Monday 23 April 2018

Lions chief defends Gatland in O'Brien row

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland
British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Warren Gatland last night received the backing of Lions chief executive John Feehan after the coach and his assistants came in for strident criticism from Ireland flanker Seán O'Brien.

The Leinster star issued a withering critique of the preparations for the first and final Tests in New Zealand last summer, while he also directly questioned attack coach Rob Howley's contribution in comments that have provoked a big reaction across the rugby world.

O'Brien asserted that the Lions had missed an opportunity to claim a clean sweep against the world champion All Blacks in June and July, instead drawing an epic series.

While Gatland has previously accepted the point O'Brien made about the workload in the week of the first Test defeat to New Zealand being too heavy, the Lions would dispute his rebuke of Howley's attack and his criticism of the decision not to train in the early stages of the final week when the team took time off in Queenstown instead of preparing for the deciding Test.

"I said all along that I think we had the best coaching team available and I think they proved that in what we achieved in New Zealand," Feehan said yesterday.

"To draw a series with the All Blacks, who had not lost a Test match at home for eight years was a remarkable result and Warren and the coaches deserve huge credit for that.

"People will always have their views on what could have been done better but the fact is that, against all the odds and with limited preparation time, this squad became only the second Lions team in history to either win or draw a series in New Zealand in 13 attempts.

"That achievement cannot be underestimated."

O'Brien last night moved to dampen the furore with a statement on his Twitter page in which he said he had only made his comments in the interest of bettering the Lions for future tours.

"I have nothing but respect for Warren and the whole coaching team, in addition to the rest of the back-room team and squad of players. But do I believe we - the players and coaches - could have done better? Yes," he wrote.

The Leinster star received the backing of England back-row Billy Vunipola, who was initially named in the Lions squad but withdrew before they departed in order to fix an ongoing shoulder injury.

"I wasn't there on tour but I guess if he (O'Brien) is saying it and the authority he said it with, he's probably right," Vunipola told the BBC.



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