Warren Gatland is leading his third successive tour as Lions head coach

Credit: PA

By his own admission, Warren Gatland was finished with the Lions in 2017 after a bruising experience in New Zealand. “I’m done,” he said. “I hated the tour. I did. I just hated the press and the negativity in New Zealand. I wouldn’t subject myself to that [another tour].” 

Yet here he is again in South Africa on his fourth tour preparing for his third successive series as head coach. Gatland was not being deceitful with his comments four years ago. In spite of the results – a 1-1 draw against the world champions – the events had left some deep scars. The Lions, as he says, “is agony or ecstasy – there’s nothing in between”.

Time heals everything. The greater the distance between him and the series, the more the pain subsided while the embers of passion reignited. When the invitation came in 2019 from the Lions committee to lead them against the Springboks, he had very little hesitation in accepting. 

“When they approached me it was hard to say no,” Gatland said. “You realise there’s a massive amount of pressure and I felt that on occasions when people have not agreed with decisions or when the New Zealand media had a crack at me last time and tried to unsettle me. You go away from it, you reflect and then it is pretty hard to reject an offer to come back and coach the Lions and the opportunity you have to make some special memories.” 

That means subjecting himself to all the same stresses, which will only be amplified by the long shadow of Covid-19 hanging over the series. Not that he needed a reminder, but the loss of his captain, Alun Wyn Jones, just seven minutes into the opening warm-up match against Japan illustrates how little best-laid plans count for. Yet stress for Gatland has been a constant companion throughout his career as a player and coach. It permeates everywhere. Including his bowel movements. 

“I’m always nervous in the box,” Gatland said. “It is probably no different to when I was playing. I would go and have a nervous poo, just exactly like I was playing. I don’t mean to be crass but I am just as nervous on the morning of the game with the butterflies. 

“When you’re sitting in the box, your biggest hope is that ‘please let us be ahead by 20-30 points with 10 minutes to go so I can relax and enjoy the last 10 minutes’. That’s often not the case. You are in arm-wrestles which go down to the wire. I finish afterwards, take off my jacket and I have got sweat under the armpits and a rush of adrenaline.” 

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There is also a sense of “unfinished business” for Gatland in South Africa where he was the assistant coach under Sir Ian McGeechan in the 2-1 series defeat. Early in that tour, McGeechan asked Gatland to present the squad with their jerseys, which the New Zealander declined. 

“I felt that it was not the right time,” Gatland said. “I felt that I had not earned my stripes. I politely declined his invitation even though it was a massive honour. I think the Lions is incredibly special and unique as an entity and I am passionate about protecting it and making sure it continues in the game.” 

It was at that point at which McGeechan knew that Gatland ‘got’ the Lions. Even in defeat, Gatland believes the Lions got “the respect back in the jersey.” 

If there was one lesson that Gatland will take away from 2009, it will be to be prepared for the crank up in intensity in the Test series. Twelve years ago, the Lions won all six of their warm-up games against provincial teams missing their Springboks only to be blown away by South Africa’s physicality in the first half of the opening Test. 

Gatland (left) alongside Sir Ian McGeechan and Neil Jenkins ahead of the first Test in 2009

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“We went into that first Test thinking we were in better shape than we were,” Gatland said. “All of a sudden you come up against players who are stronger, bigger and a bit better and more physical. I think we are prepared for that this time with our past experiences. 

“South Africa pride themselves on their history and what it means to represent their nation. [South Africa and New Zealand] are two nations where it is all about winning and success. You can feel that in the streets and the grounds. Maybe this group of players will miss out on that experience but they are well aware of who we are playing against. For the Welsh and English boys there’s probably a bit of redemption from what happened in the World Cup.” 

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If the 2009 series – in spite of the defeat – arguably saved the Lions then it is still a concept that remains on the endangered list. Its space in the calendar being continually squeezed. Too many of its stakeholders are compromised in representing the Lions at the top table so it needs men like Gatland to fight their case. 

“I know people have not always been happy with some of the things that I have said but I strongly believe in a lot of the things the Lions represent, the history and I think there’s a massive part in the game for the Lions for the future,” Gatland said. 

“Hopefully we can all get together to solve some of the issues that have been created within the game to help the Lions in the future to prepare. It is important for the southern hemisphere. It is very important financially for the northern hemisphere. I think the potential for the Lions to grow is massive. 

“I think it creates superstars within the game. It also brings a huge amount of people who don’t really follow rugby into supporting a team that creates an enormous amount of interest. That’s something that we should really protect.” 

The love affair seems stronger than ever. Would Gatland be able to resist the Lions’ siren call in four years’ time? “I don’t know,” Gatland said. “It depends if you win or not. If you win someone might ask you to do it again. If you get beat then that’s the end. That’s the reality of professional sport. I have been very grateful for the opportunities I have had and particularly from the Lions. I hope I have demonstrated my passion for the Lions and what it means.” 

South Africa show their power in low key win over Georgia

By Gavin Mairs at Loftus Versfeld

South Africa 40 Georgia 9

After 608 days since defeating England in the Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama, South Africa made a hesitant return to the international stage with an ultimately comfortable victory over Georgia in the first meeting between the two sides at the Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria last night.

The Springboks could be forgiven for showing more than a touch of rust for their first competitive game together for almost two years, but the contest lacked the quality to shed much light on the upcoming Test series against the British and Irish Lions.

Their fitful start was such that Georgia led 9-5 after 25 minutes after three penalties by fly-half Tedo Rbzhandadze to a try by the hugely-impressive Aphelele Fassi. And yet once the Springboks edged into the lead with tries by Bongi Mbonambi and Cobus Reinach, the second half resembled little more than a training run for the hosts.

Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, was not able to attend the match because of the Covid-19 restrictions but watching from the squad’s hotel in Johannesburg, his match notes would no doubt make reference to the dominance of the Springbok scrum and little sign of any dilution in their physicality.

More importantly for his opposite number, Jacques Nienaber, was simply the chance to gather more match data on his players, given so little game time because of the coronavirus.

Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit all enjoyed decent work outs while Steven Kitshoff and Malcolm Marx made significant impacts from the bench.

Kwagga Smith scored his first Test try from a dominant scrum with tries by Herschel Jantjies, Marx and Elton Jantjies completing the victory.

Both sides meet again next Friday at Ellis Park when the Springboks should be sharper and the margin of victory even greater.

Scoring sequence: 0-3 Abzhandadze pen, 5-3 Fassi try, 5-6 Abzhandadze pen, 5-9 Abzhandadze pen, 10-9 Mbonambi try, 12-9 Pollard con, 17-9 Reinach try, 19-9 Pollard con, 24-9 Smith try, 26-9 Pollard con, 31-9 H Jantjies try, 33-9 Pollard con, 38-9 Marx try, 40-9 E Jantjies con

South Africa: W le Roux; R Specman, J Kriel, F Steyn (D Willemse 55), A Fassi; H Pollard (E Jantjies 63), C Reinach (H Jantjies 55); O Nche (S Kitshoff 50), B Mbonambi (M Marx 50), T Nyakane (F Malherbe 29, 50), E Etzebeth (M Orie 40), F Mostert, S Kolisi (c), P du Toit, K Smith (J Wiese 60)

Georgia: D Niniashvili; A Tabutsadze, G Kveseladze, M Sharikadze, D Tapladze; T Abzhandadze (G Babunashvili 72), V Lobzhanidze (G Aprasidze 60); G Gogichashvili (N Khatiashvili 60), J Bregvadze (G Chkoidze 44), G Melikidze (L Japaridze 50), D Gigauri, K Mikautadze (N Cheishvili 41), I Spanderashvili (I Tskhadadze 50), B Saghinadze, T Jalagonia (G Javakhia 60)

Yellow card: Saghinadze 35

Referee: M Adamson