Three years with Ireland, a European Cup with Wasps, almost 10 years with Wales – during which he has become the most powerful coach in their history, collecting three Six Nations trophies, two of them Grand Slams. Three Lions tours, two as head coach; one lost, one won, one drawn.
At his side throughout, with Wales and the Lions, has been Rob Howley, his trusted lieutenant and attack coach.
The former scrum-half claimed a Six Nations championship of his own as Gatland’s stand-in while the Kiwi prepared for the
2013 Lions tour.
Yet the foundations of this rock-solid and highly successful partnership have been rocked this week by the claims of Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien that Gatland and Howley blew a golden opportunity to beat the All Blacks in their own backyard last summer.
The Leinster star, who started all three Tests in the drawn series, said: “If we had a little more structure during the weeks, and more of an attack game plan, driven way earlier in the tour, we could have won 3-0.”
While O’Brien lobbed a few grenades into the coaches’ tent for over-training on an already gruelling tour, he saved his sharpest bayonet for Howley, claiming the midfield axis of Owen Farrell and Jonny Sexton were running the show after the defeat in the first Test.
“Rob struggled with the group in terms of his attributes of trying to get stuff across, whereas Johnny and Owen drove everything the second week in our attack and had a better plan in place,” he said.
Damning words. And so far, neither Gatland nor Howley have chosen to reply. But perhaps they are hoping the statistics do the talking for them.
In the first Test, after a week in which O’Brien claimed the players were pushed too hard, the Lions lost 30-15 but racked up their best attacking numbers of the series – and scored one of the greatest tries in Lions history with a length of-the-field move finished by a certain Mr O’Brien. The 15 clean breaks were the most conceded by New Zealand in any Test since 2012.
And if it is true that Farrell and Sexton were running the attacking show from then on, while the Lions may have remained unbeaten to draw the series, they produced fewer clean breaks and offloads and beat fewer defenders in each of the two Tests – even when playing against 14 men. So while there is no doubt there was a lot of talent in those red jerseys, it is a wild claim to say a whitewash was on the cards – and one which diminishes the achievement of a draw that no one expected.
The Lions were outplayed for long periods, benefited from Sonny Bill Williams’ moment of madness in the second Test and referee Romain Poite’s change of heart over the offside call against Ken Owens in the dying minutes of the decider.
Howley is a quiet man of honour who rarely confronts his critics; Gatland, as befits a former hooker, is far more fiery. Oh to be a fly on the Aviva Stadium tunnel wall when Gatland’s Wales team take on O’Brien’s Ireland on February 24 in the Six Nations.