Warren Gatland has revealed that Andy Farrell – his key lieutenant on the two previous British & Irish Lions tours – could still be added to the coaching staff for this summer’s trip to South Africa.
Gatland named Steve Tandy and Robin McBryde – alongside Gregor Townsend and Neil Jenkins – on his coaching staff this past week after Farrell, Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree all made themselves unavailable. In Farrell’s case, ultimately he felt the need to stick with Ireland for their scheduled tour of the Pacific Islands and could not commit to a third Lions tour.
There is considerable doubt over whether Ireland’s tour will take place, however, and with Gatland considering adding one more assistant to his staff at a later date, he admitted Farrell remains a possibility. This coming week the revised Lions itinerary is due to be confirmed, with Gatland revealing the series is set to stick with the three-Test schedule. The Lions are likely to begin the eight-match tour on the Highveld before heading to Cape Town for the first Test, with the South African government still hopeful crowds of up to 50% capacity will be permitted. The Lions would then return to Johannesburg to play the final two Tests.
In a demonstration of just how important Farrell remains, when Gatland requested that his assistants each pick their 36-man squads before their first selection meeting last week, he also asked the Ireland head coach to do so.
In the past Farrell’s remit has been defence – an area now covered by Tandy – but his experience would be invaluable against the Springboks. When asked if Farrell may yet play a role in South Africa, Gatland said: “Yeah it’s possible, it’s why we’ve left one of the spots open. Whoever it is, do we feel like we need someone else to come in, is it at the start of the tour, during the tour, before the Test matches take place? I haven’t been specific about a role but it’s something I want to have the possibility of being able to do if we feel there’s a need for it.”
Meanwhile, Gatland has revealed discussions are continuing over ensuring all members of the Lions playing squad and staff are vaccinated before travelling to South Africa. The UK government’s target is for all adults to have been offered their first jab by the end of July, while the vaccination programme in Ireland is much further behind and the Lions are due to fly to South Africa on 27 June. Gatland does not want to be seen asking for “special treatment” but hopes to have everyone inoculated in the UK, including the Ireland players, before departure.
“We’re working towards that if we can,” he added. “We know there are challenges. We’ve got to be conscious not to be seen getting special treatment but these are special times and circumstances and I’d like to think people see what we’re doing is important for the Lions but also from a safety perspective as well.”
The Lions are set to resume negotiations with the Premiership clubs this coming week over the early release of players based in England once their seasons have finished. Without an agreement, those players face missing the key warm-up camp in Jersey as well as the Test against Japan in Edinburgh on 26 June. The Lions paid the clubs about £70,000 a player in 2017 and in that instance those selected were allowed to join camps in Wales and Ireland once their domestic campaigns had finished.
With full crowds in South Africa nigh-on impossible, however, Gatland has admitted the Lions are likely to make a loss from this tour and believes the Premiership clubs should acknowledge that. “I don’t know why everything has to come down to dollar signs,” he said. “The Lions have been brilliant at compensating clubs in the past and I know that’s the plan again. The [clubs] get a significant fee for their [players’] release. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for players to come in once they’ve finished with their club side. I don’t know why there has to be an extra payment for that.”