For three golden minutes of a three-Test series the Lions were ahead on the scoreboard. At the end of a six-week tour they were level with the All Blacks. These achievements – much bigger than they sound – have tempted Warren Gatland to put his name forward again in 2021, after John Spencer, the manager of this trip called him “the best head coach in the world”.
At the team hotel the morning after the night before, Gatland made a startling revelation: “My wife asked me about three weeks into it, ‘how are you enjoying the tour?’ – and I said ‘I’m hating it’.” The hostility picked up by Gatland’s family was souring his experience of travelling round his homeland. But all the while the man who led the victorious tour of Australia four years ago was also detecting signs of vulnerability in the All Blacks. “Hating it” turned to hope, then to one hell of a series.
Sir Ian McGeechan remains the supreme commander of these raiding parties, with two tours as a player and four as head coach, in 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2009. Gatland, though could yet become a three-Tour leader, unless the All Blacks make a move for him after his contract with Wales ends in 2019. On Saturday night here in Auckland, the players were unsure whether to treat a draw as an outcome worth celebrating. Surely it was, in the context of New Zealand’s World Cup wins in 2011 and 2015, their terrifying home record and the intensity of the schedule, which prompted Gatland to think he was probably on “a hiding to nothing”.
On 2021, he said: “Yeah, possibly. It’s up to the board and the Lions isn’t it? I’m definitely, definitely finishing up after the World Cup with Wales, no matter what. They may get rid of me before the World Cup. I would have been there for long enough and so I don’t know what I’m going to do post-2019.
“There’s a possibility that if the opportunity came again it would be something you would consider. The South African thing is a little bit easier in terms of the time frames and the travel and getting there. We’d hope also that we don’t let the next four years go before we start planning and putting things in place.
“Discussions need to take place about just having some reasonable preparation time. I’m not being stupid, I’m not asking for a month. I think a week in the UK or Ireland beforehand, then arriving in South Africa for a week before the first game is reasonable.”
These were not the thoughts of a coach heading for the beach two years from now. Gatland was using his deep knowledge of New Zealand rugby to plot its downfall, or at least stop it fulfilling the prophecy of an easy 3-0 win. As Spencer said, the Lions “set a Kiwi to catch a Kiwi”.
A tourist in 1971, when the Lions last won here, Spencer went on: “Warren was very interesting in the team talk to the boys. He talked about going after the All Blacks, not watching them play, or altering our style of play to meet theirs. We were going after them, they were going to have to cope with us, and that’s what happened.”
Three minutes might not sound a lot to be ahead against the All Blacks in Auckland, Wellington and Auckland again, but the physical commitment and psychological resilience displayed by Gatland’s squad left an imprint on New Zealand rugby in the run-up to the 2019 World Cup. England, above all, will have sniffed an opportunity. The mass retirements of illustrious All Blacks in 2015 has been concealed by rhetoric and wins against countries who lacked a sense of how to test them, as Ireland (in Chicago) and the now the Lions have.
Gatland found ways of undermining his homeland. He told us: “From my experiences in the past – having lived in Ireland and England and now Wales – if you have some understanding of the culture you’re going to, it gives you a massive advantage. I was lucky enough that when I went to Ireland at a young age, I’d studied Irish history at university. I had that understanding of the relationship between the north and the south and independence – all those things.
“In the past people have come to New Zealand and haven’t been quite prepared for culturally what they’re facing. So we’d made sure that we prepared properly, in terms of the welcomes and having to sing and stuff. And then understanding, as a Kiwi, that everyone has strengths and weaknesses in their culture, as a country. There are strengths in New Zealand as a nation, in terms of the isolation and being so far away, and galvanising themselves to have a go at anything. But there can be cracks at times as well.”
Gatland says he spotted signs after the Lions’ 24-21 win in Wellington that doubt was stalking Steve Hansen’s men. “I don’t think the All Blacks are very vulnerable, but last week there were a few comments made that I hadn’t expected,” he said. “There were signs there we could build on, have some confidence and self-belief. Often when you play All Blacks teams in New Zealand, that’s the biggest challenge – to get 15 players going on the field believing they’re good enough to win. Someone [Hansen] mentioned the [Wellington] result and said that, if they lost, the sun would still come up tomorrow, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world and they would learn from that experience. Those are comments you don’t hear very often coming out of the New Zealand camp.”
Nor do you see parity often on an Eden Park scoreboard; or at the end of a tour by people pulled together six weeks previously. They came, they saw, they drew. But “draw”is an inadequate way to describe what the Lions did here.
With Gatland’s management and his local knowledge, they stopped one point short of a miracle.