Red-nosed Warren Gatland has last laugh as he hails Lions 'character'

EDEN PARK, Auckland -- Warren Gatland walked into the post-match press conference wearing a red clown's nose. The British & Irish Lions had just drawn the series with the All Blacks, and he had the last laugh.

He was mocked up as a clown by the New Zealand Herald in the run up to last week's Test in Wellington; the Lions won there 24-21 to level things up and the 15-15 draw at Eden Park saw the two teams finish the series locked at one win apiece.

There was a strange feeling post-match; a draw wasn't expected or really spoken about before the game. But as Sam Warburton and Kieran Read stood holding the trophy together, Gatland watched on, proud.

His record as a Lions head coach now stands at one series win in 2013, and then in the hardest place on earth to win, they journey back to the northern hemisphere with respect earned and pride enhanced.

Gatland came in for flak early on. After their slow start to the tour, Gatland was being cast as the wrong man for the job by a newspaper in this part of the world -- he was named a "journeyman Test coach", with the article adding "there is nothing special about Warren Gatland". How wrong they were.

To pull a team together, working within a ridiculous time frame at the start of the tour and then forging a side who went toe-to-toe with the All Blacks, he leaves with his head held high.

"I think we should embrace this, I think it's been brilliant," Gatland said. "I think a lot of negativity turned the Kiwis off supporting the All Blacks. They were very much hoping that we'd do well and that as a team and tour we'd embrace New Zealand.

"But that's finished now, so we'll just enjoy the next couple of days as a squad and reflect back on what this group of players have achieved. Some of these players have been on two tours now and are undefeated as Lions players.

"For us to come here and draw a series in New Zealand it feels like some achievement, especially considering we were totally written off with the predictions for a three-nil whitewash. And this group of players have shown unbelievable character, it's been a tough tour.

"I can understand people, everyone feels a bit flat, because you think you want a result. But when you reflect back, it's pretty special to play the best team in the world in their back yard.

"I think we'll wake up tomorrow and realise.... you'd probably say that would reflect a pretty successful series for the Lions."

Gatland enjoyed the quiet satisfaction of proving the doubters wrong. He also had a slight post-match dig at Premiership Rugby (PRL), with some of their number calling for Lions tours to be shortened in the future.

When asked if he'd like a decider against the All Blacks in November, he responded: "That would be good wouldn't it? You'll have to ask PRL if they'd release any of the players."

On the match Gatland felt the contentious decision by Romain Poite in the closing stages should have been a penalty to the Lions for Kieran Read jumping into Liam Williams and that he felt his team hadn't played that well in the third Test. He also paid tribute to the New Zealand public who have made the Lions feel so welcome.

The question now is, what does Gatland's future hold? Well, he will return to Wales and steer them to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but his immediate focus will be on producing a post-tour report to the Lions' board.

He was asked to do that in 2013, and turned the opportunity down as he felt it would not be taken into consideration. But, he will write it this time around to give his feedback on what needs to be improved ahead of the 2021 series in South Africa, with a focus on the three p's: preparation, preparation and preparation.

And would Gatland be keen to give the head coach role another crack? There was a slight smile. "There's a lot of water under the bridge before then," he said.

"Eddie [Jones] has put his hand up hasn't he? My focus now is back to Wales and looking forward to 2019. I'm definitely finishing there unless they get rid of me before then.

"I'm not too sure what's going to happen after that, whether I come home or look for something else. I might just go to the beach and put my feet up for a while.

"You never say never. Maybe after 2019 there's a chat an opportunity to think about 2021 and do three of them as a head coach. To win two and draw one wouldn't be a bad achievement."