Latest posts by Graham Thomas (see all)
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Never say never again, admitted James Bond and Warren Gatland has confessed that he, too, was wrong to pre-empt his destiny.
The Wales coach – confirmed on Wednesday as the British and Irish Lions coach for 2021 – had famously claimed he would never do the job again after the hurt he felt in New Zealand two years ago.
But, like Sean Connery back in the movie of 1983, Gatland has gone back on his vow. In two years’ time, he will be head coach for a third Lions tour – back where it all began for him in 2009, when he was a losing coach for the only time with the tourists as assistant to Sir Ian McGeechan.
The formal announcement of his engagement for a fourth successive tour may have been one of the worst kept secrets in rugby, but given the way he felt after that trip to his native country in 2017 there was concern he may rule himself out.
After all, at one of his final press conferences in Auckland he said he had “hated” parts of the tour.
“I’ve got to put that into perspective about saying I hated the tour. The thing I struggled with was that there was an element of the New Zealand media that I have no doubt had an orchestrated campaign from the start to try to unsettle me,” said Gatland.
“That took me by surprise and I wasn’t expecting that. I had this romantic view of coming home as an ex-All Black and Kiwi, leading the Lions and letting the rugby do the talking and it being a celebration of rugby.
“That wasn’t the case and that really threw me – it definitely took the gloss off that aspect of the tour. But, when I thought about the Lions experience as a whole, the amazing hospitality in New Zealand, the incredible atmosphere at the games, I just felt it was something I could not turn my back on.
“The Lions is unique, it’s special. If I had turned my back on it I know it would have been something I’d have regretted for the rest of my life.”
His 12-year tenure as Wales’ head coach will come to an end after the World Cup this year and he will move back into his Lions role in August 2020. In the interim he is likely to keep his hand in by picking-up some Super Rugby work back in New Zealand.
But wherever he is, and whatever he is doing, the job of preparing for a five week, eight match trip to face the Springboks in two years’ time won’t be far from his mind.
Having helped to re-build the Lions brand over the past three tours in the wake of the 2005 disaster in New Zealand under Clive Woodward, he now wants to go out with a bang in South Africa.
“The 2009 tour was all about fighting for the survival of the Lions. If we’d been wiped off the face of the earth then the future of the Lions would have been in jeopardy,” said Gatland.
“That tour was about putting respect back into the shirt. When we lost the first two Tests, the third one became incredibly important. We had to leave South Africa with a win.
“Now I think the Lions are in an incredibly healthy state. I sometimes felt the Lions had been a little bit of a sacrificial lamb to the southern hemisphere.
“Everyone is fighting their own corner and you are trying to keep all the stakeholders happy. The challenges, ironically, aren’t with the southern hemisphere, but with the north.
“There is no doubt we have to find a place for the Lions because it’s too important to let go. We have to protect it and make it successful.
“Part of it being successful is having competitive tours and being successful from a rugby aspect. That is why I keep fighting hard for the time to prepare and making sure we get the right number of games.”
A reduction from 10 games to eight will undoubtedly make life more difficult for Gatland, his coaching team and the players, but he might yet get a warm-up game crammed in before he departs as in 2005.
“The biggest thing for me is having time together. I know there are some dates being put in place for the PRO14 and Premiership finals which pose a challenge,” added Gatland.
“The first time the squad assembled before New Zealand was on the Sunday at the leaving dinner. We flew out on Monday, arrived on Wednesday and played on Saturday – I wouldn’t want to do that again.
“None of the four nations would ever have agreed to that, yet we were supposed to be the best of the best and we went under-prepared.
“I’ll be fighting as hard as possible to get the best possible preparation time to give us a chance to at least hit the ground running for the first Test.”
And what about leading the Lions to Australia in 2025? Gatland will, by then, still be only 61.
Never say never.
Our Editor Phil Parry’s memories of his extraordinary 35-year award-winning career in journalism as he was gripped by the incurable disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in a major new book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order the book now! The picture doubles as a cut-and-paste poster!