Warren Gatland has revealed his Lions squad might only accommodate 35 players for next year’s tour to South Africa, down from 41 original picks for New Zealand in 2017 and 37 for Australia in 2013, while he also hopes to have the identity of his assistant coaches – a posse potentially headed by Andy Farrell – clarified by the end of November. 

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The lack of travel across multiple times zones to get to South Africa, allied with the Lions not having a midweek match leading into the first Test next July, were the reasons why Gatland said his squad number would be reduced, adding that the forwards/backs split could potentially be 20/15. 

Gatland’s original 41-strong squad in 2017, which consisted of 16 players from England, twelve from Wales, eleven from Ireland and two from Scotland, was made up of 22 forwards and 19 backs. 

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Lions coach Warren Gatland guests on All Access, the RugbyPass interview series

In 2013, when Gatland first took charge of the tour after being an assistant in 2009, the 37-strong squad had a 21/16 forwards/backs split and consisted of 15 players from Wales, ten from England, nine from Ireland and three from Scotland.

“The squad size, we’re probably looking at 35, 36 players and maybe a 20/15 split or 20/16. In doing that we will probably name a standby squad,” said Gatland, who created controversy in 2017 by temporarily bringing six additional players into the squad the week of the first Test against the All Blacks to help with the midweek game against the Chiefs.

We don’t have a game before the first Test… so that makes it a heck of a lot easier for your preparation going into that first Test week. It does put a bit more pressure on you in those five lead-up games before the first Test in terms of your numbers, but you pick a squad of 35, 36, those players can engage fully right to the end of the tour.

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“If you’re not in the 23 you’re only a performance or an injury away from getting selected or being in the squad. We have looked at that and being able to reduce the size of the squad is a lot easier compared to Australia or New Zealand. Bringing players over (due to injury), they can acclimatise a hell of a lot quicker. That is where our thinking is at the moment, but nothing is set in stone.”

Gatland was assisted on the 2017 Lions by Graham Rowntree, Steve Borthwick, Farrell, Rob Howley, and Neil Jenkins, and he had the same staff in 2013 except for Borthwick. Looking ahead to 2021, he said he wants some level of continuity but is also open to having some fresh voices onboard. 

“When picking your coaching team the thing I found most important from a Lions perspective was because you have that limited preparation time, because you’re bringing a new group of players together and you’re trying to do things as quickly as you possibly can, having that continuity with people that have been there before, whether that is from a coaching perspective, strength and conditioning, medical, analysis, that makes a huge difference – but you want some new faces as well. That is important and we have done that on previous tours. 

“I have got a huge amount of regard for Andy and his leadership, what he brings to the game, what he brings to a team. He understands winning, understands winning environments and he’s very smart. He’s definitely one of those guys you’re looking at from a continuity point of view perspective,” continued Gatland about the chances of the Lions having Farrell at their disposal again.

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“I have spoken to all the four CEOs and directors of rugby as well in terms of the potential availability of coaches and hopefully in the next three, four weeks we will be able to put a list of those people together, agree on terms with them and be able to get that out there. 

“He [Farrell] is definitely one of the ones who has been on two tours, been incredibly successful, great role for him now as the head coach and Ireland have to make a decision about if they were prepared to release him (for the Lions). 

“I see massive benefits in someone going on a Lions tour on what they learn from the other players, the team that they are playing against. It’s a great experience, it’s incredibly tough, but that is up to the individual unions about whether they are prepared to release him. We have had those conversations already and we’re just waiting to finalise over the next few weeks the availability of some people.”

Farrell recently claimed he had no contact with the Lions regarding 2021, but he didn’t rule out being open to an approach even though it would clash with an Ireland tour elsewhere. Gatland, meanwhile, mentioned without any great conviction that he had been in touch with Leinster’s Stuart Lancaster and Exeter double winner Rob Baxter, but he was far more enthusiastic about Scotland boss Gregor Townsend, who turned him down in 2017.

“He initially said yes and then he became unavailable. I like what Gregor does… I like the way Gregor coaches and the job he did with Glasgow and with Scotland. He is definitely not out of contention to be part of the Lions tour.

“I spoke to Stuart a long time ago,” added Gatland. “I’d an email from Rob (Baxter) but that was more to do with talking to Rob Hunter about what I was looking for from a forwards perspective in terms of the Exeter players for the future. I haven’t had any personal conversations with him about the Lions.”

– Warren Gatland was speaking on behalf of Canterbury at the launch of the British and Irish Lions Pro jersey,  available at Canterbury.com

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