If there was any doubt as to the importance of the British and Irish Lions, and the effect a victorious tour has on the nation’s sporting psyche, it was erased at the recent BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in Leeds.
The Lions scooped the team of the year award, Leigh Halfpenny finished second behind runaway winner Andy Murray in the race for the main prize and Warren Gatland was named coach of the year.
“It’s huge recognition for rugby,” said Gatland, who had been the mastermind behind a first Lions tour win for 16 years.
Yet that historic 2-1 series victory over Australia told half the story. For nowhere in the past 12 months was the gap between winning and losing so stark.
Had the ensemble of Welsh, English, Irish and Scots lost for the fourth tour in succession, Gatland would have been hounded out of the job, never to be invited back.
His tactics would have been torn to shreds by media and pundits, his astute reputation built in guiding Wales to a World Cup semi-final and two Six Nations’ grand slams would have been in tatters.
As it was, the Lions won that nerve-shredding decider with the Wallabies rather more comfortably than even they could have dreamed.
And so the touring party became heroes, with Gatland a maestro. The slightest negative that might have impacted on the team – that would have had a spotlight shone on it had they lost – was swept under the carpet.
Yet the one contentious decision that stood out above all others haunted Gatland in the following hours and days, and even tempered the celebrations.
That was the selection call – a coach’s prerogative – he and his staff made to leave out Ireland and Lions talisman Brian O’Driscoll for the final Test.
It was a selection gamble that drew widespread derision from fans and media alike. Because of it, Gatland’s Lions were given little chance of winning the decisive duel in Sydney, and the headlines about O’Driscoll’s omission were mentally scripted.
“It was an incredibly tough week,” Gatland told the Yorkshire Post. “We had players fit and available for the third Test and we made what as coaches we knew was a tough call.
“We spoke about there being a bit of a fallout from the decision, but had no idea it was going to be quite so much, but that’s the job you’re given.
“As a coach, sometimes you have got to make what you believe are the right decisions.
“I kept saying, remember selection is just a matter of opinion and that’s all it is, but it probably caught me a little bit by surprise in terms of what happened, and the amount of pressure placed on us.
“But the way the players responded in the terms of how they played was just sensational.
“Everyone says ‘you must feel vindicated’. But I didn’t get any pleasure out of making a decision like that; it was a tough call but we thought it was the right one.
“There’s no pleasure in making tough calls, especially around players like Brian O’Driscoll who is an Irish legend and a great servant of the Lions and northern hemisphere rugby.
“It was a tough decision, and for the way he reacted to that I have an enormous amount of respect for him as an individual.
“It was a tough week, but thankfully we got through it.”
Get through it they did, in emphatic fashion. A 41-16 victory wiped out any controversy, with the decision to drop O’Driscoll now viewed as a calculated gamble by a daringly brilliant man-manager.
The intrusive nature of the questioning over that one decision, though, and how his reputation was turned upside down, left him to wonder if he had the appetite to be involved in a third Lions tour in 2017. But having recently signed a deal to coach Wales until 2019, he reaffirmed his ambition to be involved again in three and a half years.
The sweet taste of success, no matter how hard it is to gain, is too great a drug to give up.
As is, for a coach of his standing, the chance to work with such talented and dedicated players as the Lions’ cast, and in particular Halfpenny, who was voted into second place at the recent Sports Personality awards in Leeds.
“I was blown away by Leigh and hugely proud,” said Gatland of the nerveless Welsh full-back.
“I know just how hard he works, he’s a perfectionist. Anyone lucky enough to coach for him will see he’s a true professional, that he prepares himself, and the success he’s got is not out of luck, it’s out of hard work.
“You should see the effort he puts in, sat in front of the computer with his notebook open, watching training, games, and the opposition.
“Then there’s the extras he does, in terms of goal-kicking, so for him to achieve what he’s done and to get the runners-up award, was brilliant for him, the Lions and for rugby.”
It was also at the recent awards at the First Direct Arena that Gatland spoke so highly of the host city and county.
Despite hailing from New Zealand, Gatland appreciates the diverse sporting culture of the White Rose county.
“It’s a great sporting area in Yorkshire in terms of cricket, football, rugby and league, but the people seemed to me to be incredibly well educated; they know their sport,” said the Kiwi.
“To see the recognition Alex Ferguson got from the crowd, and for other sporting people, just goes to show that despite rivalry – which is a brilliant part of sport – there’s also people who appreciate great achievement.”