The Wales coach didn't fancy the British & Irish Lions job eight months ago, but he has got it now and his reputation is on the line. So why has he taken the plunge?
Back in January, when the Six Nations was being launched at the oh-so-posh Hurlingham Club, Warren Gatland was asked about the itinerary for the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand which had, and still has, a look of the impossible task about it. Gatland said then that Joe Schmidt was welcome to the job of head coach but that the appointment would be difficult to turn down if he was offered it for a second time.
Gatland was duly interviewed in July, got the gig to take charge of next year’s skirmish with the world champions and the circus is up and running now. And, the best of British & Irish to him.
Sarah Mockford has detailed the exact challenges of the tour, in terms of fixtures and preparation, elsewhere on rugbyworld.com and it makes you wonder why anyone in their right mind would take on the top job with the tourists. To recap, the Lions play all five Super Rugby franchises and New Zealand Maori, plus three Tests and what should be an easier run-out against a Provincial Union XV on the first weekend.
Gatland was more positive than he was in January about taking on the post when he was unveiled in Edinburgh on Wednesday but he had to be. It’s his job now and, as he knows, it could make or break his reputation.
He could come back from New Zealand as a messiah, like Carwyn James did in 1971, or as damaged goods as Sir Clive Woodward did in 2005. Woodward deserves to be remembered as a great coach who with a group of great players delivered the World Cup to England in 2003. You get the impression his name is mud in the rest of the home nations after the collapse of the Lions 11 years ago.
It was similar for John Dawes in 1977 – who captained the 1971 heroes and coached Wales to two Grand Slams – when his Lions squad failed to deliver a series they could, and should, have won. Even that brave old brave heart Jim Telfer vowed to give up coaching the Lions after returning from the 1983 trip to New Zealand, although he did a Steve Redgrave-style U-turn on that one, when Ian McGeechan asked him to help out in 1997 in South Africa.
None of them came up smelling of roses and, if the 2017 tour turns ugly, as some of the Doomsday merchants are predicting, Gatland could be in the same boat. So why bother when you are still only 52 and have at least another decade at the top of the game to offer? Gatland needs this like a hole in the head but is having a crack.
At least Gatland knows the pitfalls and realises that it’s his neck on the block and none of his players will be too severely in the firing line – even if the Lions lose 3-0 which Ali Williams, an All Black in 2005, has already predicted.
“I don’t think there is any pressure on the players,” said Gatland. “It is tough but if you fail as a Lion it doesn’t have an impact on your international section or club team, even if you’ve not been successful or performed. You fail as a coach and have a poor tour – look at previous coaches, the impact it has had on them post Lions tour has not been positive.”
Gatland has got a pretty decent coaching CV. After a frustrating time as a player – he went on four All Black tours without playing a Test at hooker because of the presence of Sean Fitzpatrick – Gatland cut his coaching teeth at Galwegians, in Ireland, and immediately took them to promotion. Stints with Thames Valley in New Zealand, Connacht, Ireland, Wasps, Waikato, the Chiefs and Wales followed. In between he was assistant coach with the Lions in South Africa in 2009 and led them to triumph in Australia in 2013.
Chuck in some Premiership and European titles, in the Wasps’ glory days, a couple of Grand Slams with the Welsh and the derailing of England’s Six Nations hopes in 2013 and Gatland has pretty much done the lot. But he likes a punt and this is the biggest punt of his life.
“I’m well aware of the challenges of that and the coaching set-up and the pressures,” he said. “I’m better prepared for that. New Zealand will be incredibly tough but I’m excited about that opportunity and the chance to go back there and challenge the All Blacks. There is no bigger challenge and that is what motivates and drives me to wanting to do it.
“In 2013, I knew how tough it was going to be and you’ve got to be successful, because if you’re not then probably a lot of you guys here turn on you, you know? That’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it? I experienced part of that then but it makes you tougher, it makes you strong. I’m one of those people who doesn’t dwell on the negatives, I always look at the positives. I know they’re there.”
Maybe after all that time playing second fiddle for the All Blacks behind Fitzpatrick, Gatland reckons he owes them one. And, from this Englishman’s point of view, the best of British, Warren, and let’s hope the punt pays off – and let’s hope your coaching career doesn’t get consigned to history when the history books are written.