Warren Gatland was hailed as rugby union’s greatest ever coach just two months ago, but the New Zealander’s reputation has taken a battering after the Waikato Chiefs’ horror show in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Gatland’s Chiefs slumped to defeat in all eight of their matches, with the losing streak extending to nine if results from the suspended Super Rugby season are included.
It was a humbling experience for Gatland, who joined the Chiefs this season hoping to return his hometown team to the glory days of 2012-13, when they won back-to-back Super Rugby titles.
“I won’t deny that we’re disappointed,” Gatland said after the dismal season ended with a limp 31-18 loss to Wellington Hurricanes.
“It’s all about results, and we haven’t achieved those results.”
Gatland arrived in Hamilton with a stellar record after guiding Wales to four Six nations titles — three of them grand slams — and two Rugby World Cup semi-finals in his 12-year tenure.
He also oversaw the British and Irish Lions’ victorious campaign in Australia in 2013 and a series draw in New Zealand four years later, as well as winning a hat-trick of Premiership titles in 2003, 2004 and 2005 with Wasps.
However, Gatland was well aware how quick the transition from rooster to feather duster can be when the British magazine Rugby World named him the world’s best ever coach in June after an exhaustive online poll.
Repeat the same exercise in a month, he told the publication at the time, and “I might not even make the quarter-final”.
– Clowning around –
Gatland’s four-year deal with the Chiefs has a clause allowing him to lead the British and Irish Lions to South Africa next year, although the tour is in doubt because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Super Rugby side have already lined up Clayton McMillan as a temporary replacement but Gatland has hinted he would work for free at the Chiefs in 2021, rather than taking an enforced break.
Despite being a proud Kiwi, it’s fair to say Gatland has always had doubters in New Zealand, where achievements in the Northern Hemisphere are viewed with suspicion.
One newspaper even depicted him as a clown in a full-page caricature during the 2017 Lions tour and Gatland later labelled elements of his treatment during the series as “disgusting”.
There was no such vitriol after this year’s Super Rugby season ended, but commentators quite reasonably pointed to the failures of Gatland’s first season in charge of the Chiefs.
“The Chiefs’ winless run in SRA was a disaster… Gatland’s comeback turned out to be as rough as guts,” stuff.co.nz’s Richard Knowler said, questioning why the team “inexplicably melted” in the domestic competition.
The New Zealand Herald’s Liam Napier pointed to a clash of styles, saying Gatland’s game plan was largely conservative, set-piece focused, territory-based and defensive.
He contrasted that with “the inherent and exuberant New Zealand flair that breeds young talent to chase width, offload in contact and attack from anywhere”.
Gatland has proved adaptable in the past, giving his backline licence to attack during the 2017 Lions tour as the tourists’ rush-defence limited the All Blacks’ options.
He had the last laugh at his critics on that tour — donning a clown’s red nose at his final press conference after the drawn series — and few would bet against him doing the same again with the Chiefs.