Three unbeaten series would go down in infamy, but it’s easier said than done
The first of many drinks were already passing the Lions’ lips before they even had time to sit down in the dressing-room.
Having inflicted the first defeat upon the All Blacks at home in 48 games, it might have seemed like the 2017 Lions had won the spoils of sporting war but they had only won the battle; at 1-1, the series still had another chapter to come.
There would be no definitive ending this time.
Nonetheless, after levelling the series in the Cake Tin, the alcohol flowed, whether from a bowling alley or in the basement of the Rydges Hotel HQ; on then to party central in Queenstown as Sunday stumbled into Monday.
Even Warren Gatland had supped from a magnum of champagne in his hotel suite, before taking his family to the D4 pub owned by a couple of brothers from Ringsend.
Unlike this week, when his squad trained on Tuesday, Gatland gave his 2017 version another day off to nurse wounds from either sporting or social combat.
After eventually pitching tent in Auckland, it took him just ten minutes to decide that, in much the same manner as Ian McGeechan had done in the same city 24 years earlier, that the first unchanged Lions Test side of the professional era would be good enough to get the job done.
Unfortunately, just like the last unchanged Test side of the ama¬teur era, it wasn’t. Still, stemming a 38-game winning sequence for the home side with a 15-15 draw seemed to fittingly cap a fine series.
It also put the seal on Gatland’s glittering coaching career for the Lions, a relationship so tentatively formed in 2009 beneath his mentor, McGeechan, before blossoming into something far more intimate and intense than even he could have imagined.
Now, he had completed a second non-losing series.
But that would be that for a head coach visibly wounded by the experience of leading the Lions into a den where his compatriots would, mercilessly, hound the native now a foreigner in his own land.
“I’m done for,” he told us, the stinging post-tour criticism from Seán O’Brien only hardening his stance.
After three tours of duty, twice as an unbeaten head coach, it was time to move on but he made sure to impart Lions manager John Spencer with some sound advice before he did so.
“Make sure the next guy doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel,” was Gatland’s advice to whoever would succeed him.
He was anxious that his successor wouldn’t forget everything that had made 2017 so special.
He needn’t have bothered worrying. Gatland couldn’t resist getting back on the horse once more.
After having every reason in the world not to come back, he instead contemplated all the reasons in the world why he should come back.
And when it came down to it, it all came down to just one thing. This is what he knows best. It may not have been what he wanted to do (again). But it’s what he does best.
His plan after 2017, if there ever has been a plan for someone who pitched up in the West of Ireland in another century and never left, was to somehow inveigle his way into the dream job for any New Zealander – coaching the All Blacks.
To do that, he would have to coach amongst his own people, something he hadn’t done in such a long time, and something which in a very short time he gradually realised he wasn’t able to do as well as he had done before.
They may play by the same rules in New Zealand but they play a different sport.
Returning to his hometown of Waikato, after clinching a third Grand Slam with Wales in 2019, seemed to present the ideal platform as he sought to pick up the threads of a title-winning season some 15 years before. But it was soon obvious that although time – and the game – had moved on, Gatland had not advanced sufficiently himself.
Whether it was the coach’s inability to direct his players or the players’ inability to listen to him, collectively and individually they kept dropping the ball, too often quite literally.
Never had he felt as close to home and yet so alien to it. His side lost all eight games and he was, naturally, adjudged the worst coach in the Super Rugby competition.
For the methods he had deployed in landing three Grand Slams in 11 years with Wales – as many as Ireland have achieved in their entire history – were simply now ill-fitting in a land where they turn their noses up at the sort of fare regularly churned out north of the equator.
It is not as if Gatland is immune to the great risks demanded of his sport; it is simply that he chooses to indulge in the least amount of them possible. Kiwi players are hard-wired differently.
And so Warren the winner would not, it seemed, become the next All Blacks coach any time soon. His 2020 vision was in tatters.
Unable to marry his vision of how a game should be won, in contrast to the perspective of others who deem that how it should be played is almost as relevant, where could Gatland find comfort and solace now?
The answer was simple, which is why after two Tests of almost unre¬mitting dirge and desperation, he finds himself for a third successive time embroiled in a desperate scrap for Lions coaching immortality with a team where his style snugly suits.
And four years on from that famous Wellington win, he stands once more on the brink of history. But also one day away from infamy.
Win today and he will be hailed as the Lion King, the most supreme leader of them all. Lose and derision will rain down upon him and his inert tactics and uncertain selection, deemed a victim of untrammelled hubris for losing a series in which every circumstance seemed set fair for a Lions victory.
Had Romain Poite decided to award a penalty rather than a scrum in those final seconds in Eden Park four years ago, history might have take a different course.
Then again, Gatland is a man, as those who have followed him from the last century can attest, who has always followed his gut instinct.
However, this week will seem so different to 2017, and even 2013, when opprobrium threatened to drown him after demoting Brian O’Driscoll for a final Test romp in Australia.
Arguably, he didn’t need to make many changes for that final Test and yet he did so; in 2017, he arguably should have made one or two changes but didn’t.
He emerged unscathed on both occasions; selection has always been one of the strongest quivers in his coaching armoury but this summer he seems to have veered wildly off course; even if viewed through the prism of one man, say Liam Williams, the Kiwi’s once attuned antenna has been off-kilter.
There will have been none of the excitement of 2017 this week, or the drunken reverie; only nervous anticipation in the wake of an utterly dominant second half from the Springboks last weekend.
Gatland’s final Test week will have struggled to accommodate a similar semblance of detachment as the clinically cocooned squad hunker down in the trenches for their own final test.
They will do so on the back of bruising defeat and with little opportunity to let off steam; so too for Gatland and his coaches who, befitting their latest selection lurch, are also feeling the strain.
This will be the Lions’ – and Gatland’s – third successive decider in the history of contests littered with close encounters, albeit not always of the third kind (until 1989, four or two Tests were played).
And so for a select group of three-time tourists, led by tour captains Alun Wyn Jones and Conor Murray, also including Mako Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau, they can join their coach in earning the right to be enshrined in Lions history should they manage to complete a third successive unbeaten series.
The team will play for the glory but once again it will be the coach who defines the last leg of a potentially momentous journey.
It is not merely about who he has chosen to play this final Test but how they will play it.
If supreme confidence oozed through his final 2013 selection – embodied in the audacious removal of the gilded Brian O’Driscoll, and the understandable caution that perhaps prevailed in 2017, perhaps in 2021 it is sheer desperation which tugs at Gatland’s sleeve.
But through it all he will remain steadfastly reliant on the certainties that have served him so well in the past.
For Gatland, this series represents unfinished business. And given he is the best in this type of business, you wouldn’t put it past him to get the job done. The champagne is on ice.