It was a bit like the Steve Redgrave moment at the 1996 Olympics Games. Just after the great British oarsman had bagged his fourth gold medal in Athens he told the world they had his permission to “shoot him” if he ever went near a boat again.
Fast forward 21 years and Warren Gatland uttered the same sort of sentiment after guiding the British & Irish Lions to a drawn series against the world champion All Blacks. “Never again,” he said, but four years on he will be back at the helm in South Africa.
Redgrave ended on the highest of highs with a fifth gold medal in Sydney. Now all Gatland has to do is complete the “unfinished business” of 2009, when he was the forwards coach in South Africa working under Ian McGeechan, and all will be well.
The formal announcement of his engagement for a third 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 New Zealand 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 NZ 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 NZ, 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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
Irish stars tipped to shine in 2021
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton can start setting their sights on a clean-sweep of Lions tours following the announcement of Warren Gatland as head coach for 2021.
Munster No 9 Murray joined Leinster outside half Sexton on the 2013 tour to Australia and teamed-up with him once again in New Zealand four years later. South Africa may be two years away, but Gatland wants to lean on as much experience as possible.
“The impression I get is that a lot of players are seeing 2021 as their end date. They are focused on getting past this year’s World Cup and keeping their bodies together to try to get through to South Africa in 2021,” said Gatland. “There are a few players in that Irish set-up who are in their early 30s, but it is paramount we have senior players who are experienced. They are important from a leadership point of view and the support they give the tour captain.”
Gatland acknowledged Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones and England’s Owen Farrell are early front runners for the captaincy, but whoever he picks will have to be guaranteed to get into his Test side.
“On previous tours we guaranteed all the players a start in the first three games... we may have to look at that now. Do you go with a few more preconceived ideas about what your potential Test team might look like from the start and pick accordingly?” — Rob Cole