By James Beringer
I always believed that eras would come to an end in slightly more emphatic fashion than this. After securing a draw against an all-conquering New Zealand side widely regarded as one of the greatest in history, Warren Gatland has announced he will not coach the British and Irish Lions again due to abuse from his native New Zealand press. His decision was compounded by comments from Irish flanker Sean O’Brien, who claimed that under a different coach the Lions would have beaten the All Blacks 3-0.
With Gatland officially removed from the picture, two problems now arise. Firstly, who should be the next person in the Lions’ hot seat in 2021? And, secondly, how will Gatland’s time in charge of the team be remembered?
In terms of future coaches, several immediate candidates spring to mind. Eddie Jones’ record with England is nothing short of remarkable, and with the Australian repeatedly indicating his desire to leave his role after 2019, he remains tantalisingly available for the South Africa tour. Further afield, Gregor Townsend – himself a member of the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa – is a strong contender, or even Ireland’s Joe Schmidt, provided the All Blacks don’t swoop in to claim him after the World Cup.
The more interesting point is the legacy left behind by Gatland. At times a divisive figure amongst the Northern Hemisphere rugby fanbase, Gatland always seemed like a coach willing to make risky selections and call the big shots. Despite this, it feels natural that his time at the helm should come to an end given recent circumstances. His comments regarding the New Zealand Press are understandable, and he is not the first to criticise their practices. Michael Cheika made similar remarks in 2016 after being called a clown by the New Zealand Herald.
O’Brien’s comments will have stung, although much of his criticism was levelled at attacking coach Rob Howley, who guided Wales to a lacklustre 5th place in the Six Nations and arguably should not have had a position on the Lions coaching staff in any capacity.
O’Brien’s overall statement was perhaps somewhat hyperbolic. A series whitewash against the All Blacks is, to put it diplomatically, an ambitious target. A quick glance over the records of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland against New Zealand reveal that the four sides have a combined 11 victories over the span of 133 games (an 8% win rate). Scotland have never beaten the All Blacks, Wales’ last win came in 1953, and Ireland have only won once.
If the criteria are narrowed down to matches played in New Zealand, then the Home Nations have managed two wins in 47 attempts (both by England). The Lions would need to achieve in two months what other teams have been unable to do in over 100 years. Not even the great 1971 Lions team were able to win three tests against the All Blacks.
These combined factors make Gatland’s decision completely understandable. Why would you stay in a position where you are treated appallingly and your every decision is criticised by some part of the fanbase?
Certain Ireland fans still hold a petty grudge against Gatland for dropping Brian O’Driscoll in the final test of the 2013 series – despite the Lions ruthlessly destroying the Wallabies to win the series 2-1. Accusations of an anti-Irish bias are a little difficult to believe given Peter O’Mahony was named captain for the first test despite missing most of the season through injury.
Similarly, certain Scottish fans feel a certain level of animosity towards Gatland for routinely not picking Scottish players for the Lions squad. Which Scottish players they believe should have been in these squads remains a mystery. Their best candidates, namely prop WP Nel and fullback Stuart Hogg, were unfortunately ruled out through injury, and justifying one or both of the Gray brothers in the second row would have been difficult given the extraordinary strength in depth in those positions.
This is not to say that Gatland’s tenure was flawless, and clearly, there were problems with his coaching and playing style. His ridiculous use of injury call-ups during the 2017 tour devalued the value of the Lions jersey. A Lions tour should represent the best of the Northern Hemisphere, not those that are most conveniently located to get on a plane to New Zealand.
Eddie Jones was more than happy for members of his squad to rendezvous with the Lions on their tour of Argentina, yet Joe Launchberry and co remained in Buenos Ares. The only call-up that arguably merited his place, Scotland’s fly-half Finn Russell, was poorly managed and air-dropped in for a five-minute cameo against the Hurricanes which he will desperately be trying to forget.
On the coaching front, Gatland’s style of play (dubbed Warrenball, much to his displeasure), has been criticized as being one-dimensional and uninspiring. These critics may have a point. Gatland’s game plan revolves around powerful players running incisive but direct lines through small gaps in the opposition defensive line.
When it works, it looks incredibly slick, as evidenced by the third test on the 2013 tour, in which the Lions thrashed the Wallabies 16-41 to claim the series win. The Lions’ first try was a fine example of patient recycling of the ball, and powerful driving from the forwards to get the ball over the line. The final try, scored by Jamie Roberts, was a result of the inside centre’s vision and ability to power through the gaps in the Australian defence.
However, its limitations also lie in its simplicity, and the Lions’ style was in sharp contrast to the New Zealand game plan based on quick-ball and lightning counter attacks from turnovers.
Ironically, this was most evident in the game the Lions won, the second test in Wellington. Logically, when the opposing team is reduced to 14 men for a sizeable chunk of the match, the team with 15 men need to move the ball across the whole width of the pitch to stretch the opposition and create gaps in their defence. The Lions did eventually do this when they themselves went down to 14 – resulting in Faletau’s try that brought them back into the match. That win seemed to happen because the team decided to abandon Gatland’s traditional game-plan rather than a stroke of tactical genius from the boss.
But arguably everything will probably be forgotten as Gatland’s two tours inevitably adopt a rose-tinted glow in the future. The fact of the matter is that he guided the Lions to their first tour victory since 1997, their first win against Australia since 1989, and their best result in New Zealand since 1971.
His Lions team were the first side in 3 years to keep the All Blacks from scoring a try, the first to beat New Zealand in 8 years on their home turf – a winning streak spanning 47 matches – and the first Lions team to win a game in New Zealand since 1993.
World Cup-winning coach Sir Graham Henry couldn’t coach the Lions to a tour win in 2001, World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward couldn’t win a single test against the All Blacks in 2005. Gatland did both. Case closed.
Photograph: National Assembly for Wales via Flickr