Going to New Zealand for a Test series with the Lions is always difficult. It is a bold call for a coach to take the job.
While Sir Ian McGeechan coached the Lions on a further three tours following his first in 1993, being head coach for two of them, Clive Woodward has not had a subsequent job in professional rugby.
Woodward’s 2005 tour was ultimately a disaster, the worst in living memory. In fairness to the 61-year-old, New Zealand had a much better squad on paper. However, there could be no getting away from the number of things he did to worsen the situation and leave himself in the firing line.
Nevertheless, while Woodward gives himself far too much credit for England’s 2003 World Cup win, he no longer gets enough credit amongst common rugby fans in general. This is down to that tour.
I could list and talk through the mistakes he made, but the big ones are clear. Having a spin doctor, single-person rooms, separate squads, you all know them.
And this, not the fact he lost 3-0 is why people see him as the worst Lions coach ever.
For Gatland, defeat looks inevitable. The Lions are a staggering 18/1 to win the Test series now, and New Zealand are 3/1 on to complete a whitewash. Ask any rugby fan what they would think is the outcome outside the UK and Ireland and they would say 3-0 without hesitating.
So, why do I think Gatland is going to have to take the blame if this happens? Well, there are a number of reasons.
5. Gatland Being Selected In The First Place
This seems a little harsh, but the fact that Gatland was always seen as the inevitable choice from the outset confused me somewhat. Yes, Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt weren’t going to go near the job, but Vern Cotter (a New Zealander leaving his nation) certainly would have. Even so, the Lions has never been limited to those in charge of the four national teams.
Of course, Gatland has won a series, but it was against arguably the worst Australian side of recent years coached by the hugely unpopular Robbie Deans. It really should have been a 3-0 win and whilst that Australian side had good players, they showed how weak they were as the Lions rolled them over in the last Test.
For this to have given Gatland a God-given right to lead the side was frustrating to many.
4. Saying It Was ‘Tough To Watch’ Welsh Defeat
Why oh why did he say this? Gatland came in for criticism for saying it was ‘tough to watch’ Wales’ 16-21 loss to England. Whilst that criticism was generally tabloid driven, it is a comment that heaped fuel on the ‘Gatland only likes Welsh players’ fire.
He is still officially Wales coach, and was when he made those comments, but it was a misjudgement on his part. Perhaps he felt he needed to show he was still committed to Wales, but he could have done that in a much more simple way by not taking the job again.
3. The Squad
This was a shambles. Not the squad itself, but the fact there were more leaks than a Welsh allotment. It was chaos. When it was officially announced that Jonathan Joseph was in with Jamie Roberts out everyone was quick to have a laugh and say ‘how wrong they were’.
In fact, they were more accurate than people like to think. Dylan Hartley, Joe Launchbury, George Ford, James Haskell (eventually replacedBilly Vunipola), Mike Brown and Jamie Heaslip’s omissions were all successfully leaked and the fact there were to be only two Scots was also called correctly.
Regarding the squad – there were many good calls, but for there to have only been two Scottish players and twelve Welsh players, when the former convincingly beat and finished above the latter in the Six Nations, led to criticism from Jim Telfer and Matt Dawson.
Arguably this criticism wasn’t misguided, particularly when in key decisions e.g. Dan Biggar or Finn Russell and Alun Wyn Jones or Launchbury, the Welshman came out on top.
2. The Style Of Play
Again, not so much this in itself, but everything that has gone around it.
Of course, Gatland has had a hard time from the press in New Zealand. He hasn’t dealt with it well though and neither has attack coach Rob Howley, who bizarrely questioned the existence of Warrenball and claimed the side are playing ‘chaos rugby’, which is not true.
The Lions have played some nice rugby and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. But that is not the way it will go on to be remembered if they play like they did in the first Test. I may go on to disagree with this as an overall assessment of Gatland but I can’t help but feel that he is never going to be a man known for coaching a team to play with flair.
1. The ‘Geography Six’
This really has been a complete and utter disaster. There will be those who say people like me would complain about anything. I opposed their selection, and then their non-selection.
But I did that for a good reason. In the first place I believed it devalued the shirt, but for them to then not be picked when it was essential replacements were brought on just shows how little faith Gatland had in them.
He should’ve brought in the very best he could, especially if he knew he’d need more. Instead, he brought in cannon fodder that he had no intention of using unless it was simply essential. There is no denying the Lions blew that 14-point lead simply because of fatigue. To bring them in the first place was silly, to think they weren’t as good as their shattered teammates on the pitch was plain wrong. I’m sure it has been a desperately difficult experience for the players themselves too.
Sean McMahon’s article goes into more detail on this, and has been corroborated by the words of Brian O’Driscoll, who claims the players have felt ’embarrassed’ and distant from the squad.
I’m not saying for one minute Gatland has done a terrible job, but these mistakes will mean that if the Lions are unable to win one of the last two Tests, he will get the same vilification as Clive Woodward.
Luckily for his sake, he has the Welsh job to go back to.
Nick Powell, Pundit Arena