Twenty eight years have passed since Warren Gatland’s first encounter with the Lions as a Waikato player. His home province took the Lions to the cleaners and back, beating them 38-10, and that winning habit has remained a steady theme down the years. Over the course of the 57-year-old Gatland’s coaching career, the other constant has been people’s tendency to underestimate him.
There is something about his gait and demeanour that recalls the film The Usual Suspects when – spoiler alert – the real identity of the criminal mastermind Keyser Söze is belatedly revealed. Even before his foot operation after a bad fall while cleaning the windows of his holiday home in New Zealand before the 2013 Australia tour, Gatland has never aspired to be a whippet-trim tracksuit coach from central casting. Not until it is too late do opponents glance up at the scoreboard and realise they have been had.
Finalmente, aunque, the undemonstrative Kiwi is in danger of having his cover permanently blown. Win one of the next two Tests and he will have a decent claim to be the most effective Lions coach in history. Not even Sir Ian McGeechan, Jim Telfer or Carwyn James presided over three successive Lions tours without losing a series, as Gatland is within touching distance of doing. As head coach his record – P7 W4 D1 L2 – is remarkable and only a late long-range kick penalty denied the 2009 Lions when he was their forwards coach.
On top of all that sit the four Six Nations titles and three grand slams with Wales, whom he also helped steer to two World Cup semi-finals, plus the domestic glory years with Wasps. His teams invariably punch above their weight, as the other home unions have regularly discovered. “He’s up there with the best coaches in world rugby,” says Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, who has played under Gatland on three Lions tours. “The thing I like best about Gats is that you never quite know where you sit with him. He challenges you on a daily basis and brings the best out in everybody because of the mindset he’s got.
“Our training sessions have been between 25 y 50 minutes but he’s happy as long we make them as intense, fast and accurate as we can. He’s done an incredible job but I know he’s not finished. He wants to get everything out of everybody to make sure we’re successful in the next couple of weeks. Then he can enjoy a glass of red and chill out, I reckon.”
In the early days, some mistook this laidback demeanour for apparent laziness. Most of the time, aunque, he was listening and watching. Even before the years he spent sitting on the All Blacks’ bench behind Sean Fitzpatrick, he has always been able to spot a decent rugby player in a crowd. Only the other day, por ejemplo, he was revealing on why he had preferred Jack Conan to other candidates at No 8. “Some people look for the spectacular stuff. It’s not something I do. I looked at all the things he did well and the fact he doesn’t make many mistakes.” Getting the basics right is non-negotiable for any Gatland side.
Shrewd recruitment, few frills, train smart, share a beer together … the blueprint has not changed much over the years. Where some clubs insist on prioritising expensive new training grounds, Gatland has long since recognised that bonding over a pint in a backstreet pub can be just as valuable. Experience has also taught him what really matters to players on tour. “He’s massive on families,” Hogg says. “We’ve had photos in our rooms, we’ve had messages on team selection … just tiny little bits and pieces that make all the sacrifices worthwhile. He knows that if we were living in a normal world they’d all be here supporting us. If you get a happy, healthy human you get an even better rugby player and that’s something he’s massive on. That’s very much appreciated by us as players.”
Resilience has also long been a part of the mix, although the force of the media blowback took him aback when he dropped Brian O’Driscoll for the final Test in 2013. At times on the 2017 tour of New Zealand he also had to dig deep in the midst of a concerted campaign in sections of the local media to cast him as a clown. Given his nationality, he felt seriously aggrieved and took no little satisfaction in showing up to the final press conference after the drawn series in a red clown nose.
As someone who along with his wife, Trudi, had to cope with the tragic death of their first-born child, aged only four months, during his earliest coaching days in Galway, not even this bizarre, Covid-affected tour has shaken his increasingly well-developed sense of perspective. “He’s been calm,” says the England flanker Tom Curry. “He doesn’t say a whole lot, but when he speaks, everyone listens.”
On the eve of a potentially hardcore second Test, this week’s messages have been characteristically straightforward. Gatland has simply told his players to prepare as if they are 1-0 down in the series. Boom. Clear, concise, clever. Given the abbreviated nature of modern tours, it is the ideal Lions modus operandi. One last push and the car salesman’s son from Hamilton will have roared past almost every other coach in the game’s history.