Fired-up Gatland ups ante on All Black illegality
Nothing focuses the mind like Test week and as soon as his team had comfortably dismissed the Maori All Blacks with a display packed with power and tactical awareness, Warren Gatland turned his attention to Steve Hansen and his All Blacks.
Since the touring squad was announced, the New Zealand coach has been chipping away at every opportunity - questioning the style of play, the squad harmony and even stealing a march by leaking information before the Lions were ready. If he doesn't want to be quoted directly, his proxies in the local media will get the message out.
Gatland has largely kept his counsel as he attempted to build a team that can compete with the world champions, but after the shadow Test team so comprehensively won a match being billed as the fourth Test, he finally responded, accusing Hansen of being "worried".
The Lions coach's theory is that his normally taciturn opposite number has been uncharacteristically opinionated in his media dealings and it's unlikely to have cost Hansen much sleep.
However, Gatland's comments yesterday in Hamilton are likely to catch the World Cup-winning coach's attention as the visiting coach chose to highlight elements of the All Blacks' play as illegal and effectively accusing the entire New Zealand system of pulling the wool over referees' eyes.
South African referee Jaco Peyper, the man who presided over New Zealand's hot-tempered win in Dublin last November, took charge of the Maori game and is in the middle again next Saturday and the coach's comments are directed his way.
Gatland's team have been criticised heavily for their lack of attacking penetration, but he laid at least some of the blame at the feet of the illegal work opponents have been carrying out without being noticed by the officials.
"The frustrating thing for us is the amount of blocking that's going on, the off-the-ball stuff, it makes it difficult to complete attacking opportunities and situations because there is so much happening off the ball in terms of holding players or subtly holding players," he said pointedly. "We've raised it with the ref already. If you listen to the ref's mic they were talking about it constantly through the game. They gave a couple of penalties last night for blocking.
"It's one of the hardest things to pick up because it tends to happen quite a long way off the ball. In fairness to the ARs (Assistant referees), they did raise it on a number of occasions. Sometimes it was put through to the TMO who said it didn't have a material effect and told the ref to talk to the players about it.
"We'll keep raising it because it was picked up on a couple of occasions last night, they stopped doing it as much.
"That made it a lot easier for us to get up in the air and to compete. In a couple of games we haven't been able to get up in the air because there has been that interference."
Gatland will meet Peyper before Saturday's Eden Park opener and put his concerns to him. He believes the obstruction has cost his team points.
"Absolutely yeah. When you go look at the tapes and all the stuff off the ball, where someone's run a line or stopped someone getting through, some of it is very subtle," he said. "That's made it difficult. It's part of the game in New Zealand, all teams here are doing it. Some referees are picking them up for that. A few years ago people weren't quite so subtle. They're very, very subtle now."
Of course, Gatland risks his own players being called up for the same offence, but his willingness to go public is a sign that he is increasingly confident about his side's prospects.
Saturday's win was essential after the decision - foreshadowed by Hansen - to call in four Wales and two Scotland players of questionable merit into the squad.
Cory Hill, Tomas Francis, Gareth Davies and Kristian Dacey arrived from the Welsh squad in Auckland on Friday, while Allan Dell and Finn Russell have been brought in after Scotland's win over Australia. Proximity was the key factor.
The decision was unpopular, drawing criticism from Eddie Jones and a host of former Lions, with even Ian McGeechan expressing his disapproval. When he is criticising the Lions, you know you're on dodgy ground. The victory over the Maori made all of that seem pretty unimportant. The players are all on the bench for tomorrow morning's clash with the Chiefs and will do the same next week against the Hurricanes before heading home ahead of the second Test.
The coach accepted the criticism, but said his only goal is to win the series.
The bulk of the 23 will sit out the game in order to be ready for the opener and Gatland said back three, centre, back-row and second-row are still to be selected.
One big decision that will have a bearing on how the team shapes up is whether he deploys Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell together.
The versatile England back is fully fit according to the coach who revealed that Leigh Halfpenny is undergoing the return-to-play protocols after showing concussive symptoms. Sexton could be squeezed out as a result of Ben Te'o's strong form, but there is a strong chance that the double-pivot is the card that Gatland has been waiting to play.
"Coming on against the Crusaders and on Saturday, he (Sexton) has come back and played well," Gatland said. "Generally his kicking game has been pretty good, he attacked the line, put us into some holes and he played flat too, which was better compared to Damian McKenzie, who tended to play pretty deep. We are really happy with him. It's one of the potential scenarios. We could go that way, we could potentially change and do that during the match as well.
"We've got an idea in our heads. There's obviously been some good performances, the 12-13 combination last night was pretty good, balance pretty good. Ben Te'o's done really well and has caused opposition teams problems, Jonathan Joseph against the Higlanders looked dangerous as well.
"And then we've got some choices at 10 and do we look at Sexton-Farrell combination too in terms of that distributing ability. But we are creating some chances, we are getting in behind teams too."
Their next step is finishing those and Gatland is looking for some assistance from the men in charge on that front. It's likely to get under the host nation too, which may be more beneficial.