The British and Irish Lions may have survived a third Test All Blacks onslaught to draw the series, but tour manager John Spencer believes that the failure to give Warren Gatland the preparation time that he wanted cost the side a first tour triumph in New Zealand since 1971.
Saturday’s third Test came to a nail-biting climax as a late Owen Farrell penalty levelled the scores at 15-15. The All Blacks appeared to have one late chance to win it, only for a penalty to be downgraded to a scrum by referee Romain Poite, who decided that replacement hooker Ken Owen was accidentally offside to safe the Lions from a certain series defeat.
Tour manager Spencer, a former England captain, caused a stir at the weekend when he confirmed that the Lions would be prepared to tour without English players if a new agreement to release players at the right time cannot be reached in the coming months, and he backed that up by stressing that an extra week’s preparation for the tour would have been enough for the Lions to see off the All Blacks for the first time in 46 years.
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“My honest opinion is yes. The preparation is extremely important,” Spencer said a day after the thrilling finale. “But as I said earlier, I think we’re making very positive steps already, to talk about and rectify that situation.
“I’ve received incredible cooperation from the board on that, and there are four of us who are ex-Lions there who know about the intensity and preparation.
“What I would say is that gold medals are won on the training pitch a long time before they are won on the match pitch.”
The 69-year-old Spencer, a member of the successful 1971 Lions that remain the only tourists to beat the All Blacks in a series, will be part of the board that judges Gatland’s performance as head coach. The Kiwi has added a drawn series with the reigning world champions to the 2-1 victory claimed in Australia four years ago, and having endured a difficult tour on a personal level, Gatland is likely to receive a glowing report.
The fact that the Lions came to New Zealand to win and leave with a draw will be something of a disappointment, especially given the chance to beat them doesn’t come around very often, but Spencer explained that once the initial frustration of a drawn series cleared, the Lions could still be proud with what they have achieved.
I think he’s the best coach in the world, and he’s proven that with our guys
“It was a very strange atmosphere in the changing rooms yesterday,” added Spencer. “That we hadn’t quite done what we set out to do. But in the cold light of day, the boys are realising what an incredible achievement.
“To come here and not take a step backwards was our objective, and there were times where we could have run away with it, a couple of chances. A lot of people might think it wouldn’t have been fair. But in the long run the boys will be happy with their achievements.”
When reviewing Gatland’s input, Spencer was effusive. “Set a Kiwi to catch a Kiwi. You have to be a very shrewd coach to come to New Zealand and achieve what the players achieved yesterday.
“I will tell you without doubt I think he’s the best head coach in the world.”
Gatland has already thrown his hat in the ring to lead the Lions again in 2021, which would complete the set as head coach given that he was an assistant to Sir Ian McGeechan in South Africa in 2009. Spencer would be happy to consider the current Wales head coach once again given his track record with the Lions, although he did concede that he does not believe he will still be on the Lions board.
“Never say never, I think that a lot will happen in the next four years,” he said. “I think he [Gatland] will be in very big demand all over the world. That’s his decision.
“As far as I’m concerned, I think I’ll be too old – you guys tell me I’m too old now!
“I don’t want to take anything away from Wales, because he’s got a job to do there. But I think his achievements on this tour have opened up the future for him.
“I think he’s the best coach in the world, and he’s proven that with our guys.”
Gatland has already confirmed that he will leave his role with Wales after the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, where he will assess his options with a return to New Zealand, another Northern Hemisphere job or a rugby sabbatical all a possible option. However, he started in the wake of Saturday’s finale that he would be interested in leading the Lions to South Africa, though conceded that 2021 remains a long way off.