Gatland in pole position to lead next Lions’ tour to New Zealand as pride is restored
First series win in 16 years a massive boost
Lions head coach Warren Gatland walks down the tunnel after his team’s victory over Australia in the third Test at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
The Lions have their pride restored alright, and rather than going to New Zealand seeking an improbable first series win in 20 years, they can venture there four years hence with a spring in their step and, perhaps, a strong umbilical cord with this restorative tour in terms of coaching, backroom and playing personnel.
No-one is better placed or qualified to be at the head of that pyramid than Warren Gatland. If he was the best qualified for this tour, as someone who has coached with repeated success in Ireland (where, he revealed yesterday, a formative experience was at the root of last week’s stand-or-fall selection), England and Wales for much of the last 20 years, and as a Lions assistant four years ago, he is even better qualified now.
In overseeing the whole operation, in his choice of coaches, in the details, Gatland has navigated the ship masterfully.
Saturday’s handsome series clinching win reaffirmed the old adage that forwards win matches and backs by how much.
To the most decorated CV in Northern Hemisphere rugby in the professional era – featuring two Grand Slams, a World Cup semi-final which was unluckily lost, a Heineken Cup, a Challenge Cup and three Premierships as well as an NPC title in a brief sojourn back to NZ – can now be added a first Lions series win since 1997.
Gatland is contracted with Wales until the next World Cup, after which a two-year deal with the Lions could see him return to his native country permanently. As a Kiwi, no-one would understand the nature of that altogether stiffer task better than Gatland. It’s an intriguing prospect, and now the likeliest one.
“I’m committed to Wales for the World Cup,” said Gatland. “Now that the Lions has finished I’m really excited about potentially what Wales could achieve, with the group of players that we’ve got, with the talent that we’ve got. I think we’ve got a chance of doing well in terms of Six Nations and World Cups. After that, after 2015 I will think about my future. I may just hang up the boots and go to the beach, sit down with a glass of red wine and a cigar,” he said with a chuckle.
Logistically, admitted Gatland, touring New Zealand would be more difficult, and the odds will again be stacked against them.
“I passionately believe that the scheduling is all wrong,” said tour manager Andy Irvine. “We as a board did our damnedness to try to give Warren a bit more time. It is absolutely bonkers that we have a Rabo final and an Aviva final 48 hours before we fly out and believe me, we tried as hard as we could to change that.”
“I am not even sure if we can change it in four years’ time but thereafter, once the SANZAR agreement comes up for negotiation, make no mistake, our boys will be get more time with the players . . . ”
Intriguingly though, Gatland has already begun thinking of that expedition to his native land judging by his response to being asked whether negotiating the ultimate task for the Lions was now more possible.
“Yeah, I think if we get things right in terms of the preparation and stuff. I spoke before the game last night that for some players it’s going to be the last time they wear the jersey.
“I said to a lot of the players this afternoon, if you look at how young this squad is, a lot of them could be around in four years’ time. If they’re playing well enough and you’ve got four more years’ experience on some young heads, some young shoulders, and they’re in their late 20s, that potentially makes the Lions squad in four years’ time incredibly strong.
“You’ve always got to believe that when you go somewhere you go there to win. . . The whole focus on this tour was about delivering the Test series win. Our whole, primary objective was to come here and win, and I’m pleased we did that.”
For Gatland the thoughts of a beach, a glass of wine and a cigar became all the more appealing during the last week when he was bombarded with personalised vitriol per emails, social media and punditry
“I’m a little bit happier this morning I suppose,” he said, confirming how much the vitriol had sullied his experience. “It’s been a learning experience and it’s something that I need to be aware of going forward . .”