WARREN GATLAND will complete a full sweep of Lions tours when he takes charge of the 2021 expedition to South Africa. Although no contract has been signed, terms have been agreed by both parties, meaning the New Zealander will become only the second coach ever to lead the squad on three consecutive tours, following in the footsteps of Ian McGeechan between 1989 and 1997.
McGeechan also took charge of the 2009 tour to South Africa, when Gatland was one of his assistants.
On Gatland’s previous tours as head coach, he oversaw a 2-1 series win over Australia in 2013 and a 1-1 series draw (the final Test was tied 15-15) with New Zealand in 2017.
He is stepping down as Wales head coach after this year’s World Cup in Japan, having led the Principality to three Grand Slams since his appointment in December 2007. He has been loosely linked with succeeding Eddie Jones in the England hot-seat, and this appointment dovetails nicely with that.
Gatland’s start date with the Lions has yet to be confirmed, but given he will be a free agent after the World Cup, that is not considered to be a problem.
He was appointed less than a year before the Lions’ 2017 tour of New Zealand, after the schedule had been decided. His early appointment this time will give him a chance to be involved in the advance detail and planning, which is an increasingly complex and contentious process given the demands of modern professional rugby.
While Gatland’s experience makes him the obvious choice for the role, his appointment will not be universally welcomed, especially north of the border where there is a widely held perception that he does not rate Scottish players.
After he named just two Scots – Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour – in his initial squad for the 2017 tour, former Scotland captain and two-times Lions tourist Ian McLauchlan voiced his frustration.
“Gatland doesn’t exactly have a good track record in liking people from Scotland,” said McLauchlan. “He doesn’t come here, does he? And he doesn’t know the names of Scottish players – when he was asked on television whether there were any Scots in the running he said ‘there’s Hogg and the new boy at centre, and one of the wingers looked quite good’. He couldn’t name them. He only knows Stuart Hogg.”
Jim Telfer, who both played and coached Scotland and the Lions, was similarly unimpressed. “I don’t think having just two on the tour is justified. It should have been more,” he said. “Players like Finn Russell and Hamish Watson have every right to be disappointed. They have played well enough to be taken.”
There was only three Scots – Hogg, Sean Maitland and Richie Gray – in the initial squad for the 2013 tour, which has been about par for the course during the last few decades. Only Nathan Hines and Euan Murray made the initial squad in 2009, with Ross Ford being called up before the tour began. Gordon Bulloch, Simon Taylor and Chris Cusiter made the initial squad in 2005. Tom Smith, Scott Murray and Taylor made the first cut in 2001.
The 2017 trip was not a particularly happy tour for Gatland, and stung by criticism from the New Zealand media and Irish flanker Sean O’Brien, Gatland declared he was “done” with the Lions after a tour he “hated”. However, time is clearly a great healer.