Sunday 26 January 2020

'He is prickling at a lot of things' - Eddie O'Sullivan believes Warren Gatland and the Lions are in trouble

Eddie O'Sullivan was one of Clive Woodward's assistant coaches during the 2005 tour of New Zealand
Eddie O'Sullivan was one of Clive Woodward's assistant coaches during the 2005 tour of New Zealand

Rob Howley believes the British and Irish Lions must improve if they are to beat “the most ruthless side in the world” when they face the All Blacks, and supported head coach Warren Gatland in his angry dismissal of ‘Warrenball’ by claiming he has no idea what the phrase actually means.

A day after Gatland reacted to a question about the renewed criticism of his rugby style by All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen and England adversary Eddie Jones, former Ireland boss Eddie O’Sullivan claimed that his fiery response to shows that the squad are “in trouble” ahead of Wednesday’s tour match against the Blues.

O’Sullivan believes that Gatland has revealed the pressure he is under by reacting to a question about ‘Warrenball’ – his apparent tactic of using powerful and big players to physically overwhelm the opposition – and that it is sending the wrong message to the squad.

"He has certainly made a rod for his back now," O’Sullivan told BBC 5 Live. "At the moment he is prickling at a lot of things, and it's very early days for that, it's a long tour.

"So I'm surprised a coach of his experience got sucked into the ‘Warrenball’ debate. It has put pressure straight away on the team to put in a big performance against the Blues.

"It is just symptomatic I suppose of the pressure he is under."

He added: "The references to needing more preparation time is almost telling the squad that they are in trouble."

But Gatland did receive support from his attack coach Howley, who has also worked as his assistant with the Wales squad during their period of success since the Kiwi took over. “I don't know what ‘Warrenball’ means,” Howley said on Tuesday. “I haven’t got a clue. That is all I can say having been part of my third tour now. I'm not too sure what ‘Warrenball’ means. I don’t know, have we played that over the last few years? I'm not too sure.”

The Lions know though that they must improve on last Saturday’s 13-7 victory over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians. The Blues will pose a much bigger threat at Eden Park on Wednesday night when the Lions take on the first of the five New Zealand Super Rugby sides, and the home team received a boost on Tuesday when Sonny Bill Williams passed a fitness test to take his place at inside centre for the match.

Howley went on the reveal that the Lions have already looked to implement their own brand of “rugby chaos”, using training this week to work on the players’ ability to capitalise on the chances that arise through broken play, turnovers and returnable kicks.

“That’s the nature of the game, that’s rugby in the southern hemisphere,” former Lions Howley explained. “That’s how the majority of the international sides play, that’s from chaos, that’s from structure. The majority of the game now is from kick returns and turnovers and it’s the ability to react in those situations and to not get left behind, to be ahead of the game.

“But we’re trying to put that match speed into training and we have a hugely competitive squad here and we did a drill yesterday, an offload drill and the contact was explosive. That’s the challenge for us, sometimes you have to sit back sometimes as they want to give everything in training and we have to make sure we’re smart with that.

“We were playing an offload drill and it got pretty heated. We’re mindful of injuries, but we are mindful of putting players under pressure as well. So there’s a fine balance but we went from a technical drill into open play and play what’s in front and suddenly it becomes a high competitive contact.”

The ability to capitalise on the chaos against the Blues and, more importantly, against the All Blacks lies predominantly on the shoulders of Gatland and Howley, the head coach and attack coach respectively. It would also be step away from the perceived ‘Warrenball’ that they have been unfairly tarnished with, given that Wales could only do what they could with the players that were available to them.

Howley played down his importance in adding this mentality to the squad though, and instead stressed that it will be a collective effort between all of the coaches in order to extract this type of expansive rugby from the Lions squad to go toe-to-toe with the All Blacks.

“All of us are in this together,” he said. “That’s a challenge for all of us coaches. Of course we want to be clinical, relentless in our process and ruthless, because in not more than a couple of weeks we’re playing against the most ruthless side in world rugby. And as we’ve said the last couple of days to everyone, we might not have the number of scrums we had against the Provincial Barbarians, we might only have two.

“In those two we need to be clinical. That’s the work-on, the progress we have to work on. We will continue to do that whilst playing games week in and week out. It’s something you embrace as a Lions coach and a Lions player.”

It also has the potential to go very, very wrong, should the Lions fail to take this on board inside just three weeks. But that’s the challenge for the coaches, and as the pressure continues to build on Gatland’s staff, it’s time for them to sink or swim.

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