'There was an orchestrated campaign in the NZ media to try to unsettle me'
Warren Gatland will complete the set of southern hemisphere destinations as he plots the downfall of South Africa knowing his name is already stitched into the fabric of the British and Irish Lions.
Only Sir Ian McGeechan has overseen more tours but it is Gatland who has become the Lions’ indispensable figure of the professional era with his influence outweighing that of any player during the same period.
Victory over Australia in 2013 and a drawn series with New Zealand four years later have given the Kiwi a proud unbeaten record that will face possibly its toughest test yet against World Cup holders Springboks.
While players are traditionally held up as a side’s ‘talisman’, in Gatland the Lions have a champion whose name has become as synonymous with the tourists as that of McGeechan or Willie John McBride.
“Naturally he was our first-choice candidate from the start of the process,” said managing director Ben Calveley in September when reappointing Gatland, who was the only name on the shortlist.
The bond between coach and Lions is strong, surviving the 2017 tour to New Zealand when he was the target of a critical offensive by the local media that included him being mocked up as a clown. Gatland admitted that he “hated” the experience.
“There were aspects [I hated]. There was an orchestrated campaign in the New Zealand media to try to unsettle me. That really threw me,” Gatland said.
“But the Lions is something I could not turn my back on. I would have regretted it.”
And so he has enrolled for another tour, but this one like none of the 37 before it as the coronavirus pandemic places restrictions on playing and training that will require all of Gatland’s skills to limit their impact on the tour’s prospects.
Operating in a bubble environment, the Lions must adopt a new approach to forging the team bonds that are so important if players from four rival nations are to be unified successfully.
Historically Gatland has proved a master at this, giving players enough freedom away from rugby in the knowledge that a winning side is not conceived on the training field alone.
“Warren is a very progressive coach, but he does like his players having a beer, enjoying themselves and getting to know one another,” said Paul O’Connell, the former Ireland lock and the last Lions captain in South Africa.
“I remember coming in late on a few occasions and you’d arrive into the team room to grab a slice of toast and all the coaching staff would be there around the big table on their laptops. There’d be a bottle of wine or two or three in the middle of the table.
“They’d all be watching footage, arguing and discussing. That’s something Warren does really well, he brings his coaching staff and players together. He builds good relationships and gets alignment really quickly. That’s why his teams are successful.”
A lieutenant under McGeechan on the 2009 tour to South Africa when he oversaw the forwards, Gatland understands the Lions in a way some of his more recent predecessors did not.
Sir Clive Woodward’s 2005 crusade to New Zealand failed conclusively, a bloated touring party containing too many of his out-of-form England World Cup winners suffering from being divided into dirt trackers and the Test side at an early stage.
And four years earlier Graham Henry led an expedition to Australia – a destination where the Lions have clinched seven of their nine tours – that was notable for division within the squad laid bare by Austin Healey and Matt Dawson.
Gatland has avoided those and other traps, wedding his canny touch for bringing together players and staff with a ruthless streak in selection that pays no homage to reputation or nationality.
Fury greeted his decision to drop Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll in 2013 while the small Scottish contingents totalling five players picked for Australia and New Zealand have been held against him, but the 57-year-old is emphatically his own man.
“I’ve never been a person who has worried about external influences,” said Gatland, who played against the Lions for Waikato in 1993.
“People can say, write or imply whatever they like. It doesn’t change the fact that we’ve been put into a role to make what we think are the best decisions.”
Gatland has a remarkable track record of delivering results, from a European Cup and Premiership titles with Wasps to Grand Slams and Six Nations crowns with Wales, who he transformed from occasional to consistent winners.
His recent spell with Hamilton-based Super Rugby franchise the Chiefs has been less productive but now back at the helm for the Lions, he is in reassuring territory where history shows he possesses an assured touch.
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