching team,” Gatland said.
“A Lions tour is a unique challenge so it’s important to have some continuity in the coaching group, but it’s also important to have new voices and a fresh perspective.
“The buzz I really got was having the phone call with Robin and Steve Tandy, asking them to come on board.
“Their response was unbelievable, brilliant. Steve said to me ‘Oh my God, I’m shaking at the knees, I’m just so excited’.
“Robin said ‘I don’t know what to do with myself, I’m walking round the apartment’. I thought their response was exactly what I wanted to hear in terms of them coming on board.”