Lions 2021: It is Warren Gatland's adaptability, not his stubbornness, that makes him such a special coach

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland celebrates after drawing the series against New Zealand in 2017 Credit: Getty Images AsiaPac 

Warren Gatland’s teams are difficult to break down and tough to beat. Typically, they are stubborn in the extreme. Think of the defensive steel and fierce resilience that galvanised Wales’ recent Grand Slam campaign, for instance.

It is easy to associate the same trait with Gatland as a person and as a professional. However, that would not be accurate.

On the contrary, adaptability and experience will be the New Zealander’s most valuable assets over the next two years – a seminal career stretch beginning with Rugby World Cup 2019 and finishing in South Africa following his third British and Irish Lions tour as head coach.

Compromise is vital as one of the sport’s most precious relics from the amateur era fights to retain its place in modern rugby union’s claustrophobic calendar. After overseeing the Barbarians against Wales, Gatland will be free to concentrate on the Lions role.

He should have more time to survey matches and ponder his preferred blend of players and staff while also solidifying all-important logistical matters such as training schedules. Given how well Gatland has done in the past while thinking on his feet with a tighter brief, it is reasonable to think that he will thrive.

Gatland (far right) was a coach on the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa Credit: PA

Already, he has proven himself to be a canny problem-solver who cuts his cloth according to the resources available to him. Occasionally, he has courted controversy and stirred consternation on the way to making awkward decisions.

Dropping Brian O’Driscoll to start Jonathan Davies, unquestionably the in-form centre on the tour, alongside Jamie Roberts for the series decider against Australia in 2013 is the case study. Gatland opted for the cohesion of two Wales teammates and was rewarded with a 41-16 victory over the Wallabies.

O’Driscoll, famously, did not make the bench. Manu Tuilagi wore 23. Gatland showed total conviction for the good of the team.

“I was excommunicated from Ireland,” he said two years ago in an interview for Off the Ball with O’Driscoll. “I had to come back and beg for forgiveness on The Late Late Show.

“But as a coach, if you are going to make a decision – and it’s a massive call, leaving out one of the best players in the world and a great Lion – the easiest, the softest thing would be to put Brian on the bench.

“That would have appeased everyone. But we looked at it and thought: ‘Is Manu a better bench player?’ Yes, he would have been. With 15 minutes to go, he could have covered a couple of different positions.

Gatland and O'Driscoll together on the 2013 Lions tour Credit: Getty Images 

“If you’re going to do it, you have to commit to it and go the whole hog. That’s where we went.”

Some might suggest that a starting 15 featuring 10 Wales internationals meant Gatland had already gone the “whole hog”. There were loud accusations of nepotism.  

Prior to the tour, though, Gatland opted for England defence coach Andy Farrell ahead of Wales lieutenant Shaun Edwards. Gatland admitted that the “agonising” decision came down to a desire for alternative perspectives.

“I felt from a selfish point of view, with the continuity provided by Graham [Rowntree] and Rob [Howley], I wanted the opportunity to work with someone fresh who would challenge me.”

Edwards took the setback on the chin.

“I got a real buzz from being able to buy my parents a house when I was 25,” he explained to The Sunday Times just this year. “And I was proud of how I reacted to the rejection of not being selected as one of the Lions’ coaches for the 2013 tour to Australia.

“Warren just said ‘I’m going with Andy’ and that was it. I’d been with the Lions in 2009 and really wanted to do it again. I still do. Every press man wanted me to talk s--- about Warren and I could have moaned and whinged.

Shaun Edwards and Gatland have continued to enjoy a successful coaching relationship Credit: REX

“Instead I chose to deal with it like I would want one of our players to deal with rejection. That’s what I did and I’m pleased I did.”

That Edwards and Gatland continue to form an effective partnership with Wales speaks volumes for their maturity and professionalism. Revisiting the Lions’ 2017 trip to New Zealand, when Edwards was again overlooked, allows us to appreciate more examples of Gatland’s shrewdness.

Phil Morrow, Saracens’ highly-rated performance director, joined the party to help players through the brutal slog as a strength and conditioning coach. The infamous Geography Six policy, perhaps encouraged by events of a 2013 tour match against the Brumbies, helped preserve the Test squad.

Although Sean O’Brien criticised the Lions coaches for overworking the players in the lead-up to the series-opening loss at Eden Park, Gatland has since revealed that he recognised the same problem and swallowed his pride before amending timetables. He tweaked his team too.

Owen Farrell shifted to inside centre as Johnny Sexton came in for Ben Te’o, who had punched holes impressively in Auckland yet could not deliver a 15-metre scoring pass when it counted. Gatland needed sharper distribution. Peter O’Mahony, skipper in the first Test, was sacrificed in order to unleash O’Brien and Sam Warburton as a duo. Maro Itoje replaced George Kruis. Courtney Lawes and CJ Stander benched.

An intrepid back three of Elliot Daly, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson epitomised Gatland’s mettle, as did his faith in Jamie George before the Saracen had usurped Dylan Hartley as England’s number one number two. Kyle Sinckler was also trusted to make a late impact.

Jamie George started for Gatland's Lions before he had started for England Credit: Getty Images AsiaPac 

Following that 1-1 series draw, an immense achievement given the strength of the opposition and a relentless tour schedule, Gatland has returned to Wales and played a blinder in the second half of this Rugby World Cup cycle.

Depth has been developed and his team demonstrated clever tactical nuances in this season’s Six Nations, such as their powerful wings joining pick-and-go sequences to alleviate the carrying load on a relatively light, nimble back row.

The announcement of a Lions head coach sets the mind spinning over possible assistants and playing combinations. That anticipation should not dim just because the unveiling will not cause any surprise.

Gatland is likely to mix things up with a few new coaches. Ronan O’Gara or Alex Sanderson would be intriguing additions.

As for a side, his nous means that if the best chance of beating the Springboks is to combine twin opensides – maybe two from Hamish Watson, Dan Leavy, Ellis Jenkins and Tom Curry – in the same back row behind a lock pairing of Maro Itoje and James Ryan, it is likely that the New Zealander will strike that balance.

Should he feel as though Taulupe Faletau and Billy Vunipola can collaborate at six and eight – and we will never know if that was the plan in 2017 – then Gatland will take a look. Remember that Jack Nowell and Stuart Hogg will have had a couple of years together as Exeter Chiefs colleagues by then. Gatland values cohesion.   

He is battle-hardened and full of conviction, yet also flexible. Watching him head back to South Africa to avenge 2009 will be very interesting.