Warren Gatland’s appointment as Lions head coach for the 2017 tour of New Zealand last Wednesday confirmed one of the worst kept secrets in rugby.
The Welsh national side’s Kiwi coach had been billed as battling it out for the coveted role against Ireland’s Joe Schmidt and Scotland’s Vern Cotter, but realistically, given Gatland’s 2-1 series success with the Lions in Australia in 2013, allied to Wales looking a more complete side than both Ireland and Scotland in the 2016 Six Nations, meant the 52-year-old from Hamilton was always the front runner.
The job is surely something of a poisoned chalice and the bleak reality of having to play this All Black's team on arguably the most grueling Lions schedule of all time surely dawned on Gatland last weekend in Wellington.
— Jamie Phillips (@JNPhillips4) September 10, 2016
To make matter worse, history is clearly not on Gatland's side.
Beating New Zealand a monumental task in itself
Having stopped that rot in 2013, the next target for Gatland is two-fold. Firstly, he must seek to claim a first Test-series victory over New Zealand since 1971.
The Lions have competed in 11 series battles in the Land of the Long White Cloud since 1904, with just that one series victory in ’71 as a positive return - giving them a 9% series win ratio.
If those figures are broken down even more closely, the dominance of the All Blacks becomes even more apparent. Over the course of the series clashes New Zealand have won 29 encounters to a mere six for the Lions.
Back-to-back series wins
The other element that will come alongside beating New Zealand is the privilege of back-to-back series wins. Although it’s not something Gatland will be setting as a target, it would be an honour that would stand out on Gatland’s CV as something special.
The last time it was achieved was way back in 1974, when the Lions overcame South Africa 3-0, following on from their 2-1 victory in New Zealand three years earlier.
You have to go back a very long way indeed for the previous back-to-back overall series wins. In 1899 the Lions won their third series in a row against Australia, having taken series wins over South Africa in 1891 and 1896.
What would make it even more remarkable is that Gatland would be the first Lions coach ever to preside over back-to-back titles. Welshman Carwyn James and Ireland’s Syd Millar guided the ‘71 and ‘74 victories. And from 1891 to 1899 three different Englishmen: Edwin Ash, Roger Walker and Matthew Mullineux were in charge.
All the talk is of how hard Gatland’s task is and all the obstacles he faces: competing against arguably the best side to ever play rugby union (although perhaps the 2011 All Blacks were superior); a fixture list that includes matches against first-strength Super Rugby sides mid-week; marshalling a group of players coming to the end of an incredibly long European season; and Gatland’s dismal record against southern hemisphere sides – one win against Australia and South Africa apiece.
— Mark Eastbrook (@rulingsnout) September 12, 2016
All of that withstanding, Gatland has a knack of upsetting odds, most notably with the Lions in Australia in 2013, but also with Wasps in the Premiership (victorious from 2003-2005) and in the Heineken Cup in 2004.
The coach’s decision to step down from his Wales role between now and the tour is another positive for the setup, and if the horrendous list of Lions statistics in New Zealand is to be altered next summer, that is the first big decision that Gatland needed to make and has got right.