When Waren Gatland leads the 2013 British & Irish Lions to Hong Kong for their tour opener against the Barbarians he will have the only other Kiwi to coach the Lions, Graham Henry, backing him to return a winner.
World Cup winning coach Henry was in charge of Wales in 2001 when he was handed the Lions top job. His side won the first Test against the Wallabies, but lost the next two to become the first Lions team in more than 100 years to lose a series in Australia.
But, 12 years on, Henry believes the Lions have appointed the right man to help them secure a first series triumph since 1997. The game against the Baa-Baas at the Hong Kong Stadium on Saturday, 1 June is the springboard to the three test series in Australia that follows.
“I came to the UK to coach Wales and was still very inexperienced as an international coach. When I was Lions coach I had 20-odd Test matches behind me, but Warren has more than four times that and is much more experienced than I was at the time,” admitted Henry.
“He’s coached for a long time in Britain and Ireland – with the Irish national team, club rugby with Wasps, where he was very successful, and with Wales. He knows the British and Irish scene exceptionally well and that’s a huge advantage.
“He’s also been very successful as a national coach with two Grand Slams for Wales, which is a huge achievement.”
Gatland was appointed head Coach in September, after overcoming injuries sustained in a fall at his holiday home in New Zealand, and took up his job full-time in December. He will watch every Home Nation during the 6 Nations tournament and will be fully focussed on the Lions through to July.
Contrast that with Henry 12 years ago, who stepped into the Lions role a few weeks before the tour began because of his job in Wales.
“To coach Wales and the Lions at the same time was a bad decision – there was too much to do. It was a step too far and I didn’t do as well as I should have,” added Henry.
“The Lions is very special. They’ve had some very good sides and the team that came to New Zealand in 1959 was outstanding. They didn’t win the series but they were as good a side as I’ve seen.
“Then when Barry John and Gareth Edwards came on the next tour with Carwyn James as coach in 1971, they won the series and changed the way the game was played in New Zealand. They were special times and teams I grew up with.
“It also brings a lot to the country they are touring. The Lions is a special brand and the support is remarkable.
“The Lions only come once every 12 years and it’s special not just for the thousands following but for the country hosting as well. For example, in 2005 even though the Lions lost the series 3-0 the fans went away happy because they had enjoyed the tour, the social side of it and the company of New Zealanders so much.”