“I’ve been on the sidelines of some big games and even I’m scared watching the collisions,” Warren Gatland says after an hour in his company makes it clear he has moved beyond the hurt of coaching the Lions in New Zealand. A far warmer man in person than in his press conferences, Gatland’s concern about the health of rugby’s elite players now overrides his consuming battles as the Lions’ head coach.
“We’ve not seen the impact rugby will have on these young men,” Gatland says when describing the dangers – amid talk that future seasons might be extended. “What’s going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years in terms of them needing new knees, new hips, back and neck injuries? And no-one’s sure of the real consequences of concussion. So the length of the season definitely has an impact. But so does the size and power of the players.”
The hits are frightening, even to an old warrior like Gatland, and he stresses that, “Guys I played with are getting new knees and hips done in their early 40s and there was nowhere near the same impact 20 years ago. You’re now getting huge men who are powerful and explosive. Everyone goes: ‘Yeah, they’re getting well paid.’ But what happens when he’s 40 and he’s a cripple because his knees or his hips are stuffed and he’s had so many operations and can’t enjoy his grandkids? Is the money worth it?”
Does Gatland have any immediate solutions? “There is an argument you could go back to the old situation where it was only injury replacements. Then players would have to last 80 minutes and maybe that reduces the impact. The parallels between rugby and American football are obvious – but 70 years apart. We’re now facing concussion and there is talk about padding coming in, and replacements. The money, the athletes and the problems are getting bigger.”
Gatland surveys the battered sporting landscape and points out that rugby is not alone in being overdue some introspection “Looking at all the swimming stuff, and cycling and football [with all three tarnished by bullying, racism and prejudice], it’s clear things are changing. It’s almost like you have to make a disclaimer after every training session. There were times when, as coaches, we would have said things to players which people might think unacceptable. I was with a Premiership CEO yesterday and he talked about the way one of their previous coaches spoke to players. There could’ve been huge numbers of allegations against them.”
Would Gatland have seen incidents, as a player or a coach, when an ethical line was crossed? “I think all of us have seen those aspects. Sometimes you take it on the chin and other times people are confronted and the person making the comments has reflected and gone: ‘Actually, I’m sorry about the way I spoke.’ In the past I would have I told players exactly what I thought of them. If you delve into it, people could twist it and potentially make a complaint about it.”
Gatland also believes the modern player might benefit from a more rounded perspective of life. He admires his Lions squad but suggests the majority are introverted characters. I’ve heard other coaches claim that players today are much quieter than their predecessors. “That’s true. They’re very quiet these days. We have a generation of professional players who haven’t tasted real life. They haven’t gone out on a building site where you have to earn respect, work hard, keep your head down. Now you see young men paid big money at 19 and they think they’ve made it. If I went back into club rugby one of the things I’d potentially do pre-season would make them work for 40 hours a week and train three nights a week. It would help them appreciate how lucky they are.”
Trudi was so into the tour. I think we'd spent $40,000 on tickets for family members. She got a bit of a shock when I told her
Ironically, Sean O’Brien is praised by Gatland for being a vocal leader of the Lions. But the coach was hurt by O’Brien criticising his staff months after the tour. Have they spoken since? “Yeah. He basically said only negative stuff was included. They didn’t report him saying it was a great tour and I was good. So that was disappointing. But he probably didn’t understand how hard the coaches worked.”
O'Brien also said that, as the tour wore on, Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton were heard in training more than their coaches. "I didn't understand Sean's comment because the best coaches empower the best players. Whenever I've coached a new team I've been dictatorial and said: 'This is what I want'. Then you pull back and let them take responsibility."
Did he have any inkling how O’Brien felt on tour? “He never said a word to me. But he was outstanding as a player. When we spoke I said: ‘I find it ironic given your injury history. You came injured to the Lions but you said at the end of the tour you’re in the best shape of your life. We must have done something right? It was also disrespectful saying we should have beaten the All Blacks 3-0 in their own backyard. That’s where he lost credibility. But are there things I’d do differently? Yeah. Has anyone ever taken on a tour of that magnitude? Never.”
The extent of Gatland’s struggles on tour can be heard when he explains how he first admitted his feelings. “I told my wife it felt like someone had put a drip in me and drops of blood were coming out one by one. You were being drained bit by bit, slowly getting killed, and that’s how I felt when I told her I was hating the tour.”
He shakes his head, as if he cannot believe how the proudest achievement of his admirable career, drawing an away series against the All Blacks, was so bruising. As a New Zealander the prospect of returning home with a strong Lions squad had thrilled him. So his wife, Trudi, was shocked before the first Test. “She was, yeah, because Trudi was so into the tour. I think we’d spent $40,000 on tickets for family members. She got a bit of a shock when I told her.”
Gatland’s difficulties were driven by the New Zealand Herald who derided him as a clown. “I felt from day one there was an orchestrated campaign to unsettle me. It started before we played the Barbarians in the opening match, and the headline said: ‘Gatland to target Barbarians weakness.’ The first paragraph said Warren Gatland has instructed Ben Te’o to run at my son [Bryn, who played for the Barbarians in that game].”
Kiwis don't respond well to criticism. So I'd say that, technically, there's some excellent coaching in the northern hemisphere
Gatland’s actual quote merely suggested Bryn would make plenty of tackles. “I got so many calls from people saying, ‘I’m disgusted about your treatment.’ The clown thing was interesting because the Herald even shut down the comments section because people were climbing into them. But when you’re up against a major organisation it’s hard.”
Did he tell any anyone else how he was feeling? "No. Jonathan Davies [the Lions' player of the series] said he didn't realise I felt like that. He appreciates I took a lot of pressure off the players. You get up in the morning, come down and say, 'Great, fantastic,' no matter what you're feeling. It's your job to be positive and for people to see you're in control."
Does Gatland believe his achievements in northern hemisphere rugby are belittled in New Zealand? “Probably. But you’ve got to be very careful because Kiwis don’t respond well to criticism. So I’d say that, technically, there’s some excellent coaching in the northern hemisphere. There has to be because you don’t get the finished article in the northern hemisphere. In New Zealand, when you get to the top you’ll have a No9 who passes off both ends and kicks off both feet. He communicates, he’s quick and intelligent. So you focus on tactical strategies. Over here we’re still concentrating very much on technical aspects.”
Gatland's rivalry with Steve Hansen, his All Black counterpart, is obvious. Hansen called a radio station before the third Test to criticise Gatland. "I was surprised Steve rang in. I was also surprised he said it's not a disaster if you lose – like he was preparing the public for defeat. I've never heard an All Blacks coach say that before. But I have huge respect for Hansen and what he's achieved in winning two World Cups. Like me he's also learned a lot from coaching Wales. We did chat after the drawn third Test. I said: 'How do you feel?' He said: 'It's a bit like kissing your sister, isn't it?' And we had a drink."
After hearing he hated the tour Hansen said last week that, in such circumstances, his rival should leave coaching. Gatland, sitting in an office surrounded by piles of his new book which digs into the hurt and fleeting glory of the Lions, shrugs when asked about Hansen’s comments – which will resurface as Wales play New Zealand on 25 November.
“I hadn’t heard that. He’s taking criticism in New Zealand because they could have lost to South Africa and were beaten by Australia. Steve always gives an honest opinion. That’s why we joked [after the drawn series] because he holds the record for consecutive losses as Wales coach. So he can’t have been enjoying himself.”
Gatland recently said “I’m done” with the Lions – having been in charge of their series win against Australia in 2013 and an assistant in South Africa in 2009. “I felt that because of the scrutiny. As a player you can fail on tour and it doesn’t affect you. You fail as a coach and it has a significant impact on your career. But it’s still a difficult job to turn down. It’s the pinnacle of a northern hemisphere career and you want to be part of it.”
It sounds as if the door is still open to Gatland leading the Lions against South Africa in 2021? “I think it always is. I said ‘I’m done’ but a cynical part of me was thinking: ‘All right, let someone else do it and see how hard it is. When it fails people might actually say what we did in 2017 and 2013 was pretty special.’”
Who would he pick, apart from himself, as the next Lions' head coach? Gatland pauses. "I'd like to see Eddie Jones do it. Considering that Billy Vunipola said the Lions would have won 3-0 in New Zealand if Eddie had been coach, I'd like to ask Billy why they didn't win in Dublin to win the Six Nations."
Gatland smiles. Meanwhile, England and Wales will share a full-contact training session in Bristol next week. Such innovations suit Gatland and Jones – who both agree that world rugby needs the Lions. “It’s a unique team we need to protect,” Gatland says. “It’s capable of benefitting everyone because international rugby drives the game. I understand people have ideas about making Premiership or French club rugby dominant. But we need to be very careful it doesn’t go down the same road as football where clubs dominate and the financial rewards go into a small area. We want the game to grow internationally and the Lions are a key part of that aim.” – Guardian service