If lightning strikes twice, Warren Gatland will become one of the greats
Lions coach who was portrayed as clown is now strong candidate to succeed Hansen
British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland: if his team beat the All Blacks not just twice but twice in succession his reputation as a pragmatist and a worker of mind games will be soaring. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
What’s going through Warren Gatland’s mind now? Let’s say it is half past nine on Saturday morning right this second and that his B&I Lions are out there on that field, the eyes of the (rugby-watching) world on them, in the thick of it.
Maybe the worst predictions have already begun to happen and the mood of unnervingly quiet resolve with which the All-Blacks reacted to that defeat a week ago has been unleashed now as an unholy onslaught of brawn and rugby acumen and intent.
Perhaps the rugby world is cowering before the sight of the All-Blacks in full-vengeance mode and there’s nothing for it but to hear Adagio for Strings in the background and let nature take its course.
Maybe the writing was in the black sky over Auckland from the moment the New Zealanders performed the macabre haka with a degree of menace that they didn’t need to summon because each of those 15 athletes wearing black are acutely aware that losing this match; that failing to hold the home land against the Lions will leave an indelible stain on those glittering career records of theirs.
So maybe it is the hour mark and their forward momentum has become unstoppable while some of the visitors’ crucial names are looking weary from an hour of full-on bruising hits.
Or what if the opposite is happening? What if New Zealand are uncharacteristically hesitant and for some mystifying reason are unable to get into their flow; a missed pass here or an offside there and the crowd is going quiet and the Lions, meanwhile, becoming emboldened with each passing moment; becoming more aware that underneath the famous black shirts human beings are lurking after all.
“Immortal” is one of the most used and most dumb words in the sports vernacular. But it’s fair to say that if the bunch of geezers in red come through this with their skins intact and somehow miracle-up a win, they will be talking about it for the rest of their days whether they like it or not.
So what of Gatland, up there in those weird little control rooms where rugby bosses sit, fully aware that because there is a camera trained on them at all times they can’t go apeshit even if every fabric of their being demands it.
Because whatever about the success of this Lions tour; whatever about the daftness and underlying commercial greed of the schedule and the belligerent mood of accusation and counter accusation which developed after the first Test, the past week has brought about a stunning reversal of fortune for the spiky-headed and seemingly dauntless Gatland.
Less than a fortnight ago, he was drawn up as a clown figure by a news publication that has long been a go-to source for all things All Black. Just three days ago, he was being spoken off by Steve Tew, New Zealand rugby’s chief executive, as a convincing candidate to succeed Steve Hansen as national coach post-2019.
It’s easy to forget, given the stark divisions of nationality and rivalry which define all Lions tours, that Gatland is a New Zealander. He’s of that culture and that mindset, and deep down the black shirt must hold as many connotations for him as it does for any of the home players out there. And he never got to play as an international because his own time as a tough-minded, able number two coincided with the emergence of Sean Fitzpatrick.
Gatland had to travel to the top half of the world to really earn his rugby stripes and the respect he has earned has always been slightly grudging. The media persona, which can be confrontationally blunt, has contributed to polarising opinions on him and he doesn’t shy away from the mind games, dropping little provocations into the mix before all big games.
Four years ago, his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll from not just the Lions team for the decisive third Test against Australia but from the bench also was greeted by many of us as a cold and unnecessarily brutal way to treat one of the all-time great international performers. There was clear logic to it: he wanted to include Jonathan Davies alongside Jamie Roberts, his weapon-in-chief with both Wales and the Lions. And he didn’t see O’Driscoll as a fit on the bench.
A deluge of criticism followed. O’Driscoll, who was too much of a model pro to publicly kick up; he did the dutiful and sat with the other extras but later admitted that he resented the decision.
Sam Warburton, speaking to Donald McRae for his splendid book Winter Colours said this of the decision. “He took a monumental amount of stick but it was probably the most dominant performance against Australia given by a northern hemisphere side ever so Warren should take credit.”
So Gatland was vindicated and the slight on O’Driscoll was soon washed away in the euphoria at the Lions win. Both men handled it well, at least in public in the years afterwards, with Gatland stressing his admiration for how O’Driscoll handled the disappointment as recently as this March. But it was a huge gamble by Gatland. Had the Lions lost, that decision would have followed him for the rest of his career.
Over the last three weeks in New Zealand, Gatland’s tour has verged on disastrous. He was branded as “desperate” by Hansen after the first Test. The “Warrenball” taunt, used to deride the limitations of Gatland’s coaching philosophy, was to be found everywhere. His handling of the so-called “Geography Six”, the sextet of players who received late summons to the Lions squad only to receive zero playing time was roundly criticised.
Going into that second Test last Saturday morning, the general expectation was that the All-Blacks would heap further misery on the visiting party. The Lions has, like all big sports events, become farcically hyped beyond all reason. But still. Gatland is the man in charge of one half of the show and he must have felt an immense personal pressure in the minutes before throw-in a week ago.
Now, this morning, everything has changed. He already occupies a rare place as a coach who has beaten a New Zealand team at home. He has fielded teams with a more flexible game plan than he was given credit for being capable of engineering. He has made the best of the Sexton/Farrell selection conundrum. His squad looked like they were having the time of their lives in the past few days and in his eve-of-match conference, Gatland could urge his players to go ahead and chase history.
If his team somehow manage to do that this morning – if lightning strikes once more and Gatland’s team beat the All-Blacks not just twice but twice in succession – then his reputation as a pragmatist and a worker of mind games will be soaring.
In the space of a week, all the pressure has shifted away from Gatland and on to the man whose job he would someday love to have. As escapes go, it has been a great one.