Where does the time go? I remember writing a piece four years’ ago about the appointment of Warren Gatland as British and Irish Lions head coach. In a very cliched way, I called it “Gatland: The Lion King.” Well, we’re all set for the sequel. This week’s reappointment of the Wales coach was as predictable as the rising of the sun. Gatland joins Ian McGeechan as the only coaches to lead the Lions on consecutive tours in what is undoubtedly the toughest assignment of them all: a tour to New Zealand. It’s not a coincidence that only one Lions squad has won a Test series in the land of the long white cloud (the 1971 side coached by Carwyn James was one of the greatest rugby teams of all-time). New Zealand is a fiendishly difficult touring destination-as seen in the Lions last visit there 12 years’ ago, when Clive Woodward’s tourists were whitewashed 3-0 by Graham Henry’s irrepressible All Blacks side. The Lions committee has deemed the irascible Kiwi as the right man to take on mission impossible-the withdrawals of Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt from the race meant that Gatland’s ratification was a mere formality. That there wasn’t a host of viable contenders shouldn’t detract from Gatland’s achievement, though. This appointment is as meritocratic as it gets. The New Zealander’s record is second to none: a Lions series victory, two Grand Slams, and a Heineken Cup speaks for itself.
Despite having amassed such unimpeachable credentials, the Wales coach remains a polarising figure in this part of the world. Much of the animosity was generated by the infamous dropping of Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll for the third Lions Test against Australia in 2013. The fact that the Lions handsomely won the encounter failed to vindicate Gatland’s controversial selection in the eyes of most Ireland fans. As I wrote at the time, while I understood Gatland’s rationale in jettisoning the Irish icon for the decisive Test, I felt nevertheless that the Wales coach missed a trick. Although changes were undoubtedly needed for the series finale, there wasn’t a compelling enough case for O’Driscoll to be omitted from the match-day squad. Gatland has complained repeatedly (as elaborated last week) that the hostility generated from dropping the Irishman tarnished the greatest achievement of his coaching career. I believe firmly that the Kiwi could have had his cake and eaten it. By making key changes, but keeping O’Driscoll in situ, the Lions supremo could have enjoyed his historic achievement without the unnecessary controversy that emanated from his contentious third Test selection.
That’s all ancient history now, but the episode tells us much about the Kiwi’s character:tough, uncompromising, ruthless and stubborn. That’s why Gatland’s a winner. Although Wales’s main man is universally respected, it’s hard to think of the former Waikato hooker in terms of affection. Yes, Gatland and his achievements are roundly admired, but liked? Probably not. Winners are rarely likeable characters in sport, though. Look at Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho as cast-iron proof of that! Prodigious winners both, but they wouldn’t be obvious candidates for the diplomatic corps. I think Gatland falls into that category too. The Wales coach loves to win and he isn’t too bothered who gets offended or affronted along the way. When push came to shove, therefore, you can see why the Lions’ blazers opted for the incumbent to take on their latest crusade. For a mission as challenging as the New Zealand tour, you have to be led by the best man available. That man is Warren Gatland.
The scale of the Lions’ challenge is underlined by the lengthening achievements accrued by the world champions. The current All Blacks are majestic, a class apart. I rose early yesterday to watch them in the Rugby Championship. The best team in the world was playing Argentina and struggled initially to find its rhythm. The Pumas played extremely well for the first 50 minutes or so, competing ferociously at every breakdown and contact area. New Zealand, on the other hand, looked sluggish and lethargic for large portions of the match. The final score? 57-22 to New Zealand! The All Blacks pulled away in the second half, impressively routing the Argentinians with a barrage of late tries. It was the world champions’ 14th consecutive victory-incredibly, the All Blacks haven’t lost a home match since 2009! The win was instructive and tells us much about the relentless New Zealand juggernaut. This team knows how to win in virtually any circumstance. They invariably find a way, even when subjected to fierce pressure throughout the pitch. When they’re good, they’re sublime, but even when not playing well, the All Blacks usually get the job done. Just ask Ireland about November 2013. This is the size of the task facing the 2017 Lions, then. In order to make history, the tourists must outwit and outplay one of the greatest teams ever to play the game. Mission impossible indeed. There is a glimmer of hope, though, for the Lions have got their first big decision right by appointing the correct coach. Things are about to get very interesting. It’s time for the most eagerly awaited sequel in rugby: The Lion King, Part 2!