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Lions shrug off criticism to end a 16-year drought

July 7, 2013

SYDNEY (AP) — After making the selection call that could have divided the British and Irish Lions along national lines, Warren Gatland’s coaching career was in the balance. The doomsdayers were even hinting at the future of the combined ‘home nations’ tour concept hinging on the outcome of third test in Sydney.

They started with a bang, literally, in the first scrum and opened the scoring within two minutes, setting the tone for a record 41-16 win over Australia in Saturday’s series-deciding match that ended a 16-year drought for the Lions.

Gatland was the target of vitriolic criticism for three days after dropping Irish center Brian O’Driscoll, the most loyal servant of the Lions in the modern era. The coach was ultimately vindicated as he delivered the combined team from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England its first series triumph since 1997.

Gatland has had great success since taking over the Wales national team in 1997. And despite being a New Zealander, he was the obvious choice to coach the British and Irish Lions on a 10-match tour that opened in Hong Kong last month and included nine matches in Australia. It was his ability to stand back and look at the overall picture that undoubtedly helped the Lions.

But even after the victory in Sydney, he was still reeling from the torrent of criticism he’d copped.

“I was absolutely shocked at the vitriolic terms of the criticism,” Gatland said. “I haven’t enjoyed the last 72 hours, it’s been tough personally.

“Maybe in a week or two I might get some pleasure out of tonight. But at the moment there hasn’t been a lot of pleasure out of feeling vindicated at the amount of criticism directed at me personally.”

Having said that, he later told a British tabloid that he’d “jump at the opportunity” to take charge of the Lions on their next tour in 2017 — to New Zealand.

“It would be a massive honor and extra special to take them to my home country,” Gatland was quoted as saying by the Mail on Sunday.

New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry was in charge of the Lions when they lost the 2001 series in Australia 2-1, after opening that series with an emphatic win. England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward was in charge for the 3-0 drubbing in New Zealand in ’05. Gatland was an assistant coach in 2009 when the Lions lost the series 2-1 in South Africa.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the last two tours — 2009 was about restoring some real pride into that Lions jersey and felt we did that in South Africa,” Gatland told a news conference late Saturday night. “This wasn’t about that. This was delivering. This was winning the series. And we’ve achieved that. The pleasing thing for everyone, we saw how special Lions tours can be.”

He’s already plotting the next tour — or at least offering his advice to anyone who succeeds him.

“Going forward, you need to make sure that the amount of interest it creates, the amount of hype, the amount of money it generates, you’ve got to do the Lions tour properly,” he said. “You’ve got to have the right preparation time. When the Lions negotiate a series it’s got to be done properly.”

Gatland said he was frustrated at the start of the tour with the limited preparation time for his squad, and that was compounded by easy wins in Hong Kong against the Barbarians and the Western Force in Perth in the first two matches.

The Lions tour attracted an accumulated crowd of 389,400 at nine matches in Australia, including records for each of the test venues in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney — finishing off with the 83,702 people cramming into the Olympic stadium which was reconfigured after the 2000 Games. An estimated 40,000 traveling British and Irish Lions fans swelled the population of expats already living in Australia, and made the downtown areas of test cities a sea of red jerseys on match day.

O’Driscoll was delighted in the end, capping off his fourth Lions tour with his first series victory. He played in the first two tests — winning the first 23-21 in Brisbane and losing the second 16-15 in Melbourne — but Gatland benched him for the third, the first time O’Driscoll had been dropped in his 133-test career. But after the match, the 34-year-old Irishman was delighted to hold the Tom Richards Cup high above his head and do a circuit of the pitch for the Lions fans.

“This is fantastic for rugby going forward,” Gatland said. “It’s great for the Lions, and it creates an interest and excitement for the future for the Lions tours.”

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