LONDON, May 29 (Reuters) - Such is the crossflow of nationalities in world rugby, it is hardly surprising that a former All Black, Warren Gatland, should be masterminding the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.
After all, the squad itself contains two New Zealand-born players in Ben Te‘o and Jarryd Payne, plus an Irish South African in CJ Stander.
So appointing Gatland, for whom this will be a third successive tour and second as head coach, was the logical choice. Who better than the man who masterminded the 2-1 win over Australia in 2013, their first success for 16 years?
When questioned, the 53-year-old reaches for all the right adjectives in describing the “huge honour” of letting the Lions loose in his own backyard.
“It is a huge challenge to be given what is probably the biggest job in world rugby against the best opposition in world rugby,” he gushed on being appointed this time.
What he didn’t say, but what everyone in New Zealand suspects, is that the tour represents a 10-match audition to be the All Blacks coach following the 2019 World Cup - a final homecoming after a coaching career largely spent in exile.
Ever since stepping up as player-coach for Irish club Galwegians after the 1989 New Zealand tour, Gatland has forged a reputation for coaxing thoroughbred performances from underdog teams like Connacht, Ireland and Wales.
This tour will be no different with the All Blacks an eye-watering 1/5 to win the series. Kiwi sceptics are already looking to trip up Gatland at every opportunity and pointing to his poor record as Wales coach against the big three southern hemisphere teams of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Since taking charge in 2008, his record stands at played 35, won three, lost 32 - with not a single victory against the All Blacks. “Have the Lions got the right coach?” asked one veteran columnist.
Gatland was depicted as an unsmiling clown by one New Zealand paper after once accusing his compatriots of arrogance for booing Australia’s Quade Cooper, behaviour he described as “embarrassing”.
Even New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has suggested that he knows what to expect from a Gatland-coached team: a pack full of bruisers playing low-risk rugby aimed at stifling All Black creativity.
“He’s done most of his coaching up north, got a particular style he likes which works for him up there using big ball carriers up front, big midfielders to carry,” said Hansen. “It tells you what his mindset is, how he wants to play.”
Gatland will steel himself with the belief that all this may reflect a fear that the Lions are capable of winning a first series there since their only victory in 1971 - a tour that left a deep impression on him as an eight-year-old boy.
“I thought New Zealand had invented the sport so, yes, it did have a real impact on me,” he said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph earlier this year.
“I’d be quite happy if we manage to play as the 1971 Lions did with their hard, robust, tough forwards, skilful backs and kickers as well.”
New Zealand are clearly wary of a coach with such an intimate knowledge of their psyche and system.
The word from the Lions is that Gatland has inflicted ferocious training sessions on them as a necessary prequel to warm-up games against full-strength Super Rugby teams.
This will be a tour of big calls and huge collisions, one which Gatland has in many ways been working towards for much longer than the eight months since his appointment.
This is his moment, and New Zealand should not underestimate him - or his players. (Editing by Hugh Lawson)