Warren Gatland’s winter solstice this year was spent in his homeland leading the British and Irish Lions against his own people and could well prove his fall from grace. A challenge he was determinedly focused on since winning the final test against the Wallabies in July 2013 at Stadium Australia, his ambition to perhaps even position himself as Steve Hansen’s replacement with a possible record breaking tour to New Zealand. It may have just been a long white cloud of optimism distracting his normal ruthless decision making. The potential fallout now from the drawn midweek game against the Hurricanes placing the tourists in a tough predicament. Low on momentum, struggling with confidence after a poor opening test in Eden Park, and the challenge of Wellington now only days away. With the hosts riding high following their decisive victory last Saturday and seeking to improve their efficiency and prove even more clinical.
The ambition of Gatland to place himself in the shop window for the All Blacks coaching job which Hansen will leave at the after the 2019 World Cup, may have been in the eyeline at one point. But the battle he has engaged with the Kiwi media may yet backfire and make him the type of noisy coach the New Zealand rugby board don’t not want. With plenty of alternatives already in the running. Albeit one, Wayne Smith, is no longer a contender having announced that he would step down from New Zealand’s coaching team at the conclusion of this year’s Rugby Championship in September. Thus, ending as a 20-year association with the All Blacks as a player and then in three spells as a coach. One of them under John Hart. But having recently turned 60, Smith sees it as the right time for him to walk away having been Hansen’s right-hand man and helping deliver the 2011 and the 2015 World Cups.
Smith opted for the All Black option after working with Northampton and then losing out to Eddie Jones when there was a vacancy at the RFU. Also in 2012, Smith was offered a role with England under Stuart Lancaster but chose the All Blacks backroom role. This week his replacement was announced and it will be Scott McLeod who moves from the Highlanders to All Blacks HQ and may in time be another contender for the No 1 spot. Adding to the current traffic jam which includes not only Gatland but Joe Schmidt, Verne Cotter and the current assistant All Blacks coach, Iain Foster
McLeod played with Waikato Colts making his provincial debut for Waikato in 1995 and his Test debut for the All Blacks in the same year. After playing in Japan, he returned to New Zealand to coach as Waikato's Assistant Coach (2008-2012) and Assistant Coach of the Chiefs (2008 to 2011) with a specific focus on skills and defence. He coached the New Zealand Under 20 in 2012 before joining the Highlanders in 2013. In the meantime, Cotter has returned to France with Montpellier, Schmidt has extended his deal with Ireland to 2019 as all synchronise their availability for when the NZRFU go seeking their next coach.
For Warren, the sort of homecoming he would have preferred on this to New Zealand no doubt was something rather different. The achievement in Australia now a distant memory on his rugby CV unless he can devise a win in Wellington on Saturday to make the final test more than just a rubber in two weeks. However, that challenge becomes a mightier feat after the listless second half performance in the first test that would have won Gatland’s few admirers with the All Blacks selectors. Apart from one moment of pure inspiration and talent from Liam Williams.
Listless is something that no Gatland team can be accused of in matches under normal circumstances. But in Auckland the Lions were outfoxed and outgunned in almost every part of the game and even after the break Gatland’s coaching team were unable to find a way to build on Williams’ genius. The normal roster of old reliables also fading as the match progressed, including Alun Wynn Jones, Peter O’Mahony, Owen Farrell and Conor Murray. None able to find the kind of form that earned them a test spot and could reverse the New Zealand onslaught. The All Black machine smothering every move in the final forty minutes. The tone of Gatland’s remarks in the post-match interviews highlight his general disappointment and disaffection with the last few days. Indeed, even more so after the Highlanders game.