Warren Gatland: The criticism & hurt that led to bitter end to Lions involvement

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Warren Gatland: Lions coach says he could not turn the job down

When Warren Gatland was re-appointed British and Irish Lions head coach for the tour of New Zealand, he opened up about why he had taken the job and the unique challenge that lay ahead against the world champions.

"This is probably the biggest job in world rugby," he told the BBC at the time. "If I had turned down this, it would probably be something I would have regretted for the rest of my life."

Already with two tours under his belt - as an assistant in South Africa in 2009, and as head coach in Australia four years later - there is, or was, no doubting Gatland's love of the Lions concept.

It is something he traces back to watching them in 1971 when a boy in his native New Zealand, and the immense pride he felt when he played - and beat - the Lions with his beloved Waikato in 1993.

But despite the impressive drawn series with the All Blacks this year, achieved against all the odds and many expectations, Gatland's involvement with the Lions has come to a bitter end, with the Kiwi announcing "he's done" after a tour he "hated".

So how did it come to this?

The Kiwi welcome

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Lions 2017: Warren Gatland clown nose response to cartoon

As a New Zealander himself, Gatland would have been well aware of the parochialism of some parts of the Kiwi press, but despite this prior knowledge he seemed taken aback by the extent and nature of the coverage.

The 54-year-old was mocked up as a clown by the New Zealand Herald, and while he said it was "water off a duck's back", he contradicted himself by admitting it had taken its toll on him personally.

"As a Kiwi you'd like to think you'd come home and it would be more positive from one or two members of the media. That hasn't happened," he said during the tour.

"There's been a significant campaign against me personally but you can't let that get to you. It's water off a duck's back. It's just part of professional sport. I'm not worried about what any newspaper draws me up as. I couldn't give a toss if that's happening."

Gatland's verbal jousting with All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen was a recurring theme before the Test series, with both men responsible for stirring the pot; part and parcel perhaps of such a high-profile sporting event.

But although Hansen could never be accused of shunning the mind games, the New Zealand Herald felt Gatland was the one who over-stepped the mark.

"What rugby doesn't need is the most experienced international coach in the game continuing to bully referees," wrote journalist Gregor Paul.

"It's reached the point when it is maybe best to just shake the head and smile and realise that this is the painful unravelling of someone under too much pressure."

Most observers on the ground in New Zealand took these kind of articles with a pinch of salt - a home media aligned with the best interests of their national team, shock horror - but it all hurt Gatland, who cut a miserable figure at many of his news conferences.

Although his record with Wasps, Wales and the Lions should surely have been common knowledge to the Kiwi public, maybe the fact that Gatland's achievements have largely been in the northern hemisphere was a telling factor in this perceived lack of respect?

Certainly one or two of the more measured New Zealand journalists felt this was the case.

It was not all one way, however.

Following the Lions' famous rope-a-dope win in Wellington in the second Test and scrambled draw a week later, news service Newshub issued an apology on behalf of the home media.

"We failed you, the rugby public, by giving you a false sense of security that this All Black team would send Gats and his boys back home in tears," it read.

"Sorry New Zealand."

Lions tour 2017 results
DateOpponentsResult
3 JuneProvincial BarbariansWon 13-7
7 JuneBluesLost 22-16
10 JuneCrusadersWon 12-3
13 JuneHighlandersLost 23-22
17 JuneMaori All BlacksWon 32-10
20 JuneChiefsWon 34-6
24 JuneNew ZealandLost 30-15
27 JuneHurricanesDrew 31-31
1 JulyNew ZealandWon 21-24
8 JulyNew ZealandDrew 15-15

The geography six

The criticism towards Gatland was not restricted to the New Zealand media and public.

His decision to call up a host of replacements because of geographical and logistical reasons rather than merit was met with the kind of backlash reminiscent of his axing of Brian O'Driscoll for the decisive third Test in Australia four years earlier.

A host of former Lions - including doyen Sir Ian McGeechan - voiced their displeasure at the "devaluing" of the iconic jersey.

Just like the O'Driscoll decision in 2013, Gatland's reasoning was sound, the move perhaps a necessary evil given the unforgiving and relentless schedule.

However, once again Gatland was influenced by the reaction, admitting so following the 31-31 draw against the Hurricanes in Wellington, when he left five replacements on the bench as the starters ran out of steam and a big lead was lost.

"So much was made about devaluing the jersey, so we made a decision we would try and get through the game with as many of the starting XV as we could," he explained.

Another example of how Gatland's bullish exterior belies a sensitive side.

Sean O'Brien

The Lions operated a restrictive media policy throughout the tour - interviews with players were a rarity - but while insight into the relationship between players and coaches was lacking, the mood in the camp appeared on the whole harmonious.

But given the high esteem in which Irish players hold their coach Joe Schmidt and likewise the English with Eddie Jones, it was no great surprise last month to hear instrumental flanker Sean O'Brien question some of the methods used by Gatland and his coaches.

Again, the criticism has had a personal effect on Gatland, who phoned O'Brien for a reaction before admitting on Monday he was "hurt" by the Irishman's words.

And while in the summer he had left the door open to being involved in 2021, it appears as if this latest bout of criticism has been the final straw for Gatland - who has slammed that door firmly shut.

If it is the end of Gatland's Lions tenure, then the results deem he should be judged as one of the greats.

Few head coaches preside over one unbeaten tour, let alone two, and given how the Lions were expected to be soundly beaten by the All Blacks, a drawn series may turn out to be the greatest achievement of Gatland's stellar career.

But despite all this, Gatland remains something of a conundrum as a coach; widely respected, but not widely loved.

But then again, which coaches are both?

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