Warren Gatland open to coaching Lions on South Africa tour
Coach says he is ‘definitely finishing up’ with Wales after the 2019 Rugby World Cup
New Zealand’s coach Steve Hansen speaks with British and Irish Lions’ coach Warren Gatland after the third Test, which ended in a 15-15 draw. Photograph: Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images
For Warren Gatland this seemed a natural Lions swansong – a tour under Ian McGeechan in 2009 to South Africa, then leading the Lions to Australia four years ago and now New Zealand. He has intimated as much, but on foot of a highly creditable draw and tied series with the back-to-back world champions, Gatland has given his strongest indication yet that he’d consider completing the southern hemisphere cycle as head coach.
His extensive CV has been augmented by merely leading a fine Lions squad to a drawn series, but considering the odds, it might be deemed his finest achievement. He will finish his third, four-year World Cup cycle with Wales in 2019, and has no plans beyond that. He’ll be a wanted man, but a year off followed by another tilt with the Lions might appeal.
“Yeah, possibly. It’s up to the board and the Lions isn’t it? I’m definitely, definitely finishing up after the World Cup with Wales, no matter what. They may get rid of me before the World Cup,” said Gatland.
“I would have been there for long enough and so I don’t know what I’m going to do post-2019. There’s no plans at the moment. I’m not worried about the future. I’m not worried about what’s going to happen. I know there will be something out there for me.
“There’s a possibility that if that opportunity came again it would be something you would consider. The South African thing is a little bit easier in terms of the timeframes and the travel and getting there.
“We’d hope also that we don’t let the next four years go before we start planning and putting things in place. Discussions need to take place about just having some reasonable preparation time. I’m not being stupid; I’m not asking for a month. I think a week in the UK or Ireland beforehand, then arrive in South Africa for a week before the first game, is reasonable.”
John Spencer, the Lions manager, described Gatland as “the best coach in the world” and added that “it takes a Kiwi to catch a Kiwi”.
Ever since cutting his teeth as a coach with Galwegians, Connacht and Ireland in his late 20s to early 30s, he has always placed an emphasis on knowing the home culture “from day one”.
“Having lived in Ireland and England and now Wales – if you have some understanding of the culture you’re going to it gives you a massive advantage. I was lucky enough first of all when I went to Ireland at a young age that I’d done Irish history at university.
“I had that understanding of the relationship between the North and the South, and [Irish] independence, all those sorts of things. And to be able to have conversations with people about that gives you respect. People respect that understanding.”
Here of course, he had the ultimate insider knowledge of New Zealand.
“In the past people have come to New Zealand and haven’t been quite prepared about what you’re facing culturally.” Cue the choir practice to have four songs in readiness for the Maori welcomes, which also served to strengthen the squad’s “bonding”.
“There are strengths in New Zealand as a nation, in terms of the isolation and being so far away, and galvanising themselves to have a go at anything. But there can be cracks at times as well,” said Gatland, who felted he detected some in comments from the All Blacks’ camp last week.
“There were signs there we could build on, have some confidence and self-belief. Often when you play All Blacks teams in New Zealand that’s the biggest challenge – to get 15 players going on the field believing they’re good enough to win.”
When asked why he took on what seemed a hiding to nothing, he laughed: “I thought it was a hiding to nothing as well.” But, he “couldn’t walk away from that sort of challenge, particularly someone like myself, when you are competitive. I think if anyone else had been doing it, we might not have drawn the series.”
History will judge this Lions favourably, the first to end the All Blacks’ eight-game, 47-match winning run on home soil last week, and a week later denying them a 38th successive win at Eden Park, dating back to 1994. They’re also only the second Lions’ squad to emerge unbeaten from a series in New Zealand in a dozen tours, and the first to do so since the 1971 vintage.
“You’ve got to reflect on that and say it’s a pretty good achievement in terms of coming to New Zealand and playing the best team in the world in their own backyard and we’ve drawn the series, particularly after losing the first Test. We always said that winning the first Test was important to give us a chance of winning the series but having won the second Test and drawing the third is a great achievement.”
Sean O’Brien (left shoulder) and Johnny Sexton (who was wearing a protective moon boot for his injured left ankle) would both undergo scans as part of the medical day for the entire squad on Tuesday.