So as news surfaces today that Warren Gatland has taken his name out the hat for the next British and Irish Lions coach in 2021 we’re going to take an in-depth look at the Waikato mans coaching record and try to make a decision to whether the man is a legend or the boring, stifling coach many make him out to be.
Born in Hamilton New Zealand in the early 60s a young Gatland always looked up the Waikato players of his youth, desperate to follow in their footsteps, Warren attended Hamilton Boys’ Highschool and this is where he would get his rugby schooling. A hard-nosed hooker in his day Gatland would go on to emulate his heroes and represent the Waikato region on 140 occasions, a record at the time. But its Warren Gatland the coach that we’re interested in today.
Slowly building his coaching reputation in the Irish second division with Galwegians RFC onto Thames Valley back home and then the Irish region of Connacht, Gatland was obviously garnering the right attention as on the 24th of February 1998 he was appointed head coach of the Irish national team as a replacement of Brian Ashton. Now at that time the Ireland job wasn’t quite the attractive little number it is now with Ireland finishing bottom of the previous 5 Nations tournament with only a solitary victory to their name, this would be quite the test for a fledgeling international manager. Unfortunately for Warren, it was probably a step too far as a wooden spoon in the 1998 5 Nations and a playoff defeat to Argentina in the 1999 Rugby World cup led to his dismissal soon after the tournament.
Wasps, in my opinion, is where Gatland really made his name and sealed his reputation as a defensive but effective head coach. Initially being appointed to Nigel Melville’s coaching staff Warren transformed Wasps from bottom of the table no hopers to one of the meanest defences in Europe and this led to his appointment as D.O.R at the end of the 01/02 season. Wasps and Gatland never looked back winning the 2003, 2004 and 2005 premierships, the 2003 Challenge Cup and to top it off the 2004 Heineken Cup pipping French powerhouses Toulouse in the final with a late Rob Howley try in the corner. The record at Wasps is phenomenal but for some reason, Gatland still rubbed certain people up the wrong way. Hordes of haters labelling the Kiwi as boring and too defensive, only interested in negative rugby. This may well be the case but as they say, winners are grinners.
With Gatland’s reputation as a winner being sky high he took the decision to go home and coach his beloved Waikato, but with such a reputation will always come attention and that certainly happened with the Wales national team after the Hamilton man. Personally I think he would have taken any reasonable international job as he was desperate to prove he wasn’t just a club coach and eradicate some of the negative press which arose from his time with Ireland, but Wales it was that got their man and would be the start of a love affair to stretch over a decade.
So on the 1st of December 2007, Warren Gatland was officially announced as the new head coach of Wales but what impact could he make with a team that didn’t even make it out of the pool stages of the 2007 world cup? In short, an immediate one! Warren was soon to change the Welsh free flowing, try scoring rugby to a more regimented, hard hitting, front foot style and with his defensive coach from Wasps Shaun Edwards in tow they would transform the often leaky Welsh defence into a formidable unit.
The six nation’s is where Gatland saw his first international success with instant effect winning the 2008 grandslam and becoming an immediate welsh legend. Mediocre tournaments in 2009, 2010 and 2011, finishing fourth in all three was followed up with another grand slam in 2012. By this point wales were renowned for their staunch defence and hard, straight running lines typified by inside centre Jamie Roberts. Winning the six nations tournament again in 2013 cemented wales as the top team in Europe at that time.
The part we’re really interested in though, the team that made Gatland a household name all over Britain is the British and Irish lions.
Gatland’s first taste of a Lions tour was the 2009 trip to South Africa. Playing against the current world champions the lions were possibly on the cusp of becoming extinct had they not had a worthy tour, appointed assistant coach under Sir Ian McCeechan, Gatland would have certainly learnt a lot from the Lions legend. The Kiwis influence was easy to see on the test team though with players such as Jamie Roberts, Lee Byrne, Stephen Jones and Mike Phillips dominating the backline of the first test. Unfortunately, the Lions lost the series 2-1 but the performances were enough to save the future of the historic club.
Although this was officially a McGeechan tour a lot of players spoke about the authority Gatland had over the tour and was his first foray into Lions history.
2013, Warren Gatland’s first tour in charge. By this point the British public seemed to have begun their love/hate relationship with the adopted Welshman with much of the non Welsh public disappointed in Gatland’s appointment, arguing that his style is not in the spirit of the Lions and too boring but were not here to listen to others were here to make up our own mind, so let’s look at the facts.
The 2013 tour was without a doubt a success, any winning Lions tour is, to be fair this wasn’t the strongest of Australia sides but history and statistics will tell you how hard it is to win any Lions series. The first of the three tests being a cagey affair, and in all honesty, it could have swung either way with the Lions relying on a Kurtley Beale missed kick at the end to secure the win. But in rugby as in life, you make your own luck.
The second test was much the same with the Australians edging the game 16-15.
Now comes the decider, all the week leading up the game was totally overshadowed by Gatland’s dropping of the Irish Jesus Brian O’Driscoll from the matchday squad. I still wouldn’t have made that decision myself but if there’s one thing about the New Zealander, he isn’t afraid to do what he thinks is right, no matter what the public thinks. Gatland was proved to be right with the Lions smashing the sorry Aussies 41-16 and the Welsh trio of Halfpenny, North and Davies particularly catching the eye.
So, to the last tour, what greater test for Gatland than to take his Lions team to his homeland, possibly the greatest team of all time, and come out with a victory.
From the outset, the Waikato man got stick from the press and public both home and abroad with the British press labelling his style as Warrenball and the typically brash New Zealand press calling him a clown for his attempted mind games with his opposite number. I genuinely don’t think Gatland cares what is said about him and could quite possibly be a brilliant ploy to distract the attention from his players. But back to the rugby, right from the start people criticised the squad selection saying it contained too many Welsh players from a failing Welsh squad and that he hadn’t picked enough flair players.
The provincial games seemed to back up these claims with the Lions looking one dimensional and “boring” but onto the first test, New Zealand coming out comfortable winners 30-15 it was easy to see a repeat of the ill fated 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand headed by Sir Clive Woodward but thankfully that wasn’t to be the case. The second test the Lions coming out 21-24 winners and we all remember the 15-15 thriller to end the series.
Surely a draw in New Zealand has to be counted as a success?
We’ve looked back at Warren Gatland’s career, the lows of coaching Ireland to the highs of grand slams and victorious Lions tours, are we any closer to finding out why he such a divisive figure in the rugby world? It’s clearly his style, people just don’t enjoy watching the bash them up rugby of Warrenball. Is it effective? Absolutely, his record speaks for itself, you don’t win everything the great man has by luck. Yes it can be boring, yes it is negative but I guarantee you that none of you would mind if it was your team winning the league or the Six Nations using Warrenball.
In summary, cut the guy some slack, he’s just a born winner, as many Kiwis are, and wants to win at all costs and in my eyes is absolutely a Lions legend.
Thanks for reading Gainline Rugby again, I’m sure this piece will stir up some debate so let us know exactly what you think in the comments.