Warren Gatland was caught in two minds on Sunday, for just about the only time on a tour that saw the Lions win their first Test series in the southern hemisphere for 16 years – and only their fifth triumph since Edward VII was on the British throne and James Joyce could be seen walking the streets of Dublin with Nora Barnacle. Tempted by the prospect of coaching the Lions again, in his native New Zealand in 2017, Gatland was simultaneously horrified at the thought of putting himself through a repeat of this torment.
“There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge, but if the opportunity came my way again it’s something I might look at,” the former All Black hooker said when pressed on his availability, theoretical or otherwise, for the most demanding challenge of the lot. “But then, I might just hang up my boots after the next World Cup, go to the beach and sit there with a glass of red wine and a cigar. This has been tough. There were times last week when I really wasn’t enjoying myself.”
It will take a good while for the fierce negativity generated by the dropping of the great Irish centre Brian O’Driscoll to work its way out of Gatland’s system. The coach is hardly an aficionado of social media, still less an active participant in it, but he was deeply perturbed by the vehemence of the public reaction transmitted via Facebook and Twitter. He was not best pleased by the remarks of some ex-Emerald Isle Lions, either. If Keith Wood and Willie John McBride were on his Christmas card list this time last week, they are not on it now.
Although he was vindicated by the events of Saturday, when the Lions posted a record 41 points in beating the Wallabies and the full-back Leigh Halfpenny set new scoring records for both a single Test and a series (21 and 49 respectively), Gatland took no pleasure in being proved right. The criticism cut him too deeply.
It was left to Andy Irvine, the tour manager, to put the thing to bed from the Lions’ perspective. “Warren’s had one hell of a tough week,” said the Scot. “I was as disappointed as anyone when Brian O’Driscoll wasn’t named in the Test side: without a doubt he has been the outstanding player in the northern hemisphere for the last 20-30 years and ranks up there with Mike Gibson, Gareth Edwards, Willie John and Martin Johnson. Personally, I believe he outstrips them all. But Warren made that decision simply because he thought it was best for the team. It would have been far easier for him to pick Brian, but he didn’t do that because he didn’t think it was right for the side. It was a very difficult choice and he deserves a huge amount of credit.”
When the vexed question of the next Lions tour was raised, Gatland pleaded for a redrawing of the northern hemisphere club schedule – or, at the very least, a sympathetic hearing from the people running the English Premiership, the Celtic-Italian league and the European competitions – that might allow the Lions a realistic period of preparation time. “This tour was harder than the one to South Africa in 2009 and New Zealand will be harder again logistically,” he said.
Irvine went far further. “I think we have the Lions template right again now, following all the things that were wrong the last time we went to New Zealand in 2005,” he remarked, referring to Sir Clive Woodward’s doomed venture to silver fern country. “The one thing I would say – and I believe this passionately – is that the scheduling is all wrong.
“As a Lions board, we did our damnedest to give Warren more time. It is absolutely bonkers that we had a Pro 12 final and a Premiership final 48 hours before we flew out, and believe me, we tried as hard as we could to change it. But you try to persuade the Premiership clubs to move their final, or the people at European Rugby Cup to move theirs. If you can do it, you’re a better man than me.
“I’m not even sure we alter things for 2017 by persuading the New Zealanders to put the tour back, because there is a legally-binding contract in place and unless both parties agree to change it we’re powerless. But make no mistake: once the agreement with the three SANZAR nations [South Africa, New Zealand and Australia] comes up for renegotiation, our coaches will get more time with the players. They have to, because at the moment it is unfair on everyone involved with the Lions.”
With another series of boardroom bunfights on the horizon, the poor bloody infantry – the players themselves – might be forgiven for wondering if it is worth going to New Zealand at all. This is not Sam Warburton’s view, however. The tour captain missed the weekend finale here because of a serious hamstring injury, but he was every bit as bullish yesterday as he was after leading the side to victory in the Brisbane Test.
“They’re talking rubbish,” said the flanker when asked for his response to those who feared the Lions would not stand an earthly chance in the Land of the Long White Shroud, as All Black territory is known. “The moment I saw the squad for this tour I thought we were going to win, and in 2017 it will be the same. Some people involved in four years’ time might have more optimism because of what’s happened here, but I always believe from day one anyway.”