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"It didn't feel like it was about the rugby" - Warren Gatland

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Tuesday May 21, 2024

When it comes to the British and Irish Lions, nobody is more synonymous with the great touring side in the professional than Wales coach Warren Gatland.

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The 60-year-old New Zealander has been a staple in Rugby across the British and Irish Isles since 1989 when he joined the Irish club Galwegians as a player/coach.

Renowned for his revolutionary training methods, Gatland was destined to become a top-class coach. Thirteen major trophies later, nobody can argue that he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest coaches in rugby history.

Amongst his long list of accolades, Gatland has been involved with four Lions tours, firstly as an assistant to Ian McGeechan in 2009 before leading the next three tours as head coach.

Defeating Australia in 2013, Gatland built on the strong work of McGeechan’s side in 2009 and the Lions brand was firmly restored following a disastrous outing under Sir Clive Woodward in 2005.

Four years later, Gatland would lead the Lions against his home country of New Zealand in what was an at times firey series, which would end as a draw with one win a piece before the decisive third test was drawn.

Gatland’s next dive south would be to face reigning World Champions South Africa in a series that was heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

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Downing the Boks in the first test, Gatland and the Lions were once again on the precipice of history.

This was, of course, until all hell broke loose and Bok head coach Rassie Erasmus’s controversial hour-long video criticising the match officials went viral.

Whilst Erasmus would subsequently receive a length ban for his actions, the Boks would regroup and eventual took the series 2 – 1 at an empty Cape Town Stadium courtesy of a 19 – 16 win.

Rassie Erasmus hit with ban following misconduct hearing for THAT video

Speaking on the highly popular podcast ‘The Rugby Pod” with his former flyhalf Dan Biggar and host Jim Hamilton, Gatland delved into his experiences with the famous touring team.

Starting the conversation, Hamilton asked the coach, “Gats, we’ve got to talk about the Lions because we are about a year out again. Having coached it yourself, Is it going to be weird for you to watch them go down to Australia?” He asked before bringing up how bizarre the previous series was, “I know the last one was in COVID, so maybe start with that. Did it feel different?”

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Replying Gatland immediately offered an interesting perspective on the tour which he felt had followed on from the off the field controversies of the previous series in New Zealand.

“Yeah, it was different, probably for me. I think the tour should have been postponed. There were a couple of nations that felt that postponement would impact their World Cup preparation.

“For me, I thought that was rubbish; I thought having a Lions tour without fans. For me, it is not about the rugby; it’s about the fans, which is what makes it special.”

Chipping in, Biggar said, “It’s the Lions experience that makes it special, isn’t it, Gats?” To which the Kiwi responded, “Yeah, it is. I got caught up, and I have this romantic view of the Lions that it’s a celebration of the game.

“You’re bringing players together from four nations, and you’re playing against traditionally one of the best nations in the world once every twelve years, and it’s the fans that make it.

“It’s a chance for the southern hemisphere to experience what we often experience in the Six Nations games where 40% of the crowd can be Lions supporters and that’s what creates that atmosphere.

“If you go and watch an All Blacks or Australian game being played there, 95% of the fans are local supporters so they kind of get to experience what happens during that Six Nations.

“That is almost more important than the game and the rugby in terms of that experience.”

Shifting his focus to the South African tour, Gatland said, “That was probably the first time I experienced what happened in South Africa, it was almost a win at all costs, the ends justifies the means.

“Some of the stuff that happened off the field with Rassie and even in New Zealand in 2017, there were certain things with the media that I was like ‘, it’s the Lions have changed the teams you’re playing against’.

“It didn’t feel like it was about rugby; it was about winning was the most important thing.

“It was almost like things off the field were there to upset players or the team was acceptable.”

Reverting to how special the Lions concept is, the Wales boss was emphatic in his love for everything it stands for.

“It’s an unbelievable concept, and we should do everything we can to protect the Lions going forward.

“I really hope that Australia next year will be, we are touring Japan with Wales so I hope to get down there for the third test.

“I look forward to getting to watch it as a fan again, and I am really privileged to have that experience. I am humbled by my involvement with the Lions and really proud of that. It means a huge amount to me, and I will back the Lions as a team, and we should do everything to make sure it flourishes.”

 

 

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