The 53-year-old now has a Lions coaching record rivalled only by the great Ian McGeechan after leading the tourists to a triumph in Australia four years ago and the stalemate with the All Blacks in an epic series over the last three weeks.
The Lions lost the first test 30-15, won the second 24-21 and drew the third 15-15 to share the series.
After speaking at length of his pride at what the squad had achieved in rugby’s “ultimate challenge”, and how he thought they had earned respect in his homeland, the New Zealander was asked about his own future.
He reaffirmed that the 2019 World Cup would bring an end to his time in charge of Wales before being asked whether he might want to complete “the set” of Lions tours in 2021.
“There’s a possibility that there’s an opportunity there again, and it’s something that you might consider,” Gatland, looking a little bleary-eyed after a late night out celebrating the end of the tour, told reporters at the team hotel on Sunday.
“Obviously the South Africa thing’s a little bit easier in terms of the timeframes and stuff and travelling. But we’d hope we don’t let the next four years go before we start planning and putting things into place.
“Those discussions need to happen now, about just having some reasonable preparation time,” he added..
“I’m not being stupid, as a coach, I wouldn’t be asking for a month. I think just a week in the UK or Ireland beforehand and a week in South Africa before the first game is reasonable.
“And maybe not have a midweek game in the first week before the test so we can prepare properly. Hopefully the powers in the game will act to preserve something that is special.”
One thing Gatland would be unable to bring to bear in South Africa would be the knowledge of the local psyche he thought had been vital to the squad’s success against the world champions.
“I think if anybody else was doing it then we probably might not have drawn the series,” he said.
“I think you’ve got to reflect on that and say that’s a pretty good achievement in terms of playing the best team in the world in their own backyard and drawing the series, particularly having lost the first test,” he added.
“We all said how important it was to win that first test, so to win the second test and draw the third was a great achievement.”
“SIGN OF RESPECT”
Gatland said his ears had pricked up last week when he heard opposite number Steve Hansen talking about how “the sun would still come up” if New Zealand lost the third test.
“Those were comments you don’t hear very often coming out of the All Blacks camp,” he said.
“I think we’d earned that respect for them to make those sort of comments. The thing about the All Blacks is they never worried about the opposition, always about themselves, always picked a team for themselves.
“We felt that we’d forced them to play a bit differently, they’d picked a team to combat some of our strengths and they don’t normally do that. And I think that’s a sign of respect for what we’ve achieved as a team.”
It was an immensely tough tour, Gatland said, which he “hated” at times, especially when he was the subject of personal attacks from the local media which he found “hard to take”.
The experience the Lions players had accumulated in the heat of the battle on the 10-match tour, he thought, would hold them in good stead when they faced the All Blacks again in the colours of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
“You get belief and confidence from performances. The mind is pretty powerful in that regard,” he said.
“For a lot of those players that have now beaten the All Blacks, drawn with the All Blacks, they can start communicating how to do that as players.
“What’s great about some of these players is that they have now been on two Lions tours and they haven’t been beaten. That’s something pretty special and something they can hold onto.
“And for some of them, they can start thinking about South Africa in four year’s time.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Ken Ferris)