Warren Gatland will add another chapter to his remarkable coaching career when he leads the British & Irish Lions to South Africa in 2021.
*This article originally appeared in Rugby World magazine and was supplied to SA Rugby magazine for the latest issue, which is now on sale.
Warren Gatland was 34 years old when he first coached against the Springboks, an experience that taught him much and still tickles him plenty, despite the severity of what happened back in 1998 when he was in charge of a lowly Ireland against the world champions.
The Kiwi was three Tests and three losses into his reign in Dublin at the time. In South Africa – where he returns next year as British & Irish Lions coach – Ireland had already lost tour games to South Western Districts Eagles, Western Province and Griquas (who beat the tourists 52-13) before the Test series. Two more losses later and Gatland was zero from five internationals. A year later Ireland exited the World Cup at their earliest stage ever. Two years after that, he was sacked.
Yet, Gatland – now in charge of the Chiefs after a lengthy spell at the helm of Wales – is widely regarded as one of the game’s greatest coaches. Given the Lions are heading there in 2021, South Africa seems like a reasonable place to begin the story.
‘Was I ready for international rugby coaching at that point? I wasn’t,’ reflects Gatland. ‘Was I expecting to be in the role for a long time? I think I was the fifth Irish coach in the 1990s, so there was no security in the job. Even though we were well beaten in the Tests [37-13 in Bloemfontein and 33-0 in the infamous battle of Loftus Versfeld], what I loved was the character of the players. We didn’t give up.’
After the on-field anarchy in Pretoria, Ireland tour manager Donal Lenihan was asked if he was citing any South African players. ‘Yes,’ he replied, deadpan. ‘All of them.’ The memory makes Gatland laugh. Those were tough days but they helped shape him, no doubt about it.
‘We lost the second Test by 33 points and we were leaving the hotel as the Welsh team were arriving and they had a bit of a giggle at our expense, then the following week they nearly had a hundred points put on them,’ he says.
‘I learned a lot on that tour. They had no respect for us because we hadn’t earned it. We turned up at a training session once and the gates were locked and we were sitting on the bus for 20 minutes waiting for the guy to turn up with the key. They didn’t care.
‘I toured there as a player with the All Blacks and that wouldn’t have happened to New Zealand and had it happened you would have had the players getting off the bus and kicking the gate down. I think that might have been something I was advocating at the time actually. The difference between how they treated the All Blacks and how they treated Ireland was fascinating to me. They just looked down their noses at Ireland, so, yeah, we lost the Tests but the character we showed was a starting point. A lot of teams would have thrown the towel in, but we kept fighting until the end – literally.’
Those early years in Ireland were incredibly instructive, sometimes in ways he realised only years later. ‘I look back on Munster and I think a lot of the values I have now came from watching them. Munster didn’t always have the best players but they had great character. When their guys put that jersey on, it really meant something to them. It’s not always the most talented players you need, it’s the guys with the most heart. That’s been a big part of it for me. I’d rather pick a team of good blokes who would die for each other than superstars with egos who are just in it for themselves.
‘I think there’s a little bit of a football mentality in rugby. Clubs spending money on the big-name players whereas I’ve always felt you’re better off spending the money on the environment. Get that infrastructure right and worry about the players afterwards. I’d rather have an extra analyst, an extra conditioner, an extra coach, the right medical staff, the right facilities, proper food and nutrition than spending money on two or three quality players.
‘I suppose my values centre around family. That’s massive. I keep stressing it, whether it’s Wasps, Wales, the Lions or wherever I am. There are more important things than rugby. If things are right at home, then I get a player who gives me more in training. I’ve seen coaches completely mess those sorts of things up by not being flexible enough. A player needs a day off to go to a baby scan or a brother’s graduation or a parent’s birthday, whatever – give him the day off. If it’s important to him, do it, because you get so much more back from him when you do.’
These are the man-management skills that have propelled him into the pantheon. European and domestic glory with Wasps, Grand Slams with Wales, back-to-back Lions tours, winning one and drawing the other. And next summer it goes full circle when Gatland returns to the place where his days as a touring coach started.
He had two cracks at the Boks in their own backyard when he was in charge of Ireland and another four on the road when he was coaching Wales. The closest he got to victory – and it was painfully close – was 2014 when the Welsh lost two men to the sin-bin, gave up a 30-17 lead and got done 31-30. ‘We won it twice and lost it twice.’
Gatland says he hasn’t, and won’t, engage in the game of picking his Lions squad. ‘I’m too afraid to do it. It’ll only change a million times between now and then. Players will come out of nowhere, other players will really ramp it up because it’s a Lions year, and there’ll be injuries.’
The coronavirus has changed a few things around announcements, he adds. ‘The plan was to start talking to back-room coaching staff during the November window and then make an announcement in early December. We’ll see how that goes now. I need to go around the CEOs of the national teams and ask them if they’d prefer that we didn’t approach a coach in their set-up.
‘There were one or two last time in New Zealand that we made inquiries about and who subsequently weren’t available. I have to make sure we don’t end up in that situation again. Gregor Townsend was one of them. He’d have loved the opportunity to go.
‘Personally, I think it would have been great for him, but he was just appointed as Scotland coach and it was a little contentious because he was replacing Vern Cotter, who had done well. Maybe Gregor reassessed the situation and thought it better that he went on tour with Scotland. I understand that. I don’t want to be in that situation again where we’ve had a conversation and somebody is initially keen and then it doesn’t happen.’
He’ll take a smaller squad this time around. He reckons 36 or 37 players should be enough and controversy is guaranteed. He’s had his share of it. The Brian O’Driscoll affair in 2013 was followed by uproar and ludicrous allegations of anti-Scottishness in 2017 when he picked just two Scots.
‘Look, I’m a great believer that the Lions have to represent four nations. I kept going back to their performance at Twickenham that season. I’m not saying they needed to win that game but they needed to be a lot closer than a 50-pointer. That stuck in my mind.
‘I remember selecting the team and we only had a couple of Scottish players – Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour – and the other coaches came to me and said, “Can we revisit the wing selection?” and I said, “No, we can’t, we’ve got two Scots and we cannot go down to one. We’re going to get absolutely crucified as it is”. That wasn’t easy but you have to do what you think is right.’
He was Ian McGeechan’s assistant in 2009 (only the second time in his career he’s been a No 2) and head coach in 2013 and 2017. Why go again, given the New Zealand tour was so hard?
‘The last one was disappointing. I had this romantic view of the Lions, coached by a New Zealander, going back to New Zealand. Let’s celebrate that. And it was celebrated by most people, to be fair, but sections of the New Zealand media were incredibly hostile and personal about me. That took me by surprise.
‘What was written by that element of the press wasn’t what we experienced in New Zealand. The hospitality was incredible, the atmosphere was electric. I had a huge number of Kiwis getting in touch with me afterwards to say they were embarrassed by how I was treated by elements of the New Zealand media.
‘But you reflect over time, don’t you? You come back to Wales, do pretty well, the negatives diminish and you get the buzz for it again. I wouldn’t have forgiven myself had I turned it down. I feel hugely privileged to have the opportunity again. The Lions concept is special and it’s a massive fight to preserve it.’
Everybody says they love the Lions but not everybody is of a mind to give them the best chance to succeed. We’re talking about the vexed problem of preparation time now. ‘We all love the Lions but there’s an element in the UK, with certain club owners and Premiership Rugby, that I find strange. There’s surely nothing better than a player from your club being selected for the Lions. They go away, they win a series, they return as superstars that all the young fans will look up to. Isn’t that what it’s all about? You create heroes for the next generation.
‘What Pro14 have done next season is brilliant. They’ve moved their final to give us two weeks’ preparation. So thanks so much to Pro14 and the Celtic nations for doing that. It’s a generous thing to do. I mean, 2017 was incredibly tough. Two finals on the Saturday, assemble on the Sunday, fly to New Zealand on the Monday, arrive Wednesday and play Saturday. It makes it really difficult.
‘I remember the 2001 and 2005 tours, people were talking whether this was the end of the Lions. My first involvement, with Geech, was about putting respect back in the jersey and we’ve done it, but it’s so easy to lose it again.’
At some point – there’s talk the tour could move to next autumn – a Lions squad will be picked. Even the thought of the chosen ones facing the Boks quickens the pulse. ‘It’s just very, very special,’ says Gatland, with a smile of anticipation, a knowing look from a man who’s been there, done it and is thrilled by the chance of doing it again.
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