Coaching the 2017 Lions against the world champions in his home country should have been the pinnacle of Warren Gatland’s professional life. If it was, he’s disguised it well.
“It’s as if a needle has been put into me and is slowly taking the blood,” writes Gatland, a born-and-bred Waikato man. “I likened myself to a tree from which the sap is seeping out.”
His book of the tour, In the Line of Fire, highlights numerous personal attacks on him or his squad by the New Zealand Herald. The newspaper twice portrayed him as a clown, insinuated that the Lions would target his son Bryn as a weakness in the opening game, and probed for a (false) story that young autograph hunters were turned away from a training session. Lions tour flirting with disaster was one headline that summed up the Herald’s general approach to the tourists.
Some coaches are thick-skinned but Gatland’s sensitivity to criticism has long been evident. It was illustrated vividly on this tour by his reaction to the flak over the ‘Geography Six’, which led to him using flown-in reinforcements so sparingly that it probably cost the Lions victory against the Hurricanes.
The media negativity, and the sheer relentlessness of a schedule that required preparing two teams a week and without any easy fixtures, made the tour something of an ordeal for Gatland. Not that he lacked support, and he cites the encouragement offered by six guys clad in Waikato jerseys at the Crusaders-Lions game (“Don’t worry Gats, we’ve got your back!”) as one of his tour highlights.
If media mayhem is one theme of the book, another is the detailed performance analysis, of both the Lions team and the match officials. After the first Test, Gatland highlights four neck rolls by the All Blacks, illegal entry at crucial mauls by Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick, and dangerous targeting of scrum-half Conor Murray – all of which was either missed or not dealt with satisfactorily.
The Lions were to get the rub of the green at other times, but certainly the penalty count across the series was stacked against them, with ten of the 13 penalties awarded to New Zealand in the second Test within kicking range.
Sean O’Brien made headlines with his criticism of Gatland’s coaching methods, but the Irishman receives regular plaudits throughout the book, particularly for his vocality. In fact, when asked to guess who the players had chosen as their player of the tour, Gatland plumped for O’Brien. The award went to Jonathan Davies.
Gatland wanted his players to outwork, outmuscle and out-talk opponents. His other pillar was ‘staying alive’, which meant being alert to the Kiwis’ tendency to tap and go or transition rapidly from defence to attack.
He praises many of his players and sheds light on selection. The coaches were split on whether to take Jonathan Joseph, with Garry Ringrose, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, John Barclay and Finn Russell (later one of the Geography Six) those closest to making the original 41-man party. He was furious with Sky Sports for erroneously reporting that Jamie Roberts was in the squad.
He admits that originally Joe Marler was pencilled in as the Test loosehead and that Ben Te’o was dropped after the first Test because he didn’t pass the ball once and also blew a try.
Gatland talks about the different demands on the Lions: 75% of their revenue is driven by commercial sponsorship, so the squad is required to do things they would never consider if they were a normal national team.
Mindful of the need to build bridges after the PR calamity of 2005, the Lions made a conscious effort to engage with the community. The day before the opening match, they visited hospitals and schools during a drawn-out journey to Whangarei. “We wanted to set the tone from early on,” says Gatland.
His family is a major part of the book and wife Trudi, son Bryn and daughter Gabby all provide their thoughts in the first person. If Gatland spots them in the crowd before a game, he’ll sometimes spread his arms wide in a message that means ‘I love you big much’ – a reference to a children’s story he used to read Bryn.
Such is Warren Gatland, one of the foremost figures of rugby’s pro era. A man who watched the 1971 Lions as a wide-eyed seven-year-old, who scored against the 1993 Lions whilst playing for Waikato, and who became the Lions’ head coach on successive tours after overcoming Declan Kidney (2013) and Vern Cotter (2017) at the interview stage.
A winning series in Australia and a drawn series in New Zealand makes Gatland an obvious contender to do it all again in South Africa in 2021. He may not want the aggro, or there may be stronger head-coach candidates by then. Who knows?
What is indisputable is his passion for the Lions and if the 2017 tour wasn’t a bundle of laughs, his experiences have left him highly appreciative of this mighty rugby brand.
“You think about these narrow-minded people back in the UK who want the Lions’ itinerary reduced or even scrapped altogether,” he says, in a well-aimed swipe in his finale. “You’d like to say, ‘Come on the tour. Come and experience it. And if you did, you’d find it magical.’ Why would anybody want to get rid of that?”
In the Line of Fire is published by Headline, RRP £20, and you can buy the book from them here. They’ve kindly provided us with six copies to give away in a competition. For a chance to win one, look at the photo below and answer the question beneath it, filling in your details. The competition closes on Monday 22 January.
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