Warren Gatland hits out at Springboks’ ‘win at all costs’ approach as ex-Lions boss recalls unsavoury 2021 tour

Colin Newboult
Former British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland alongside Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus.

Former British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland alongside Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus.

Warren Gatland insists that South Africa’s approach spoilt the British and Irish Lions series in 2021 and has called for the touring side to be “protected” moving forward.

The great Wales head coach led the Lions on three occasions – in 2013, 2017 and 2021 – but was not impressed with some of the antics on the past two tours.

In particular, the Springboks drew his ire following a controversial series three years ago, which included Rassie Erasmus slamming referee Nic Berry in a controversial hour-long video after the first Test.

Off-field drama

“That was probably the first time I experienced what happened in South Africa, it was almost a win at all costs, the ends justifies the means,” Gatland told The Rugby Pod.

“Some of the stuff that happened off the field with Rassie and even in New Zealand in 2017, there were certain things with the media that I was like, ‘the Lions have changed the teams you’re playing against’.

“It didn’t feel like it was about rugby, it was about winning was the most important thing.

“It was almost like things off the field were trying to upset players or the team, and it was deemed acceptable.”

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There was doubt as to whether the 2021 tour would even happen, given that it took place in the midst of Covid, and Gatland felt it should never have gone ahead.

“It was different. Probably for me, I think the tour should have been postponed,” he said. “There were a couple of nations who felt that postponement would impact their World Cup preparation.

“For me, I thought that was rubbish. For me, it is not about the rugby, it’s about the fans, which is what makes it special.”

The future of the Lions is a debate that often surfaces but Gatland, who has became synonymous with the team following his 12-year relationship with the touring side, insists that it is vital its importance in the rugby calendar remains.

“It’s an unbelievable concept, and we should do everything we can to protect the Lions going forward,” he said.

“I really hope that Australia next year will be brilliant. We are touring Japan with Wales so I hope to get down there for the third Test.

“I look forward to getting to watch it as a fan again, and I am really privileged to have had that experience. I am humbled by my involvement with the Lions and really proud of that.

“It means a huge amount to me, and I will back the Lions as a team, and we should do everything to make sure it flourishes.”

Fans that make it

Professionalism has certainly changed the nature of Lions tours, but the Home Nations supporters still have a huge passion for the concept.

“I have this romantic view of the Lions that it’s a celebration of the game,” Gatland added.

“You’re bringing players together from four nations, and you’re playing against traditionally one of the best nations in the world once every 12 years, and it’s the fans that make it.

“It’s a chance for the southern hemisphere to experience what we often experience in the Six Nations games where 40% of the crowd can be Lions supporters and that’s what creates that atmosphere.

“If you go and watch an All Blacks or Australian game being played there, 95% of the fans are local supporters, so they kind of get to experience what happens during the Six Nations.

“That is almost more important than the game and the rugby in terms of that experience.”

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