Tuesday 22 August 2017

Warren Gatland blames 'outside criticism' for decision not to use mid-tour replacements

A general view of the front page of New Herald featuring British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland mocked up as a clown during the match between Hurricanes and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
A general view of the front page of New Herald featuring British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland mocked up as a clown during the match between Hurricanes and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jack de Menezes

Warren Gatland made a stunning revelation in the wake of the British and Irish Lions’ 31-31 draw with the Hurricanes on Tuesday after he admitted that the backlash he faced for calling up six players during the tour of New Zealand swayed him to go out of his way not to play them.

Only prop Allan Dell and fly-half Finn Russell have seen any game time on this tour, where they have had to play a handful of minutes while covering a sin-binned Joe Marler and an injured Dan Biggar in the games against the Chiefs and Hurricanes. Hooker Kristian Dacey, tighthead Tomas Francis, lock Cory Hill and scrum-half Gareth Davies have not played a minute between them, and will now join Dell and Russell in flying back to Britain.

The fact that Gatland decided against playing them was highlighted in Tuesday’s draw when the starting XV were clearly flagging, and the sight of many players sprawled out on the turf at the full-time whistle triggered questions of why the Kiwi had not sent on the replacements bar George Kruis and Leigh Halfpenny.

“Those players were called out as cover, that was the case,” Gatland said after the match. “I know there’s a lot been made about that in terms of the decision we made to bring players in for cover and protect as many of the test 23 as we could.

“If we hadn’t had those players there tonight we’d have probably had players from  the bench on Saturday who would have been exposed. We lost Robbie Henshaw and Dan Biggar went off with a HIA [head injury assessment]. So potentially we would have been exposing players from the Test 23 earlier on.

“I think so much was made about devaluing the jersey and all those bits and pieces, so we made a decision that we would try to get through the game with as many of the starting XV as we could.

“So much was made of that and I understand people’s views, so you’ve got to take cognisance of that. So we make a collective decision that we make them as injury or HIA replacements, which is what happened on two occasions.”

The admission calls into question Gatland’s decision-making on this tour and, having been outsmarted by Steve Hansen in the All Black’s 30-15 victory in last Saturday’s first Test, the head coach’s performance is starting to come under some scrutiny.

The local media have not helped his cause, with one newspaper here in New Zealand mocking up a picture of Gatland as a clown on their front page – not for the first time – due to his claim that the All Blacks were deliberately trying to injure scrum-half Conor Murray.

“Look, as a Kiwi, you’d like to think you’d come home and things would be more positive from one or two members of the media. That hasn’t happened,” Gatland said, adding he hadn’t seen the newspaper and hoped it was “a happy clown”.

“But you can’t let that get to you. You’ve just got to take that on the chin and not get affected by it.

“There’s been a significant campaign against me personally. But that’s water off a duck’s back to me. I’ve just got to concentrate on doing my job and not worry about any specific individuals who try and make it personal. It’s just part of professional sport. I couldn’t give a toss if that’s happening.”

Gatland was forced into a reshuffle early in the first half when centre Robbie Henshaw injured his shoulder, with George North being moved to inside centre, Jack Nowell switching to the wing and Leigh Halfpenny coming on at full-back, and Gatland confirmed it looks to be a tour-ending injury for the Irishman.

Gatland said: “He doesn’t look great at the moment, he’s in a bit of a sling with a shoulder.

“I think there’s a good chance his tour could be over. I think we’ve got enough cover within the squad at this stage not to have to replace him, if that’s the case.”

Independent News Service

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