By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - Warren Gatland has gone for a mix of the tried and tested alongside new blood by appointing Gregor Townsend, Robin McBryde, Steve Tandy and Neil Jenkins as his assistant coaches for this year's British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
Scotland head coach Townsend, who played flyhalf for the Lions in the triumphant 1997 South Africa series, will look after the Lions attack in his first taste of Lions coaching.
Jenkins, the goalkicking hero of that 1997 series, will be on his fourth tour as kicking coach. McBryde, former Wales assistant under Gatland, will oversee the forwards, with Scotland's defence coach Tandy something of a surprise for that role.
"A Lions Tour is a unique challenge, so it’s important to have some continuity in the coaching group," Gatland told journalists on Tuesday.
"Neil understands the exceptional demands that only a Lions Tour can present, and we will benefit from his knowledge and experience. Robin is someone I know and trust really well and someone who knows me and how I work.
"But it's also important to have new voices and a fresh perspective. Gregor is doing an excellent job in charge of Scotland and is an outstanding coach. He also understands the challenges of touring South Africa as a player and what it takes to win there.
"Steve has made Scotland's defence one of the most organised in world rugby – something we saw throughout the recent Six Nations."
Gatland said he got a "real buzz" from the calls giving his new team the good news.
"Their response was unbelievable, brilliant," he said. "Steve said to me 'Oh my God, I'm shaking at the knees, I'm just so excited'. Robin said: 'I don't know what to do with myself'. I thought their response was exactly what I wanted to hear in terms of them coming on board."
With no Scotland player marking a Lions test start since Tom Smith in 2001, the presence of two Scottish coaches in the lineup is a boost for the country who notched up away wins over England and France in this year's Six Nations under Townsend.
"It means more now than it did 24 years ago," the former flyhalf said. "It was such an enjoyable tour and winning a test series is incredible. The friendships created were as memorable as the games on the field.
"As your career comes to an end you realise with each passing year how important the Lions are and how fortunate and lucky I was to be involved on such a good lions tour in South Africa back then."
Ireland coach Andy Farrell, Leicester coach Steve Borthwick and Munster forwards coach Graham Rowntree, all experienced Lions assistants, last week made themselves unavailable for the tour for various reasons.
That, and the continuing uncertainty about the exact format of the tour and the need for the huge party to remain in a COVID-secure bubble, mean even more logistical challenges than usual for Gatland and his team.
"One of the big things we’ve spoken about is that it’s ‘players first’ in that the sort of things we can do when we are in our bubble," Gatland said.
"How do we keep them entertained? Mental well-being as much as anything is really important and it’s going to be a challenge."
The tour is scheduled for July and August, ending with three tests against the world champions, who have not played a game since beating England in the 2019 World Cup final.
The Lions will have a two-week training camp in Jersey before a warm-up match against Japan at Murrayfield on June 26. They then embark on what is scheduled as an eight-match tour, though venues and match details have yet to be confirmed due to the COVID-19 situation in South Africa.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Peter Rutherford and Christian Radnedge)