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Guscott column: Lions will find that Gatland is a hard man to replace

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Jeremy Guscott

IT sounds as if Warren Gatland retired himself as Lions head coach this week, and I guess coaching the Lions is a bit like Doctor Who. Some last longer than others, and you are never quite sure who is coming next. All we know is that the Lions will have a new coach when they go to South Africa in 2021.

I’m not surprised that Gatland has said he no longer wants the job, but I am surprised that he bothered to respond to Sean O’Brien’s criticisms when he didn’t really need to. By the same token, I’m not sure why the Irish flanker felt he needed to say anything and it’s hard to understand why he did after the event rather than at the time if his concerns were so great.

Gatland’s response may have been because he made a decision to defend the rest of his coaching team after O’Brien went public, but it would have been better if these differences of opinion had been aired in private.

What I know from experience is that Lions tours are very intense and require a huge amount of preparation and flexibility. For instance, the head coach doesn’t know until the last minute what changes he is going to have to make to his selection because of injuries to key players.

There are so many contingencies that a Lions coach like Gatland has to take into consideration it must blow your mind. He’s done all three of the tours now with South Africa in 2009 as an assistant coach, and Australia and New Zealand as head coach, and Gatland’s record of Won 1, Drawn 1, Lost 1 is a pretty decent one.

The 2017 Lions was, in my opinion, the strongest squad to leave these shores since 2001. It was mega-strong, and the quality of it was reflected in O’Brien’s comments about being frustrated at not becoming the first side to win in New Zealand since 1971. However, his comment that they should have won the series 3-0 is a borderline sectioning offence.

Gatland’s contract with Wales goes up to the 2019 World Cup and I hope he enjoys the rest of his time in the job. He’s a strong personality, and that’s probably why he couldn’t resist coming back at O’Brien.

Warren is a confident man, and a proud one, and he has taken Wales to great highs, although probably not as consistently as he might have hoped. Part of the problem was that the squad seemed to fall apart at its peak due to injuries, and another was that Wales never seemed to have the depth to provide the cover required.

Gatland has worked on that, and the proof was there in the 2015 World Cup when Wales only just lost to South Africa in the quarter-finals despite a big injury toll. It could be that his Wales squad can reboot and come again as a maturer side. Sam Warburton appears to have been injured more than he has played, but if he gets a second wind Gatland will have enviable experience in his pack with two world-class forwards in Alun-Wyn Jones and Taulupe Faletau.

Gatland has had frustrations as a national coach with Wales not hitting the heights regularly, and it would be fitting if they played some of their best rugby over the next two years and went into the 2019 World Cup purring.

We all know that there’s a critical time when you are in the spotlight when you have both the devil and the angel on your shoulders. As you get older you hope it’s the angel that is more influential.

However, when you go to your home country you don’t expect to be the butt of bad taste comments and personal attacks in the way that happened to Gatland in New Zealand this summer. The game has always prided itself on standing for honesty and integrity, but instead the local media went to town on  him. I don’t think he’s thin-skinned, it’s just that he felt that it went over the top in terms of criticism.

Gatland can be edgy, and there have been controversies before, like calling out Dylan Hartley and pinpointing Welsh dislike of the Irish. Set against that he has a reputation for standing by his statements, and for copping it if he makes mistakes. Also, as a head coach he has always stood by the principle that the buck stops at his door.

In my career there were few moments that eclipsed those on Lions tours, and Gatland can take satisfaction in leaving the Lions in fine fettle, so that they are capable of growing, prospering and developing further.

Lion instinct: Warren Gatland walks back to the changing rooms at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium after sealing a 2-1 series victory (photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

The biggest challenge for any new coach is that the Lions is different to the rest of modern day pro rugby. Joe Schmidt and Eddie Jones have both been mentioned as possible candidates, but it’s not knowing the culture and fabric of the Lions that is so difficult for someone who has not been around it before to grasp.

Schmidt has had some wonderful results with Ireland, but the tremendous detail he likes to go into is a coaching method that I’m not sure a Lions tour would suit.

Jones has the intensity to do a Lions tour, and from that perspective the role of head coach might fit him well – but we have seen with Graham Henry in 2001, and even a bit with Warren early on – that it takes a bit of time to really understand all the requirements.

In one respect a Lions tour would fit Jones like a glove, but on the cultural side it does not. In any case, Jones will not entertain talking about it until he has finished as England coach after the 2019 World Cup.

As for Gatland, there is always the All Black job to pitch for. The NZRU will not consider anyone based overseas, but if he goes back to New Zealand and coaches there at provincial level he would have to be considered.

Some people might think it would be a step down, but he’s a driven, committed Waikato man who’s done well. I think he would find it a joy because he would have Kiwi players with the skill set to do what he wanted them to – and that might just tempt him.

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