In the wake of the tour to New Zealand two years ago he insisted he would never coach the British and Irish Lions again, but Warren Gatland is back in the hot-seat for South Africa in 2021 as he looks to continue his unblemished record.
Having led the Lions in undefeated series against Australia and the All Blacks, Gatland has the opportunity to become the first Lions coach in history to go three tours unbeaten – and will be just the second to lead three tours at all.
He will return to where it all began, back in 2009, when as a forwards coach under Sir Ian McGeehan the Lions lost the series to the Springboks.
“Being part of the Lions and the opportunity to go to South Africa, there’s some unfinished business,” Gatland said.
“When asked if I was interested, I couldn’t turn my back on this. I know it’s going to be tough, I know it’s going to be a real rugby hotbed, and the Lions have always found it tough over there with their physicality and passion, but it’s something I couldn’t really turn my back on.”
His record since taking charge in 2013 is impressive, winning 13 of 20 matches and three of six Tests. His Lions beat Australia 2-1 before drawing against New Zealand in 2017, the third Test ending in a tie.
Change of heart
He had previously said he would never coach the iconic side again, claiming he “hated the tour” to New Zealand, but says it was aspects of the attention he received in his home country that affected him negatively.
“I struggled with New Zealand media,” he said. “I have no doubt there was an orchestrated campaign from the start to try and unsettle me. It took me by surprise.
“I had this romantic view of this ex-All Black coming home, leading the Lions and it being a celebration of rugby, but that wasn’t the case, and it really threw me.”
There was also an element of the squad being under-prepared and expected to play just days after touching down in a new time zone that left Gatland frustrated.
But while issues around the 2021 tour’s schedule are yet to be ironed out, the Kiwi has said the prospect of a reduced eight matches over five weeks is “manageable”.
The 55-year-old will have plenty of time to prepare for the tour himself – he will take on the role exclusively from August 2020 given he is stepping down as Wales boss following this autumn’s World Cup.
He also ruled out any chance of replacing Eddie Jones as England head coach.
“I can tell you definitely now, I will not be coaching England,” Gatland said. “There’s no way I will be coaching England, unless I put a blazer on or something,” he added in a jibe at Jones, who previously said the Lions role was “a job for a bloke in a blazer”.
When asked about Jones’s comments, Gatland said: “I was bemused by that. As I’ve said it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a coach. I don’t know if that was a subtle way to rule himself out of contention.”
He also dismissed the idea of coaching the All Blacks, but admitted he is looking to return to New Zealand to join a club side.
“My plan is to go back to New Zealand, and if there’s an opportunity, some Super Rugby, that’s where I see my pathway,” he said.
Whatever happens in 2021, Gatland will go back to his native country as a great servant to the red jerseys of both Wales and the Lions.