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My Lions Journey: Warren Gatland

My Lions Journey: Warren Gatland

Lions head coach Warren Gatland

From being a seven-year-old in awe of the northern hemisphere superstars visiting his native New Zealand to coaching them on multiple Tours – the British & Irish Lions have played a huge part in Warren Gatland’s life.

And ahead of leading the Lions on a third consecutive Tour, to South Africa in 2021, Gatland sat down to discuss his Lions journey.

You can watch the entire video below but here are just a few of the insights offered by the 56-year-old.

Lasting impression

The Lions are an institution in the northern hemisphere but they also made an early impression on a certain rugby-mad New Zealander, when the 1971 vintage became the only Lions side in history to win a Test series in the country.

“In 1971, I was a seven-year-old when the Lions came to New Zealand,” explains Gatland. “Growing up, you have that belief the All Blacks are the best team in the world.

“When they play at home, they don’t get beaten, so for the Lions to come out victorious on that Tour had a lasting impression on me.”

Facing the Lions

From young fan to player – Gatland got the chance to take on the men in red during the 1993 Tour, as he helped Waikato record a 38-10 triumph and even scored a try during the midweek match.

“As a player, you’re so motivated and pumped up to play the best players in the northern hemisphere,” he adds.

“You realise that opportunity for you will never come along again – it only happens once every 12 years for the opposition players.

“I can remember that changing room vividly and the players were so motivated and excited about the opportunity to go out and play against the best of the best in the northern hemisphere.

“The Lions is the only team now that mirrors how the traditional tours of the past used to be. It keeps some of the history and tradition, which is part of what makes the Lions so unique.”

A peek behind the curtain

Gatland was already the coach of Wales when Sir Ian McGeechan invited him to become part of the coaching staff on the 2009 Tour to South Africa – a Test series that saw the Lions impress greatly but narrowly lose 2-1.

“I witnessed first-hand what it meant to be a Lion for the players but also to experience how tough it was to go on tour,” he says.

“We were very disappointed not to win the Test series or at least draw it but we came back from South Africa with our heads held high – we put some real pride back into the Lions jersey.

“That was a real stepping stone to 2013 when we felt we could be the first team to win a Test series since 1997.”

Making history

Gatland then got his chance to be head coach and led the Lions to a 2-1 series victory over Australia in 2013 before securing an historic 1-1 draw against his homeland New Zealand four years later.

“When I look back to 2017 – we were written off before we even started the Tour,” he explains. “We went out there with a positive mindset, trying to wear them down wasn’t good enough.

“To beat the All Blacks you have to be positive, play some rugby, take some risks and we were prepared to do that.

“The photo with both sets of players, Sam Warburton and Kieran Read holding up the trophy – that’s going to be one of the iconic photos of all-time.

“As time has gone on, you’ve got to be proud of that performance and what we did – being able to walk out of New Zealand with your head held high.”

South Africa calling

And as he prepares for the South Africa Tour in 2021, Gatland is already predicting a memorable series.

“The goal has to be to go to South Africa and win the series,” he adds. “It’s as simple as that and I wouldn’t be sitting here now if I didn’t think we were capable of doing that.

“There will be a number of challenges facing us –­ the altitude creates its own challenge from a physiological point of view for instance.

“You also get that traditional, physical South African player – they are big, tough and they’ve got real passion and history.

“It’s a great country to tour – it’s so diverse, it’s beautiful. I would encourage everyone following the Tour to make the most of a unique country.”

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