Why Warren Gatland's decision to hire Rob Howley could come back to haunt the British and Irish Lions on next summer's tour to New Zealand

 
Bob Baker
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2017 British & Irish Lions Coaching Team Announcement
Gatland (far left) picked Howley (second left) alongside Farrell and Borthwick only after Gregor Townsend turned down a role (Source: Getty)

The British and Irish Lions coaching set-up was finalised last week with the trio of Rob Howley, Steve Borthwick and Andy Farrell appointed to assist Warren Gatland on next summer’s tour to New Zealand and there must have been an interesting conversation between Gatland and Howley, given that the latter was only recruited as “option B” after Gregor Townsend had politely declined the role.

Borthwick is a well-known line-out guru and Farrell has recorded notable success with Ireland, who enter 2017 as arguably the team of the northern hemisphere.

It is commendable that Gatland endeavoured to include a member of the coaching staff from each nation, but his choice of turning to Howley, one of his old Wales assistants, after being spurned by Glasgow’s Townsend could yet be the Lions’ undoing.

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Shaun Edwards has remarked on a fundamental shift in rugby, with matches now determined by the strongest attack rather than the least permeable defence.

By this logic, it would seem that Howley has been handed the pivotal role on tour, and with Wales recently exhibiting a lacklustre attack, scoring only five tries in total against Australia, South Africa and Argentina – England scored 10, the rationale remains cloudy.

England compared

England v Australia - Old Mutual Wealth Series
Owen Farrell: Verbal sparring unlikely to challenge the Tindall-Greenwood axis (Source: Getty)

Eddie Jones’s England squad, currently on a 14-match winning run, has justifiably been compared to 2003 World Cup winner Sir Clive Woodward’s side in recent weeks.

Up front, there would be little to choose: Dylan Hartley brings Phil Vickery’s gnarl, Mako Vunipola – although not as accomplished a scrummager as Trevor Woodman – has a greater impact in the loose, and Dan Cole brings some extra mobility to the more favourable Graham Rowntree-Dorian West-Jason Leonard attributes.

Current locks Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury have more stardust, but are not necessarily more effective than Ben Kay and the indomitable Martin Johnson.

In the back row, Sir Clive’s men would surely have the upper hand given the combination of complementary capabilities. Billy Vunipola would be the only current squad member to come close, but for changing room presence it is hard to look beyond Lawrence Dallaglio.

Ben Youngs has come into a rich vein of form, but is he better than Matt Dawson? George Ford is playing with great maturity but he is not yet Jonny Wilkinson, and the Mike Tindall-Will Greenwood midfield combination would have the wisdom to mitigate their shortcomings in terms of pace, and the chirpiness to out-sledge Owen Farrell, who appears devoid of international standard wit.

Marland Yarde and Mike Brown would not rival Josh Lewsey, Jason Robinson and Ben Cohen in the back three, although the exceptional Jonny May could well take Cohen’s spot.

Read more: Jason Robinson: England remind me of class of 2003

The two sides are not completely comparable as their standout players are quite different in nature, yet it would not be misplaced to believe that this squad have the potential to achieve the same feats, and perhaps more.

Youth is on their side and a core of this team will persist far past the 2019 World Cup. The English junior system has borne considerable fruit in recent years and its graduates will push the incumbents or supersede them.

More of the World Cup winners would get into today’s team than vice-versa, but suppose we could bring in Neil Back to answer to England’s issue at open-side and stick Robinson in the full-back jersey, then this could be the best England side in history.

Shame fantasy is just that.

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