British & Irish Lions

Lions' SA tour: Clouds swirl around gnarly Warren Gatland

Warren Gatland (Getty)
Warren Gatland (Getty)
  • Warren Gatland’s Chiefs are in a trough, with five defeats on the trot across the two Super Rugby versions this year.
  • But the seasoned mastermind has a strong track record for bouncing back after periods of difficulty.
  • Current woes in Hamilton should have very little relevance to his task in charge of the Lions in SA next year.

Warren Gatland's long-time but constantly greying hair is enough to remind the world that he has pretty much seen and done it all in rugby.

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On that basis, he will hardly be a bundle of nerves and negative energy simply because his Chiefs outfit are going through a protracted lean spell in New Zealand.

But he is also wise enough to know that it is the kind of awkward period that will draw gradually sharper, more critical scrutiny... especially as he will soon enough be masterminding, for the visiting cause, the glamour event of next year's international schedule: the British and Irish Lions tour of World Cup-holding South Africa.

Touch wood, the major safari will be largely be unaffected by any ongoing concerns around the coronavirus pandemic, and proceed as planned with the three Tests scheduled for late July and early August (even as rumours persist that a slight pushback may be required).

The 56-year-old Gatland, born and educated in the Chiefs' traditional stronghold of Hamilton, was a hooker in his playing days.

It is a berth often occupied by particularly feisty, no-nonsense characters and he was a good one, too: as evidenced by being All Black No 892, although all 17 of his matches were non-Tests.

But it is much more as a coach that his reputation in rugby union has been defined, as he started out in that capacity for Irish club Galwegians in 1989. Gatland rose inspiringly through the ranks to head up the Irish national cause for three years and then had a particularly lengthy tenure at the helm of Wales between 2007 and 2019 with the odd sabbatical in between for blue-chip, Lions-related duties.

To anyone perhaps guilty of adopting too much of a knee-jerk attitude to Gatland's current difficulties in Waikato, remember this much: he experienced both notable highs and lows - at widely varying periods - while in charge of Wales, as you might expect of such an extraordinarily lengthy tenure.

On the glittering plus side, he took them to a Grand Slam (all wins) in his first crack at the prestigious Six Nations in 2008, and then two more: one in roughly mid-term (2012) and the last, poignantly, in his final season in Cardiff in 2019, making him the first coach in the competition's history to claim three 'Slams.

That, staggered haul was solid evidence, really, that a bit of patience in absorbing the rough with the smooth will generally pay dividends - even if it means lean seasons like both 2009 and 2010 when Gatland's charges subsided noticeably to humdrum fourth each time.

There is also his already yeoman contribution to the Lions to mull over... and overwhelmingly to his favour.

Gatland was an assistant coach to them for the first time on their last South African safari in 2009, a rollercoaster series in which the Lions really should have closed out the pivotal, dramatic second Test at Loftus which they had largely dominated... only to be robbed late by Morne Steyn's 52nd-minute monster penalty to go 0-2 down with just a dead-rubber clash left to play for a consolation (but convincing) Lions win.

He will still have a very useful memory bank from that venture 12 years ago to rely on when the Lions arrive again in 2021.

The New Zealander has also been the head coach on both of the last two Lions tours, producing Test series results that deserve to go down as pleasing in each instance: a 2-1 triumph in Australia (2013) and that nerve-jangling 1-1 share of the spoils, with one draw, from the epic battles with the then Webb Ellis Cup-holding All Blacks, his own playing-level pride and joy, in 2017.

Yet Gatland will know that certain critics, almost inevitably, will be just starting to wonder whether the veteran's overall coaching lustre and strategic expertise is on a waning curve now, given the Chiefs' surprisingly early status as also-rans - barring some really earth-shattering twists - in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

The only team to have played four matches, that one-game advantage hasn't been enough to keep them off the unflattering bottom rung of the table, with a 0/4 record and just three log points to show.

They have lost so far to all of the other franchises, albeit with three of those results coming within the seven-point margin for a bonus point... including a particularly gutsy, fight-fire-with-fire showing against the unbeaten Crusaders in Christchurch before succumbing 18-13.

It is a cold fact, nevertheless, that despite their curiously market-leading stats in possession and carries thus far, the Mooloo Men are the most try-shy of the five outfits, averaging 1.3 per game - especially unflattering when weighed against the Crusaders' four and Blues' three.

Certainly against the Hurricanes in their latest setback, the Chiefs shifted the ball from side to side a fair bit without significant signs of penetrative qualities or flair for the unexpected.

They are effectively nought from five in recent Super Rugby, if you add in the last match they played before the 2020 competition-proper came to a grinding halt in mid-March - a 27-24 home reverse to the Highlanders.

But they were still going well in the tournament overall at that point: four wins, two losses, and a handy fifth place overall, three points behind compatriots the Blues who had played an extra fixture.

Those suggesting Gatland may have somehow lost his mojo as this highly unorthodox season has developed might also want to chew on this: his charges began the year with genuine aplomb, beating the currently much-trumpeted Blues 37-29 in their Auckland stronghold and then downing the Crusaders 25-15 in Hamilton.

Sorry, don't count me among the "write Gatland off" brigade.

There's a fine line, maybe, between well-travelled and too well-travelled: I don't believe Warren Gatland has incontrovertibly crossed over to the latter.

Regardless of the shape the Chiefs are in when Super Rugby Aotearoa has run its full course, he will wipe the slate clean and shift his priorities in earnest, well aware that their fortunes have little to do with the altogether different-tier task facing him in South Africa next winter.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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