Gatland: I'll never coach the Lions again


CARDIFF, Wales — Warren Gatland will not coach the British & Irish Lions again.

Gatland spearheaded the famous touring side’s series victory over Australia in 2013 and followed with a drawn Test series against the All Blacks earlier this year. However, he took criticism levelled in his direction during and after the 2017 tour personally and Sean O’Brien’s comments last month were the final straw.

“I’m done. I hated the tour,” Gatland said. “I did. I just hated the press and the negativity in New Zealand. When I look back on it now there were a lot of things that were satisfying and what an achievement it was but it was tough work. It was hard.

“You watch how hard the coaches and the backroom staff worked — they worked their absolute bollocks off on that tour — and then to have someone come out and make a comment like that … it really, really did hurt.”

Gatland’s unwavering passion for the Lions remains but after two tours he feels he has done his time and will not be in the mix as head coach for the 2021 tour to South Africa.

“I wouldn’t subject myself to that,” Gatland said. “What I’ve learned from my Lions’ experiences is how difficult it is to put some continuity together in terms of people and staff and the lack of preparation time … let someone else do it. Let someone else reinvent the wheel.”

And so, on a calm, non-descript afternoon near Cardiff, came the end — barring the most monumental volte-face — of Gatland’s three-tour association with the Lions, having been part of Sir Ian McGeechan’s backroom staff on their 2009 trip to South Africa.

In 2013 Gatland was taken aback by the backlash to his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll for the third Test and, four years on, O’Brien’s views have left their mark. They are the scars he wears, weighing heavy alongside the adulation of an unbeaten record as head coach.

O’Brien, speaking in September, criticised the coaching methods on tour and said the Lions should have won 3-0 against the All Blacks. He also said Rob Howley, who was in charge of the attack, “struggled with the group” and added Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell “drove everything” in training the week running up to their second Test.

“I was disappointed,” Gatland said of O’Brien’s comments. “I have to be honest — it took a bit of the gloss off the Lions tour. If he wanted to say something then there is a different forum rather than being critical.

“No-one has ever in the history of the game taken on a tour of that magnitude or difficulty. Did we learn as coaches from that experience? Would we have done some things differently? Of course, we would. That’s part of coaching, part of the experience. If he was going to make some comments, then he could have done so in a different way.”

Gatland also felt O’Brien’s views they should have won the series 3-0 were “disrespectful to New Zealand”. “I don’t know what planet he’s on but I was on a different tour to him if he thought we should have won comfortably,” Gatland continued. And regarding his comments on Sexton and Farrell, Gatland argued that player empowerment is “what you want” as a coach and “ironically, I see that as a compliment”.

Billy Vunipola, who missed the tour through injury, also spoke out saying they would have won 3-0 had Eddie Jones been in charge. “I’ve never had any involvement with Billy,” Gatland said. “That’s the disappointing thing. You get second-hand people coming in and making comments as well.”

It all adds up to Gatland not wanting to endure it all over again in four years’ time. “All the pressure is on the [Lions] head coach,” Gatland said. “I don’t feel there is anything near the same pressure on players as there is on coaches”.

Gatland attempted to contact O’Brien when the comments were first out in the public domain. “I rang and left a message to say I was disappointed. He texted me three weeks later to say that he had just cleared his voicemail. And that he had been taken out context, or some things. I texted to say he could call me at any time but I’ve not heard back from him.”

He continued: “There’s no doubt Sean O’Brien had a fantastic tour. He played exceptionally well. There’s no doubt about his contribution on the playing field, he was excellent. In the changing room, as a voice, from a leadership point of view, he contributed extremely well. It’s only fair to acknowledge that. He was outstanding in the way that he did play and contribute.”

With his contract with the WRU up in two years’ time, Gatland is yet to plot his post-2019 plans out, but his focus is now back on Wales as he plans for their four-Test autumn programme.

He was excited and animated when talking about their chances as the countdown starts in earnest to the 2019 World Cup. It starts with the autumn internationals and familiar faces. He faces the All Blacks again, but it will be with his Wales hat on, a line now drawn under his time with the Lions.