Coach Warren Gatland’s insight into New Zealand culture played a crucial role in the Lions drawing the series with the back-to-back world champions
“Set a Kiwi to catch a Kiwi.” So said British & Irish Lions manager John Spencer of Warren Gatland after the tourists defied expectations to draw the series with back-to-back world champions New Zealand.
Spencer believes the fact that the coach is a New Zealander helped the Lions to understand the Kiwi mindset/culture/psyche/insert other word as you see fit. “You have to be a very shrewd coach to come to New Zealand and achieve what the players achieved,” said Spencer. “I will tell you without doubt I think he’s the best head coach in the world.
“You can’t hope to beat the All Blacks unless you understand the people and their culture, their way of life and attitude to rugby. Warren does understand the New Zealand psyche and there were plenty of instances on tour when he has proven that.”
Ever since he was appointed coach, Gatland recognised the scale of the challenge and has joked that he thought he was on “a hiding to nothing”. Yet it was the challenge that so appealed, coming to the country of his birth and taking on the best team in the world, and it is one that Gatland rose to.
“It is one of those positions that you are offered and it’s very difficult to walk away from,” said Gatland. “Having the chance to come to New Zealand, trying to win down here, is the ultimate challenge.
“If I wasn’t offered the position, it would have been fine. Once I was offered the job, you can’t walk away from that sort of challenge, particularly someone like myself, when you are competitive. I think if anyone else had been doing it, we might not have drawn the series.”
So why was his insider knowledge as a Kiwi so crucial in the Lions leaving New Zealand with a share of the trophy?
“When you go somewhere different, from my experiences having lived in Ireland and England and now Wales, if you have some understanding of the culture it gives you a massive advantage,” he said.
“I was lucky enough when I went to Ireland at a young age that I’d done Irish history at university. I had that understanding of the relationship between the North and the South, and to be able to have conversations with people about that… people respect that understanding.
“In the past people have come to New Zealand and haven’t been prepared about culturally what you’re facing. So we made sure that we prepared properly in terms of the welcomes and having to sing and stuff. It’s probably the best way.
“And then understanding, as a Kiwi, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses in their culture, as a country. There are strengths in New Zealand as a nation, in terms of the isolation and being so far away and galvanising themselves, they are prepared to have a go at anything. But there can be cracks at times as well.
“I don’t think the All Blacks are very vulnerable, but last week there were a few comments made that I hadn’t expected. There were signs there we could build on, to have some confidence and self-belief. Often when you play All Blacks teams in New Zealand that’s the biggest challenge – to get 15 players going on the field believing they’re good enough to win.”
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Asked for specifics on what comments had given him hope in the lead-up to that decisive third Test, which was drawn 15-15, Gatland replied: “Someone mentioned the result and said that if they lost the sun would still come up tomorrow and it wouldn’t be the end of the world and they would learn from that experience. Those are comments that you don’t hear very often coming out of the New Zealand camp.
“There were a couple of wee things where you think, ‘We can build from that’. We could create confidence and self-belief because we’d earned that respect from them to make those sort of comments.”
Gatland also believes the threats the Lions posed – say their line speed in defence, their kicking game and so on – caused New Zealand to tweak their style of play, when the norm is for them to just focus on their own strengths.
“The All Blacks are the masters of being the ones who never worry about an opposition,” said Gatland. “It’s always about themselves. They always pick a team for themselves.
“We felt that tactically we made them play a little bit differently. We think they picked a team to combat some of our strengths and they don’t normally do those types of things. I think that’s a sign of respect for what we had achieved as a team.”
There is already talk of Gatland taking the Lions reins in South Africa in four years’ time, and why shouldn’t there be? He’s undefeated as Lions head coach, guiding the best of Britain and Ireland to their first series win in 16 years in Australia in 2013 and, four years later, drawing a series with the All Blacks that many predicted would end in a 3-0 defeat.
He was involved in the 2009 tour to South Africa but Ian McGeechan was in charge so being at the helm in 2021 would make it a hat-trick as Lions head coach – and the prospect of taking on the Springboks could well be one that appeals. Unless, of course, the All Blacks come calling after the 2019 World Cup…