Warren Gatland exclusive interview: Why the Lions tour should actually be kicking off this weekend

Warren Gatland - GETTY IMAGES
Warren Gatland - GETTY IMAGES

Warren Gatland is not the sentimental type, but even for the man who has seen it all in world rugby, there are some bonds that cannot be broken.

As he enters his office at his home in Hamilton in New Zealand, it is striking that he is wearing a grey and white hoodie, discreetly embroidered with the emblem of the British and Irish Lions, the team he coached with such distinction on four separate tours.

“This is my walking jersey,” he chuckles, having just returned from an evening stroll. “I don’t tend to keep a lot of rugby memorabilia. It is one of the few things I have kept from the tour of South Africa last year. I have given most of the Lions stuff away, including my blazer to a guy who collects these things.”

Gatland may have parted with most of his ‘stash’ since then, yet the fact that he is still wearing his Lions hoodie is not without significance. It is exactly a year since he and his Lions squad were in Johannesburg preparing for their opening tour match against the Golden Lions at Ellis Park but, had Gatland been listened to, there is every chance they would be preparing to play the first tour match this weekend.

The former Wales head coach has not spoken publicly about the tour since the 19-16 defeat by the Springboks in the third Test in Cape Town that clinched a 2-1 series victory for the hosts last August because of his desire to protect the reputation of the Lions by not getting embroiled in a “tit for tat” spat over the controversy that mired the climax of the series. It would culminate in Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks’ director of rugby, being found guilty of six charges of misconduct for his video rant at referee Nic Berry over his officiating in the Springboks' defeat in the first Test.

But Gatland, speaking exclusively to Telegraph Sport as he joins as a columnist, is now ready to give his views, highlighting his concerns for the future of the Lions - even if it might harm his own chances of becoming head coach again for the tour to Australia in 2025.

Warren Gatland outside FMG Waikato Stadium, Hamilton - JEREMY WARD
Warren Gatland outside FMG Waikato Stadium, Hamilton - JEREMY WARD

While Gatland is clearly disappointed by how Erasmus conducted himself and admits too that the rugby served up during the three-Test series was “pretty dour”, it was the failure of the Lions board to properly consider postponing the tour until this summer because of the Covid restrictions last year that arguably has caused him the most consternation.

The Lions board had considered switching the tour to Australia or the UK as rising rates of infections and variant concerns had seen South Africa placed on a travel ‘red-list’.

But Gatland says he was left frustrated that the option to postpone the tour by a year was barely discussed, claiming that some of the decision-making was affected by conflicts of interest with the Home Unions prioritising their national teams' preparation for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Gatland revealed that he urged the board to discuss postponing the tour at a meeting during the Six Nations last year – even if it meant the decision could have forced him to stand down as head coach because of contractual commitments with the Chiefs in New Zealand. He had been granted a sabbatical to take the tour last year.

“I was adamant with the board that we needed to seriously discuss postponing the tour if that was the best decision for rugby, even if there was a good chance it would result in me not coaching the team,” said Gatland. “It was disappointing because I saw it as a serious option and saw no reason why the tour couldn’t be going ahead now, when travelling supporters would be allowed and games played in front of capacity crowds with the original schedule.

“South Africa were also understandably desperate for the tour to be postponed because financially it was massive for them to have supporters and tourists there.”

Warren Gatland, Head Coach of British & Irish Lions talks with Rassie Erasmus, SARU Director of Rugby during the warm up prior to the 1st Test between South Africa & British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on July 24, 2021 - GETTY IMAGES
Warren Gatland, Head Coach of British & Irish Lions talks with Rassie Erasmus, SARU Director of Rugby during the warm up prior to the 1st Test between South Africa & British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on July 24, 2021 - GETTY IMAGES

Gatland points to the fact that in 2020 both the International Olympic Committee and Uefa had been able to take respective decisions to postpone the Olympics and the European Championships by a year, despite being more logistically challenging events. Coincidentally, both would overshadow the Lions tour.

But, according to Gatland, the decision-making process was influenced by national demands to stick to the international fixture schedule. The Lions board is made up of the four chief executives from the unions of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as four former Lions from each country, one of whom chairs the board, while Ben Calveley is the managing director.

“Look, the board is there to do the best job for the Lions but sometimes you ask the question - are some of the people on the board a little bit conflicted because they have got other teams to look after and other [national] coaches to satisfy?” he added.

But if that was the case, could he, as a former Wales head coach, not understand their point? Would putting the tour back by 12 months not have disrupted the tours of the Home Unions this summer and had a negative impact on World Cup plans?

"I can’t speak for anyone else but I am telling you now that if I was still Wales coach, I would be more than comfortable with postponement," he said. “Obviously, Wales wouldn’t have been able to play South Africa but I would have seen it as a fantastic opportunity to develop some depth in my squad against whatever team. We actually did something like that in 2018 against Argentina, a year out from the World Cup in Japan. It was fantastic for us from a development point of view.”

October 20, 2019 Wales head coach Warren Gatland looks on during the warm up before the match - REUTERS
October 20, 2019 Wales head coach Warren Gatland looks on during the warm up before the match - REUTERS

Gatland believes the solution to avoid any future conflict of interests would be to establish a Lions board made up of independent directors.

“I am not saying that there were not good people on the board who wanted the best for rugby and for the Lions to be successful, but there is no doubt in my mind that some people were slightly conflicted,” he added. “In my opinion if you are on the board of the Lions, then your role and responsibility is to 100 per cent do the best job for the Lions.

“The reason why I am saying this is that I was prepared not to be the Lions coach, if that was the best decision for the Lions and rugby. I was not being selfish and saying that I wanted the tour to go ahead last year so that I could go to South Africa.

“It wasn’t about me, it was totally about what was best for the Lions, the tour and financially for the game. There were really a lot of things at stake here. I am not probably doing myself any favours with regard to 2025 with these comments, but I have always tried to be honest with my opinions.”

'I am probably going to look for a role overseas - I could end up in the UK'

And what of his future? “I am contracted with the New Zealand Rugby Union for the next 12 months and I have enjoyed my role as director of rugby with the Chiefs,” added Gatland, whose 12-year tenure with Wales included four Six Nations titles including three Grand Slams.

“After that I am probably going to look for another role overseas. I loved my time as a young coach in Ireland [with Connacht and then as head coach of the national side] and my time with Wasps and, of course, Wales. It was pretty challenging but the people made it special for me in Wales. I could end up in the UK again.

“There is a lot more pressure in international rugby because you are under the spotlight but the flip side is that every game is like a cup final. In club rugby you have a bit more leeway to try different combinations as you can lose some games and still make the top four. You look at the pros and cons of both and see hopefully where you can make a difference.”

And would he be interested in taking charge of the Lions for a fourth time? Calveley and former chairman Jason Leonard both indicated he would have their backing should he wish to continue as head coach in Australia in 2025.

“I have never planned ahead,” he added. “That decision probably won’t be made until the Six Nations after the World Cup and it depends how that goes. I am sure Andy Farrell would have a good chance. We would love to have taken him last year but the IRFU weren’t keen on him going to South Africa, which was disappointing, and Gregor Townsend has experience with Scotland. There could be other people, too.

“I am a great believer that those opportunities come along for the right reasons, if you are doing a good job somewhere and being successful. [The Lions] may think it is time for a change and that is perfectly understandable, too.”