Current All Blacks side are not the best ever, insists Lions supremo Gatland
Published 02/11/2016 | 02:30
While it could be chalked down to yet another bout of his customary gamesmanship ahead of taking the Lions to New Zealand next summer, Warren Gatland refused to admit that the current All Blacks are the best side the country has ever produced.
If in fact that was the case, and Gatland was simply scoring a pre-emptive barb because the opportunity had materialised, then few could blame him for attempting to eke out even the slightest of advantages before returning to his homeland to undertake the toughest assignment in world rugby.
When considering the raft of high-profile retirements since New Zealand retained the William Webb Ellis Cup just over a year ago, there is a legitimate argument to be made that the team Ireland will face in Chicago on Saturday is vastly different to one that defeated Australia in the World Cup final at Twickenham.
However, the All Blacks have been flawless in the interim, and have racked up ten victories in as many Tests, including three against Gatland's Wales in June.
Steve Hansen's men then regained the Rugby Championship by making light work of the three other semi-finalists - Australia, South Africa and Argentina - from the World Cup, but Gatland is still not fully convinced by what he's seen.
"Anyone in New Zealand could coach the All Blacks and you would be guaranteed an 85pc win record, so it's not a bad team to be involved with," he said.
"People talk about how they compare with the 1963 team. I was involved in that All Black team after 1987 (World Cup winners).
"It wasn't the same number of Test matches but we were involved in plenty of undefeated matches and that was on the old tours and playing midweek games.
"It's very difficult to compare generations or decades of teams and individuals but they are an absolute quality side and they have got a lot of things right at the moment. The players are playing with real confidence and freedom and they tend not to panic if they are behind."
Gatland knows well from recent first hand experience that the All Blacks do not easily rattle when the tide is against them; Wales were ahead and level at half-time in the first and second Tests respectively, before being ruthlessly blitzed in the final quarter after New Zealand emptied their bench.
He was also at the Aviva Stadium in 2013 when Ireland allowed New Zealand claw their way back from a 22-7 half-time deficit, and snatch away an historic victory thanks to Ryan Crotty's late match-winning try.
Gatland believes a first ever Ireland win over New Zealand is inevitable but, with such little preparation time ahead of the clash at Soldier Field, the former Connacht coach admits getting the monkey off their back this weekend could be a tall order.
The challenge for Joe Schmidt, he said, is to try and suitably marry ambition and practicality against a team who have been playing together steadily since the end of August.
"They should have won that game in Dublin, I was there that day. It's going to happen at some stage and it probably should have happened a few years ago.
"As Irish players you want to get that bogey off your back and as an All Black you don't want to be part of that team that loses to Ireland.
"From Joe's (Schmidt) perspective, it's getting the balance right, isn't it? You want to play a little bit of heads up but at times you have to be smart about the way you play. I think Joe will be aware of that, but you have to be smart in terms of playing territory with them."