Why after three Lions tours, two unbeaten as the head coach, did Warren Gatland come back for more this year?
‘It felt like there was unfinished business,’ comes the immediate answer from the modern-day Lion King — an assistant on the 2009 South Africa tour before becoming the main man in Australia 2013 and New Zealand four years ago.
After that last trip — which the tourists drew 1-1 with the All Blacks — Gatland said he had hated the whole thing.
Warren Gatland is entering yet another Lions tour but still has the hunger to coach the team
The media scrutiny on his family, the pressure, and what he felt were personal attacks from his countrymen all grated.
But far from that being the full stop on his distinguished career leading the Lions, Gatland has added an ellipsis, for here he is today back up in the box on foreign soil coaching the famous team in red, reputation back on the line, attempting a near- impossible sporting challenge once more.
‘It is incredibly exciting,’ he continues — a twinkle back in the former hooker’s eye.
‘The focus in 2009 was about whether in the professional era was the Lions going to continue as an entity. The first thing was getting respect back in the jersey.
‘Winning in 2013 and with a series tied in 2017 when they approached me it was hard to say no. You realise there’s a massive amount of pressure and I felt that on occasions when people have not agreed with decisions or when the New Zealand media had a crack at me last time and tried to unsettle me. That was another challenge. The same may happen again.
‘You go away from it, you reflect and then it is pretty hard to reject an offer to come back and coach the Lions and the opportunity you have to make some special memories.’
Gatland is excited for the South Africa tour as he looks to prolong his unbeaten run
The 2009 tour, the last to South Africa, opened Gatland’s eyes.
The then head coach, Sir Ian McGeechan, was so impressed with his Kiwi forwards coach that he asked Gatland to present Test jerseys to the selected few before one of the Springbok games.
But Gatland said no.
‘I politely declined his invitation even though it was a massive honour,’ he explains now.
‘I felt that I had not earned my stripes.’
Whatever happens this summer in South Africa, Gatland certainly has now.
More than anyone from the southern hemisphere he has ‘got’ the Lions — and is now one of its fiercest defenders in the face of its constant battles for relevance, calendar space and respect.
His time as Ian McGeechan’s assistant in 2009, the last tour to South Africa, opened his eyes
‘The Lions is incredibly special as an entity and I am passionate about protecting it and making sure it continues,’ he says, finally now on tour in South Africa — ‘where it is all about winning and success’.
‘I hope I have demonstrated that. People have not always been happy with the things I have said but I strongly believe in a lot of the things the Lions represent and think there’s a massive part in the game for the Lions.
‘Hopefully we can all get together to solve some of the issues that have been created within the game to help the Lions in the future to prepare.
‘It is important for the southern hemisphere. It is very important financially for the northern hemisphere. The potential for the Lions to grow is massive. It creates superstars.
‘It also brings a huge amount of people who don’t really follow rugby into supporting a team that creates an enormous amount of interest. That’s something that we should really protect.’
He has more than earned his stripes now and feels protective of the Lions as an entity in rugby
Gatland has faced huge media scrutiny and pressure during his time in charge of the Lions
This is his toughest assignment. Two opponents — the world champion Boks and Covid — dominate the scene. This trip is not just about winning, but keeping safe, sane and defying more odds than usual.
In their re-enforced bubble, the Lions will play golf, sing Calon Lan, Loch Lomond, You’ll Never Walk Alone and The Wild Rover, they will FaceTime and Zoom home regularly, wing Josh Adams will be on standby to take a call if his partner goes into labour, they will have game nights and quizzes, all while plotting the downfall of the Boks.
‘It is important to me that those connections stay strong,’ Gatland remarks.
The 57-year-old is out to win hearts, minds and a Test series all over again. As Gatland clambers up to the coaches’ box to see his tourists face the Lions of Johannesburg today, his nerves will jangle anew.
‘I am always nervous in the box,’ he says, even after all his experiences. I will go and have a nervous poo, exactly like I was playing… I don’t mean to be crass but I am just as nervous on the morning of the game with the butterflies.
‘When you’re sitting in the box, your biggest hope is that, “Please let us be ahead by 20-30 points with 10 minutes to go so I can relax and enjoy the last 10 minutes”.
WARREN GATLAND AT THE LIONS
GATLAND’S LIONS RECORD
Head coach – 2013, 2017
Assistant – 2009
Tour match record as head coach
P14 W10 L3 D1 W% 71
Test match record as head coach
P6 W3 L2 D1 W% 50
MOST LIONS TOURS AS HEAD COACH
4 Ian McGeechan (1989, 1993, 1997, 2009)
3 Warren Gatland (2013, 2017, 2021)
2 James Baxter (1927, 1930)
He wants to ensure the squad maintains a strong connection in South Africa this summer
‘That’s often not the case. You are in arm wrestles which go down to the wire.
‘I finish afterwards, take off my jacket and I have got sweat under the armpits and a rush of adrenaline.
‘The thing about rugby at the highest level is that it is agony or ecstasy. There’s nothing in between.’ And really, that is the nub of why he is back. The agony and the ecstasy of a Lions tour is unmatched.
Could that drag him back again come 2025 in Australia?
‘I don’t know,’ Gatland finishes with a little smile.
‘It depends if you win or not. If you win someone might ask you to do it again.’
The 57-year-old still gets pre-match jitters and often does not enjoy watching his team play