New Zealand’s Warren Gatland is the best non-South African coach in the world and his last dance with the British & Irish Lions in South Africa will determine when, not if, he takes charge of the All Blacks. writes Mark Keohane.
I believe that currently Rassie Erasmus sits a top the international coaching spectrum on the basis of the Springboks 2019 World Cup campaign and the manner in which he outthought England’s Eddie Jones in the World Cup final. I also have Jake White in the top bracket of global coaches, but when it comes to Test rugby, and those not aligned to the Springboks, for me it is and always has been Gatland for the past 10 years.
What was incredibly impressive about Gatland’s Lions in New Zealand in 2017, was how much stronger they got as the tour progressed and how strong they were in the third and final Test at Eden Park in Auckland, having taking a beating in the first Test at the same ground.
Factors played a hand in the Lions series comeback, but while the three-Test series was drawn one-all, Gatland was easily the winner over Steve Hansen. Gatland imposed the Lions way on the series, just like Erasmus’s game plan proved a master stroke against Jones’s England.
The Springboks biggest challenge in the World Cup play-offs proved the semi-final against Wales and it took a a Handre Pollard penalty a few minutes from the end to secure the 19-16 win. Gatland’s Wales previously had beaten Erasmus’s Boks twice in a year and before that had triumphed over Springbok teams coached by Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee.
Gatland understands the mentality of the Springboks and has a belief in how to beat the Springboks, based on the success he has enjoyed with Wales, but the former Welsh coach won’t necessarily be able to immediately transfer that onto a Lions squad this is unlikely to be tested before the first Test against the Springboks at the Cape Town Stadium on July 24th.
Gatland’s Lions in New Zealand in 2017 played a near full-strength Blues team and lost, they ground out a 12-3 win against the Crusaders in what was dubbed a fourth Test match, dismantled a Maori team who arrived with wonderful backs and a pack who wanted to play like backs, and his team also had mighty games against the Highlanders and Hurricanes. By the time the Test series was played, Gatland’s men had been through a war in New Zealand and they were battle hardened.
The bio-bubble, enforced on the Springboks and the Lions because of the Covid pandemic situation in South Africa, means that none in the Springboks squad of 46 will be available to face Gatland’s Lions in the first four tour matches, which turns these match-ups into one-sided training runs. Expect the Lions to win comfortably and Gatland’s only concern to be potential injuries.
I have been consistent in calling a 3-0 series win to the Springboks and I have based this on my belief that he Springboks, player for player and as a unit, are a better team than the Lions, but if there is one person capable of turning this series on its head, it is Gatland because of his coaching pedigree.
I have been writing about Springbok and international rugby since 1992 and in my book ‘The Chosen 23’, I picked the Springbok match day squad who made the greatest impression on me between 1992 and 2019 and I also picked a World 23 of players, who I had seen play. I added my two favourites grounds for two fantasy matches, one in South Africa and one abroad, my two favourite referees, one South African and one international, and I picked a Springbok coach and a World 23 coach. Gatland was my unanimous choice as the international coach, ahead of Australia’s Rod Macqueen, England’s Sir Clive Woodward, Eddie Jones and the Kiwi World Cup-winning duo of Graham Henry and Steve Hansen.
Gatland transformed Welsh rugby and took them to two semi-finals in three World Cups and in the final year of a 12 year tenure, he guided Wales to number one in the world rankings.
I have the utmost respect for Gatland and I know that Erasmus shares a similar view of the qualities of Gatland’s coaching. Erasmus recently told the media that he and Gatland were not mates who would enjoy a braai together, but that there was no doubting the coaching skill and presence of Gatland.
I have been intrigued by Gatland’s choice of players for the tour, where I think he will lean heavily on the Welsh contingent who are so familiar with his coaching, and while he hasn’t picked any English players to start Saturday’s warm-up match against Japan at Murrayfield, I don’t envisage too many being in his preferred starting XV. The impressive lock Maro Itoje is a given and Owen Farrell will force is way into the starting XV, but for the rest there is a lot to be read in the choice of combinations for Saturday’s Test.
Erasmus and Nienaber know what to expect from Gatland’s Lions in the Test series and it will be very similar to what they took 78 minutes to break down in the semi-final in Japan.
That first Test on the 24th can’t come soon enough for me, but in the interim I am going to love the full-on action of the next month, be it the Lions whipping South Africa’s regional quartet or the Boks giving Georgia a bruising.
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