Battle-hardened Warren Gatland embraces the propaganda war heading his way in New Zealand
Warren Gatland approached the Lions job interview telling himself, “I don’t think I can lose.” He explains: “Being offered it would be fantastic, a great honour, and if they didn’t offer it to me I could say - thank god, I’ve just dodged a bullet. That’s how tough it is.” He is joking. Probably.
The “toughness” of a British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand was spelt out to the head coach before the plane had left the tarmac. First, Eddie Jones, the England coach, told Brian Moore in The Telegraph’s Full Contact podcast: "I think they've picked a certain style of team based on the influence of the Welsh coaches, so I think they're looking to attack like Wales with big gain-line runners, with not much ball movement, and I think you struggle to beat the All Blacks like that.”
On the same, pre-flight weekend, Shane Horgan, the former Ireland wing and centre, was telling Sunday Times readers: “I'm not sure Gatland has the playbook and flexibility for this challenge. In fact, I would be more confident if any of the other three home nation coaches were in charge. So I ask myself: is Gatland the weakest link on the tour?”
Nice send-off. The “bullet” Gatland talked about was meant to be New Zealand’s brilliance, which is accentuated on their own shores. And he was already bracing himself for a propaganda war when the squad arrive. Rugby, though, is a sport for straight-talkers, so Gatland will not have been shocked to see so many barbed wire bouquets on the London runway.
When we spoke, he was certainly monitoring the hostility in New Zealand and volunteering himself as a lightning rod to protect his players (Kiwi coach comes home to plot against his own kin - that kind of thing). “They’ve already been quite spiky. I’ve found that quite interesting,” he says. “They’re already the ones that have subtly started a couple of things, put a few things out there. It hasn’t come from the English or Irish media.
“There’s a potential that we’ll have to deal with that at some stage. Sometimes [there’s a case for] putting the focus on yourself for a week to take the heat off the players and let them focus and relax, because that way people in the media aren’t talking about them and their match-ups, their strengths and weaknesses. Every now and then you’ve got to be prepared to do that. Or get involved in other aspects, to put that focus on yourself.”
The focus is already on Gatland, who led a series win in Australia four years ago. “With my competitive nature, the chance to go and challenge yourself against the best team in the world is something I would have regretted saying no to,” he says. “Having been involved in 2009 and 2013, there were different focuses. In 2009 [in South Africa] it was about getting respect back in the jersey, after the disappointment of 2005, when people were saying: is this the end of Lions tours? [In Australia] in 2013 it was all about going out there and winning. And I see this tour as the ultimate challenge.”
Gatland is no slouch himself at the mischief game, and a question about New Zealand’s potential vulnerabilities on the tour, which starts on Saturday, is enthusiastically received. “You see how well their Super Rugby sides are going,” he starts out. “They’re playing phenomenally well. Like everyone, though, I think there are two or three positions where they don’t want to pick up too many injuries. Second row looks the one for me, in terms of [Brodie] Retallick and [Sam] Whitelock being pretty important to them. Ben Smith is carrying an injury. Kieran Read. It’d be interesting if they lost Beauden Barrett. But if they do lose someone they seem to have this conveyor belt of players who come out of nowhere.
“I was speaking to someone [in New Zealand] this morning. There’s a bit of apprehension about picking up too many injuries.”
Slim hopes, you might think. But worth planting the thought. Gatland’s main task, though, is to concoct a style of play and a Test XV that gives the world champion All Blacks problems on their own paddock. “We have to make things uncomfortable for them,” he says. “They’re used to things happening for them all the time. You’ve got to be able to challenge them a bit.” Here, his experience of squad management on two previous tours comes into play.
“It’s obvious that in the first five games you’re not going to show everything, you’re not going to show your hand,” he says. “But given the limited time together you can’t allow things to knock you off course. What I’ve learned on past tours is that the whole thing is about a Test series. The warm-up games and lead-up games are for the Test series. Yes you want to perform well, but if you drop a game because you’re trying something then it’s not the end of the world. The important thing is not to get hung-up about those things, not to worry too much about that.
“In 2009 the South Africans had pulled their players out of the provincial games. We won those games reasonably comfortably, and in the first Test we were under-done, under-cooked. In 2013 we played too many games that were too easy. The focus changed in that first Test, thinking, if we’re going to win this tour, after 2009, we’ll have to protect as many of the Test players as we could before that first one. I know we could have put out a stronger team against the Brumbies, and won that, but it may have cost us the series.
“In 1997, when the Lions won [in South Africa], people don’t remember us losing a game or two. That’s what’s going to be good for this tour. The quality of the opposition is going to be outstanding, and the games tough, but the aim is to be battle-ready for the Test series, and if we drop a game along the way it’s not going to be the end of the world as long as we’re prepared for that first Test.”
Squad selection is another political issue that tends to follow Lions head coaches around, especially when results go south, but Gatland insists his picks were shaped by people “playing their way in” more than “playing their way out.” He does concede, though, that two hammerings taken by a core of Scotland players counted against them.
“The challenge for the Lions is playing away from home against the best team in the world,” he begins. “I looked at that [England-Scotland] result [61-21] and it was difficult for them. It’s always a challenge to go to Twickenham. Potentially had Scotland lost by 10 or 15 points then that would have been acceptable. But it was a blow-out in the end. A number of those players had a chance to redeem themselves when Glasgow played Saracens and it was kind of the same result [38-13].
“So, there are times when you look at everything. It’s not just one incident. You go through the experiences of that player.”
Overall, he says: “I’d like to think the public will think - they’ve been really good selections. For example Jack Nowell. For some people that might have been a surprise. But I think he’s got something a bit different. Or Peter O’Mahony, in the last game for Ireland against England.”
The impression of a squad running on empty and pitched into a ludicrously-challenging schedule is not one Gatland is encouraging. To plant such thoughts in players’ minds would not only breed pessimism but suggest a pre-cooked excuse in the event of failure.
“If we have to pull a training session because they’ve had a hard game, we’ve worked them tough, or the physios and medics are saying these guys need a break, then I’m prepared to do that,” Gatland says. “It would have been a long season for them, and it’s a tough tour, so we’ve got to keep them mentally and physically right as much as possible.
“I’m a great believer in getting that tour balance between seeing a bit of the country and - ‘train hard, play hard’.”
In other words, the odd beer and bungee jump, which surely no-one would begrudge them. Especially Gatland, who must already feel he has jumped off a cliff on the elastic rope of opinion.