Gatland, unbeaten in the last two tours to Australia and New Zealand, becomes only the second person to lead the Lions for the third time after Sir Ian McGeechan.
The 55-year-old has been head coach for Wales for the past 12 years, in which time Wales have won four Six Nations titles including three Grand Slams. He will leave his role in Wales at the conclusion of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan and start as head coach with the Lions on 1 August 2020, working exclusively with them until the conclusion of the 2021 tour to South Africa 12 months later.
WRU Chief Executive, Martyn Phillips, has congratulated Gatland on the appointment:
“I would personally, and on behalf of the WRU like to congratulate Warren on his appointment.
“He rightly was the outstanding candidate for the role and the right man to lead the Lions to South Africa in 2021.
“Warren has an outstanding coaching record, both with Wales and with the Lions. He has the opportunity to create history with the Lions in two years’ time and we will all be fully behind him.
“It is a sign of the success he has had with Wales in the past twelve years that he is taking on the role of head coach for a third time, and embarking on his fourth tour overall.
“Warren and his team are fully focused on the next five months with Wales. The timing of this announcement allows for full concentration on the RWC preparation when the squad fully meet up for what is a hugely important and exciting period ahead of them culminating in the Rugby World Cup.”
Gatland knows first-hand the challenge posed by the Springboks, having already been part of a touring party to South Africa in 2009 as McGeechan’s forwards coach, but is confident of delivering success for the Lions in 2021.
“I’m hugely honoured and delighted to lead the Lions again,” said Gatland.
“It is exciting and a great challenge to coach the best players from the four Home Nations. The Lions rightly have a truly special place in the game and I jumped at the chance to be involved again when I was approached about the role.
“South Africa is a special place to play rugby. They have some of the most iconic stadiums in the world which will be packed full of passionate fans, and the Springboks have shown in recent times that they are back to being one of the dominant forces in the game.
“Having toured there in 2009 I know the scale of the task ahead of us – playing in South Africa presents a number of unique challenges such as playing at altitude, while the Boks will always be physical, aggressive and highly motivated.
“History tells you it’s a tough place to tour, but I am 100 per cent confident that we can go there and win – I would not be here if I thought differently.
“I’m delighted to now have everything in place to begin full-time in August 2020 as that gives me the best possible chance to plan for South Africa, but for the time being my focus is entirely on the Rugby World Cup and delivering a successful campaign for Wales.”
Following this year’s Grand Slam victory Wales remain on a record-breaking 14-match winning run, and having also coached Ireland from 1998 to 2001, Gatland is unparalleled in terms of experience at international level with 158 Tests to his name so far.
Ben Calveley, managing director of the British & Irish Lions, said: “We’re delighted to have got our man; Warren is a world-class coach, boasts a proven track record, and arguably knows the Lions better than anyone else in world rugby – so naturally he was our first-choice candidate from the start of the process.
“This was a unanimous decision from the Lions board, and it was important that we moved swiftly and proactively to secure Warren’s signature.
“Appointing him two years ahead of time ensures Warren can also be involved in planning the logistics and scheduling elements of the tour. I’m looking forward to working alongside him to give the Lions the best chance of success in South Africa.
“The supporters are central to what make the Lions special, and with the world’s finest coach at the helm, excitement will grow even further.”
Lions chairman Jason Leonard knows exactly what it takes to triumph against the Springboks – the three-time tourist played eight matches, including one Test, in 1997 when the Lions last beat South Africa.
He added: “Warren’s record as a Lions coach is almost unparalleled and the challenge of quickly blending a successful team together from the four Home Nations cannot be overestimated.
“One of his greatest strengths is the ability to galvanise a group quickly, and the last two tours have shown clearly that Warren understands – and truly loves – the Lions.
“He has the skills and the know-how to make a Lions tour work as it should, so we’re certain he is the right man to lead us to a Test series victory.
“We may be playing away in the heartland of South Africa, but I am confident that yet again, we will have enormous support and they will feel like home games. As a player it made all the difference, and now I can’t wait to be part of the famous sea of red enjoying the tour of a lifetime.”