Warren Gatland says he’ll be looking at more than just on-field attributes when picking his Lions squad next spring.
The man chosen to lead the Lions in 2013 intends to take a party of around 35 players on the 10-match tour of Hong Kong and Australia as Britain and Ireland’s elite go in search of a first series success since 1997.
And while he appreciates the fact that the Test series will be won or lost in 240 minutes of rugby in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney on June 22, 29 and July 6, Gatland knows perfectly well that a successful tour requires men who truly buy into the unique ethos of the Lions.
The 48-year-old played against the tourists in his native New Zealand in 1993 before travelling to South Africa with the Lions three years ago and he insists discipline and a one-for-all, all-for-one attitude will play a crucial role in ensuring it’s the Lions, not the Wallabies, who are celebrating in the summer.
“Those are massively important things,” said Gatland.
“Our conduct, particularly off the field, will be very important. We’re well aware of what happened in the World Cup and the issues that arose from that. It’s important that we address that and try not to get ourselves into any trouble.
“There’s two things, really: one thing is discipline off the field and the other is about the type of personality and character you pick in the squad. Players have got be aware of that.
“Players often come from a country where they’re number one to a Lions set up where they could be number two or three in their position. It’s about how they handle that that disappointment or the challenge that brings.
“So you’re looking for people with personalities that can fit into a team environment. You expect people to be disappointed if they miss out on (Test) selection but it’s how they handle it and add to the group. Geech (Sir Ian McGeechan) often spoke of Jason Leonard and they way he did that.
“My philosophy is to look for guys that are tough, are selected on form, but are good buggers as well.
“What I mean by good buggers is guys who take can disappointment, add to our environment and enhance the team ethos and culture.”
Warren Gatland knows the kind of people he wants to take to Australia
Whatever the personalities of the players he chooses to take on tour, Gatland insists age won’t enter into the equation.
Gatland hasn’t been afraid to hand youth a chance during his time coaching Wales but he also won’t rule out placing his faith in players at the other end of the scale.
Simon Shaw was 35 when he produced a superb performance in the second Test against the Springboks three years ago and Gatland sees no reason why players of a similar age shouldn’t make an equally impressive impact this time around.
“Age will be a barrier to selection – if you’re over 50 you haven’t got much of a chance!” joked Gatland.
“No, it won’t be really. If you’re good enough, you’re not too young, and if you’re 35, 36 or 38 and playing well enough, then you’ll get selected.
“The thing with the Lions is that you can potentially pick an older player to take on tour for three or four games. They might not have to train a lot. You might be able to take an older player who might struggle to get through a whole club season or even struggle through an international campaign.
“There may be one, there may be two – I haven’t got anyone in mind at the moment but it’s just being aware that age won’t be a barrier.”
Whether he opts for old or young or more than likely picks a mix of both, selection certainly won’t be an easy feat for Gatland and co given the amount of competition for places in 2013.
Picking potential Lions squads is already proving difficult enough for supporters up and down the country and Gatland admits it’s a daunting but ultimately exciting proposition.
“I’m really excited about it. There’s a huge amount of depth. There are a lot of players from 2009 who are still playing and some really talented youngsters who have come through.
“The quality of loose forwards out there is just outstanding. It’s not going to be who you pick – it’s going to be who you leave out that’s going to be the real talking point.
“I’m looking forward to some of those battles in the Six Nations because they’re going to be an absolute dog fight. Players are already talking about the Lions so it’s going to be at the back of their minds.
“Wales pushed Australia really close in June and if you now have the chance to pick some of those players and add them to the best of the best from the three other Home Nations, how much stronger is a Lions team potentially going to be? That’s what’s so exciting.”
Once he's picked his squad, Gatland will take a hands on approach on tour
As for his own role in Australia, Gatland intends to be heavily involved with the coaching rather than simply opting for a managerial remit.
Having already spoken of his desire to announce his backroom staff before the start of the autumn internationals, Gatland has made it clear he will be a visible presence on the training park even though he has no intentions of acting like a dictator Down Under.
“I’ve always tried to be hands on. I definitely want to be as hands on as possible on this tour.
“It’s important that I’m on the training field and am taking part, whether that’s with the forwards or with patterns and structure or contact – I think I know a bit about back play as well.
“I also like to empower the other coaches that are involved and give them a lot of responsibility. I think that’s why they like working with me.”