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It's time to debate whether Gatland is New Zealand's best-ever coach

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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It feels like time to kick off the debate about whether Warren Gatland is New Zealand’s best-ever coach.


That’s not the same as being the best bloke or the purveyor of the most brilliant football. This is about a man who’s done a lot with comparatively little, often on the biggest stage the game has to offer.

British & Irish Lions tours are a funny affair. Despite the innumerable benefits to the host nation, local media seem to take it upon themselves to bait and belittle Gatland. We saw it again in recent days, as the Lions coach was quizzed on who got the rub of the green in the first-test win over South Africa.

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The Kiwi take on the first Lions test | Aotearoa Rugby Pod
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The Kiwi take on the first Lions test | Aotearoa Rugby Pod

We New Zealanders treated Gatland to the red-nose treatment back in 2017 and what a hoot that turned out to be, as the Lions went on to draw their series with the All Blacks.

With Wasps and Ireland, Wales, Waikato and the Lions, Gatland has been a winner. Maybe Warrenball didn’t win you over, but it sure helped teams with modest talent levels to do some pretty admirable things.

Yet we won’t even entertain Gatland as All Blacks coach. The bulk of his success hasn’t been enjoyed here, so we dismiss it.

We make him earn his stripes with the Chiefs, then tear strips off him every week if the team doesn’t win.


Never mind that Graham Henry earned a lot of his creds in Wales or that Steve Hansen then followed the same path. Forget that Wayne Smith honed his methods at Treviso and Northampton, we’ve become set on this idea that ascending the New Zealand pathway is now the only route to the All Blacks’ job.

We couldn’t possibly accept the idea of contracting someone from overseas. No, even if you’re John Plumtree, your international experience is of no use until you’ve done it at home.

So we get lumbered with Ian Foster as All Blacks head coach and presume Scott Robertson is the logical alternative. Let’s not forget Plumtree, though, given New Zealand Rugby’s recent preference to promote from within.

Warren Gatland has more runs on the board than all of them – maybe even combined.


Wales and Ireland are one thing, but three tours as Lions coach is a monumental achievement. Beating Australia, drawing with New Zealand and now one up against South Africa, Gatland has done things that arguably dwarf anything done by a Kiwi coach ever.

Henry never won with the Lions and yet we treat Gatland as far inferior to good old Ted.

Who do we regard as the great All Blacks coaches? Steve Hansen, certainly. Fred Allen, maybe Brian Lochore for his World Cup-winning deeds in 1987.

Wayne Smith was a masterful All Blacks assistant, but appeared to find the top job troublesome.

John Hart guided the team to a series win in South Africa for the first time, before an untidy finish to his tenure.

These blokes had the advantage of coaching the mighty All Blacks, of course. Not Gatland.

We take a pretty dim view of British and Irish players in these parts. We admire their bravery and effort, but we don’t really rate them.

We like a bloke with gas and some ball skills, maybe even a kicking game. And that’s just the frontrowers.

We like to think there’s a dynamism and enterprise about our rugby and rugby players, which we feel incorporates all that’s good about the game.

Set pieces and rolling mauls? Spare me.

But you can’t regard players from the Home Nations as second-rate and then disregard the job Gatland’s done with so many of them.

Chances are we’ll never see what Gatland could do with the All Blacks. He’s been his own man too long to win favour here. You need to bow and scrape to the New Zealand media as a visiting coach and Gatland wouldn’t lower himself to that level.

Who could blame him? He could probably understand the baiting and belittling if he were in Australia or South Africa, but it must have been hard treatment to cop back home.

I don’t know Warren Gatland. I’ve attended his press conferences, but that’s it. I’m not a secret admirer or a pen pal, just someone who looks at how well his teams have done for so long and wonders why he’s not more widely respected here.

Honestly, you name me some other New Zealand coaches who’ve done more in the international game than him.


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