Ollie Phillips: Warren Gatland was the perfect Lions coach and criticism is short-sighted

 
Ollie Phillips
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Gatland has been criticised by Lions players (Source: Getty)

I have huge sympathy for Warren Gatland. I’m not surprised that he has adopted the stance he has this week and ruled out leading the British and Irish Lions to South Africa in 2021.

He talked about the abuse he was subjected to by the New Zealand press during the summer’s Lions tour and, to an extent, that comes with the territory, but to belittle him by calling him a clown was overstepping the mark.

What he achieved in New Zealand was truly remarkable. To go there and draw with the best rugby side in the world and arguably the finest sporting team on the planet was a phenomenal achievement.

Read more: Ollie Phillips - Nothing embodies the spirit of rugby more than the British and Irish Lions

He had so little time to get a cohesive unit together. The Lions played their first tour match a matter of days after stepping off the plane. No international side would entertain doing that but that is what he was up against.

The mountain the Lions had to climb was enormous and to come out of it all with a draw was incredible.

It must have been exhausting for the Lions squad to achieve what they did, avoiding a series defeat against the All Blacks for the first time since 1971, and for Gatland to take the verbal battering he did from his fellow countrymen.

But to then have one of your standout players, Sean O’Brien, criticise training schedules, suggest they drew the series in spite of Gatland, claim they ought to have won 3-0 and brand the coaching poor, must have been extremely deflating and disappointing.

Even if there were elements of truth to that, I think it is very short-sighted of a player who is used to playing international rugby with a consistent message and style of play.

Gatland and his staff did not have that luxury and could not really implement an overly complex game-plan, there were too many moving parts for that and it would have been impossible for the players to deliver.

But irrespective of the sniping, Gatland will go down as one of the greatest ever Lions coaches. He was on the staff when the Lions narrowly lost to South Africa in 2009; in fact they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the second Test.

A series win in Australia followed in 2013 and then the drawn tussle with New Zealand this summer. That’s a highly impressive Lions CV and Gatland deserves plenty of plaudits.

But now to the future. If Gatland feels he has done his time then the two standout contenders for the role would have to be England head coach Eddie Jones and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt.

Scotland’s Gregor Townsend could also come into the equation given the tremendous work he has done with Glasgow and is now doing with the Dark Blues, although he faces a big test this autumn. I certainly wouldn’t rule him out, though.

Whoever takes the reins, it needs to someone who appreciates the amateur values of rugby but at the same time can deliver on the professional side. Gatland embodied that and that’s why he has been the perfect Lions coach.

Ollie Phillips is a former England Sevens captain and now a director at PwC, focusing on organisational, cultural and technological change.@OlliePhillips11

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