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Graham Henry, Clive Woodward and Ian McGeechan fell out of favour or lost their nerve after their Lions forays in 2001, 2005 and 2009.
Now Gatland, the 49-year-old former schoolteacher with 140 caps for Waikato, 17 tour games for the All Blacks and an international coaching career spanning 14 years with Ireland and Wales, is planning his foray to Australia next year as Lions coach.
Those duties already have a serious grip. Around another bout of heel surgery, Gatland has fitted in a stack of travel to matches and blue chip sponsors' engagements.
Every week in Britain national newspapers and Sky are picking Lions teams, while there is an endless range of commercial activity.
"As a brand we want the Lions to be successful because I think they are a bit special in the rugby world," Gatland told the Herald.
"It captures a bit of the traditional tour theme and should be something else. Already I am absolutely amazed at the interest here and in Australia, the financial input, the work going on around the tour, even compared to what we had in South Africa three years ago."
Gatland was an assistant to McGeechan on that trip and will announce his coaching setup in a few weeks.
He was going to be freed from those duties for Wales' test with the Wallabies next week, as a preview to some of the opposition the Lions will face next year.
But that solitary task became a double-act when he was released to coach Wales against the All Blacks tomorrow at the Millennium Stadium.
At some stage Gatland wants to coach back in New Zealand to complete more than the couple of years he had from 2005-06 with Waikato and then as technical advisor to the Chiefs.
That is in the distance after the Lions tour and he hopes a continued association with Wales to the 2015 World Cup.
Five months spent recovering in New Zealand after his accident this year allowed Gatland to get a fresh insight into his career and aims.
"It gave me time to think, to re-engage with New Zealand rugby and gather a whole lot of different thoughts and ideas about where the game was going.
"I spoke to people from Waikato, the Chiefs and All Blacks and it gave me a renewed perspective and insight on the game. As a coach, I am learning all the time and those months were invaluable for that."
He is now gearing up for the Lions before readying for another two year push to the World Cup.
He sees himself as more of a co-ordinator, bringing on the talents of his staff like Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards so they can lead he next wave of Welsh talent.
"Coaching is in my blood. I love it. I drove Wales hard and was hands-on for a while but now it is time to empower others," he said.
Gatland is convinced rugby sides thrive on a multi-layered approach. They need some freedom but discipline and boundaries were also a necessity.
"Wales know for example, if they are told to do something, they do it. If not they may as well go back home tomorrow."
The Lions would need men of character and discipline as much as ability when they play nine games including three tests in Australia next June and July.
Once the side is chosen, they will scarcely practice together before heading to Hong Kong for an opening game against the Barbarians on June 1, then on to Australia.
- By Wynne Gray of the New Zealand Herald in Cardiff