Sunday 20 October 2019

'Rob Howley's daughter was crying all week' - Warren Gatland opens up on O'Brien criticism and Lions fallout

'Whether it's naivety or whatever, I wasn't prepared for it. Because I had this romantic view of a Kiwi being in charge of the Lions that it would be a celebration of rugby both on and off the field'

Warren Gatland. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Warren Gatland. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

After the drawn third Test in Auckland, voting slips were passed around among the Lions to decide their Player of the Tour.

As the counting began, the coaches conducted their own snap poll. Asked who he thought might win, Warren Gatland momentarily hesitated. "Good question," he smiled. Then, after a pause, "...maybe Sean O'Brien!"

Gatland was wrong. The vote went instead to Jonathan Davies, yet his respect for O'Brien's contribution to the tour had been unequivocal. The Tullow man travelled to New Zealand nursing a calf injury that kept him out of full-contact training for the opening fortnight, yet would start all three Tests and score, arguably, the try of the tour in Eden Park.

He was also a perpetually vociferous presence in the changing-room, adopting an informal leadership role that - through Gatlands' eyes - always communicated the right message.

The tourists would be home more than two months when O'Brien's criticism of the Lions' coaching structures exploded across the sports pages.

Indeed, Gatland was sitting in his Welsh Rugby Union office with assistant Rob Howley when the detail of O'Brien's complaints became apparent. Howley, especially, was in the firing line.

Warren Gatland talking to Vincent Hogan in Dublin this week. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Warren Gatland talking to Vincent Hogan in Dublin this week. Photo: Gerry Mooney

O'Brien's complaint was that the Lions trained too hard the week of the first Test (which they lost) and did not get their work done early enough the week of the third Test (which was drawn). Of attack coach Howley, he expressed doubt that people were "buying into what he was about".

It would be weeks later before Gatland and O'Brien spoke as distinct from exchanged messages and it's fair to say the conversation bore a stiffness that would have been unimaginable to the Lions coach when they were saying their farewells in Auckland last July.

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In 12 tours to New Zealand, the Lions have won just a single Test series (1971). Drawing this one with the world champions should, thus, have been a triumph of sorts for Gatland returning to his home country. But that's not how it came to feel.

Within days of the O'Brien story breaking, England's Joe Marler suggested that all he learned from the tour was "how to drink" whilst Billy Vunipola, who did not travel because of injury, claimed that the Lions would have won the series 3-0 had England coach Eddie Jones been in charge.

Warren Gatland with Sean O’Brien following the Lions’ hard-fought 12-3 victory over New Zealand in Christchurch in June. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Warren Gatland with Sean O’Brien following the Lions’ hard-fought 12-3 victory over New Zealand in Christchurch in June. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

By mid-October, Gatland had announced that he would never again put his name forward to coach the Lions, claiming he'd "hated" the experience in New Zealand.

He smiles now with the comfort of distance from an adventure that, psychologically and emotionally, challenged him in a way nothing his life as a rugby coach ever took him close to before.

And the suggestion that he seemed faintly "beaten up" by the tour itself, never mind the sulphurous postscripts, isn't met with any strenuous contradiction.

He spent two days in bed immediately after, his wife - Trudi - "dosing me up with vitamin C" so that they could take a planned holiday in Fiji.

Sean O'Brien. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images
Sean O'Brien. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

The brutally penal Lions schedule has been exhaustively documented, yet maybe it was the absence of a single game in which they could presume upon victory that ratcheted the pressure to, sometimes, unbearable levels.

The Lions would lose two of their opening four contests on tour whilst sections of the local media chose to viciously parody the man in charge.

Gatland had coached the Lions to a series win in Australia four years earlier and was assistant to Ian McGeechan in South Africa in '09, but coaching in his homeland was taking him to a profoundly hostile place.

His son Bryn was picked to play for the Provincial Barbarians in the opening game of the tour at Whangarei, prompting a 'New Zealand Herald' story under the headline "Gatland finds Baa-Baas' Weakness - His Son'. The story suggested that Gatland would instruct Ben Te'o to target Bryn.

Over the coming weeks, the same newspaper would carry articles likening him to a clown, describing him as "just a journeyman coach" and suggesting that there was "a split" in the Lions camp.

The price to be paid for a Kiwi returning to coach against his own?

"I don't know the answer to that," he says now flatly. "Whether it's naivety or whatever, I wasn't prepared for it. Because I had this romantic view of a Kiwi being in charge of the Lions that it would be a celebration of rugby, a great tour both on and off the field. I knew we had to make up some ground from 2005 in terms of winning some hearts and minds. We had to play some decent rugby too, earn some respect.

"So right from the start of the tour, it did take me by surprise. I wasn't expecting it. It was particularly the 'New Zealand Herald', not from other areas (of the local media). Now that I reflect back on it, I think it was - potentially - pre-determined. Orchestrated."

By the All Blacks' management?

"That's for other people to say!"

But that's your suspicion?

"Well there were a couple of stories where you don't get that information unless you're talking to someone on the inside. Then a couple of people who I know really well would have said to me 'You know, this is all coming from inside...'"

And the suggestion that you would target your own son surely took things beyond the pale?

"Yeah, and I think a lot of people saw that. Forget about sport. What father would go out in what we all know can be a physical, brutal game at times to target his son?

"Not even that but to, potentially, injure him? I just thought that was below the belt. A lot of people saw it that way too.

"I mean what we were experiencing with that one newspaper was completely different to what we were experiencing from the New Zealand public. The hospitality was just incredible. People were sending letters and emails saying they were embarrassed or disgusted by some of the reporting.

"The 'New Zealand Herald' actually shut down their comments section, they were getting so much negativity. So they'd write the stories, but wouldn't allow people comment upon them. Which said everything!

"But you can't dwell on it. Even though you're pissed off, it just made me more determined, almost stronger. I mean you can't let anyone see that it's having an impact on you, particularly the players. It probably drove me even more to want to be successful.

"Kiwis would understand that. The Irish too, I suppose. Back us into a corner and we'll come out fighting even harder."

Reading his just-published account of the tour, 'In the Line of Fire', it is difficult to detect anything beyond the most superficial of courtesies underpinning his relationship with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

Indeed, from the outset, Hansen seems oddly dismissive of Gatland's coaching credentials, suggesting that unless the Lions coach had "an epiphany", there would be few surprises coming the All Blacks' way.

When, subsequently, Gatland questioned what he suspected to be physical targeting of Conor Murray, Hansen - remarkably - phoned a local radio station to publicly refute the allegation.

"Look, you can't help but respect him," Gatland says evenly now. "As to his comments about me tactically, I don't know what his motives were, whether there was a double-bluff or not.

"Whether he was a little bit worried about the type of game we were going to play. I don't know if they were feeling a little pressure. But there's always a slight effort to try to wind you up a bit. I understand that. You've got to respect what he's achieved."

Respect is one thing, but do you like him as a person?

"I don't have any problem with the guy," responds Gatland ambivalently.

"I get on with him in terms of catching up if we have a beer. It's hard from the outside because you're not dealing with them on a day-to-day basis. You don't really get to know someone in those circumstances.

"My dealings with him any time I've been coaching against him have been fine. But you have to remember you're kind of in a war-zone. Everyone's trying to manipulate things to their advantage where one call, one decision, can be the difference between winning or losing."

Maybe written in the coldest hand, history will recall the second-Test dismissal of Sonny Bill Williams in Wellington as the hinge upon which the series turned.

The Lions won that game 24-21 and, with Williams suspended for the third Test, the All Blacks were down a superstar.

Yet Gatland believes it was inevitable that the Lions would improve with every game and, in some players particularly, that improvement proved momentous.

He admits that Jonathan Sexton's form was a particular worry going to New Zealand and it wasn't until the third game of the tour, a 12-3 defeat of the hitherto undefeated (and subsequent Super Rugby champions) Crusaders in Christchurch, that his concerns about the Irish number 10 began to dissipate. After that game, Crusaders coach Brad Mooar told Gatland that his team had been dealt a lesson in game-management.

Sexton was a 27th-minute substitute for the Lions that day, his performance utterly redemptive after a poor opening display against the Barbarians.

"I honestly feared until that point that he might be gone," Gatland writes in the book. "He looked a little miserable."

He elaborates now: "It was just something I felt about Johnny from a confidence point of view. He came in after Leinster had lost to the Scarlets and he hadn't played well. And it just seemed that he was almost resigned to the fact that...look, I'm only speculating, I was kind of looking in from the outside... just some of his comments about Owen Farrell that hit home were about him being where Johnny was four years earlier, having won in Europe, being the guy in the ascendancy, playing with a lot of confidence.

"It was like he was almost resigned to the fact that he might not get selected, that he might not be part of the Test side. And he didn't play well in that first game, not that it was easy for anybody to play well in that game. We'd only been there for three days, guys were still suffering from jet-lag.

"But Johnny can be like this sometimes, he's not always communicative. He keeps to himself. But from the way he was even walking around the hotel, the shoulders were a little bit hunched over, a bit slumped. Just the way he was carrying himself.

"But then he got the chance to come on in that 10-12 combination against Crusaders and he got a bit of his mojo back. I was really pleased just to see him come out of that and go on because there's no doubt, by the end of the tour, he was back to where we wanted him to be."

Sexton would start the final two Tests, playing again with the familiar authority that makes him arguably the world's number one out-half.

Gatland admits that that turnaround was down to the player's own resilience, given the nature of a Lions tour makes it almost impossible for the coach to over-focus on individuals.

"Like I haven't had that conversation with Johnny," he admits frankly now. "So I don't even know whether he agrees with those comments or not.

"It's just the way that I saw it. And I was so pleased for him when he came good. But I can't sit down with each player individually, I just haven't got the time. As somebody said to me, if I spent five minutes a day with each player (there were 41 in the squad), that's 200-odd minutes.

"And you haven't got three hours in the day just to be sitting down talking!"

Maybe an inevitable consequence of that squeeze on time is the traditional slippage of individuals to the periphery of the tour once it becomes clear that they will have no Test match involvement.

That slippage has infected almost every Lions tour in history to one degree or another and Gatland admits of New Zealand, "we ended up losing two or three and, to be honest, that's a pretty good number!"

He says: "I saw it happen in '09 and I saw it happen in '13. You're talking about players who are used to being number one in their position but now, potentially, can be number two or three. And you have to see how they handle that.

"We went through every player beforehand in terms of what sort of person they were, what their character was like, how would they handle it if not involved in the Test 23. And, being honest, there were two or three we didn't take because the answer was, if they were in the Test XV they'd be fine but, if not, they could potentially be disruptive or a negative influence on the tour.

"We've seen in the past, huge splits in the camp. The thing about the Lions is your biggest challenge is to keep everybody on tour for as long as you can. Because you know, with most of them, you're not going to be coaching them again once the tour finishes."

Marler's parodying of life on the midweek team as some kind of smoky descent into beery anarchy, from which phone calls to home drew the almost nightly query: "You drunk again?" was not something Gatland or - he says - the bulk of the tour party appreciated.

"He's got a choice, hasn't he?" he says of the England loose-head. "He doesn't have to go out and do that. You're professional sportsmen, so you do your best to prepare. He has a choice. I'm not sure who Marler's blaming on that. Is he blaming Rory Best (the midweek captain)?

"I thought Rory did a phenomenal job on tour in terms of keeping that group together, keeping them happy. All I can say about Joe is that you have preconceived ideas of where players are. And when that tour started, given his experience with England, I would have had him as being, potentially, the starting loosehead.

"But, for whatever reason, it didn't happen for him."

Gatland doesn't specifically identify Marler as one of those players eventually "lost" to the group, but then he scarcely needs to. And he is utterly disdainful of how they will be remembered.

"When you talk about the three or four that were probably lost on tour, I think at some stage - maybe in 20 years' time - there might be a reunion," suggests the Lions coach.

"And everyone in the group, players, coaches, the rest of management, they know who those players are. 'Cos they stuck out like a dog's balls!"

As to Vunipola's declaration that the series would have been a 3-0 Lions whitewash had Eddie Jones been in charge, he is equally unimpressed.

"I don't even know Billy Vunipola" Gatland says. "But my first reaction to what he said was 'Well, if that's the case, why didn't ye win the game in Dublin for the Grand Slam!'"

When they finally got around to speaking, Gatland suggests he encountered a faintly remorseful Sean O'Brien.

The Tullow man had articulated none of his concerns about coaching structures or standards during the tour itself and Gatland suggests that his depiction of the group over-training before the first Test was factually incorrect. He says he himself became aware of the group being "heavy-legged" that week, but insists "it wasn't down to the volume of training.

"The volume was actually less than we'd normally do in terms of preparation," Gatland says now.

"I just felt it was an accumulation of all the travel, of us being in 10 hotels in the first few weeks. The only days off were travel days. The players hadn't had a break and it just kind of caught up with us.

"I sat down with the leadership group after that first Test, asking them how they felt. They just looked at me, nobody saying anything. 'How did ye feel?' I repeated. Eventually, Jamie George said, 'Well I was a bit heavy-legged'. And I'm, 'Yeah, it looked that way to me as well...'

"I was disappointed with myself because I kind of pride myself on being able to get a feel of where the players are."

The conversation with O'Brien was, he says, civil and restrained.

"A point I made to him was, 'Sean, you came in and you didn't train for the first two weeks, yet one of the comments you made at the end of the tour was that you were in the best shape of your life. We must have done something right.'

"And he was, 'Yeah, fair enough...'

"And the training sessions? You know we only ever trained for about 40-45 minutes. They were our long sessions."

"And he was, 'No, no, I really enjoyed the training sessions!'
"And I'm like 'OK so...'

"So I said to him, 'Look, I don't have a problem with you criticising, but what you've got to understand Sean is we're preparing for a Test match and I'm trying to get a feel for the players in terms of how much volume we can do. On the other hand, I've got a group of coaches who are coming to me, going, 'We haven't done enough...'

"I'm trying to balance that up and Sean kind of didn't understand that. So when you're saying to Andy Farrell, 'You've got two six-minute blocks of training, Andy...' that's not a lot of defence. And, you know, he's got to make the most of those two six-minute blocks. And the other coaches feel they're under-done. They feel they haven't had enough time with the players, that they haven't got enough information across.

"And I'm there trying to get that balance. Are we fresh enough? Are we sharp enough? So we had that conversation and Sean explained things from his own perspective, which was fine. I just thought he could have found a better forum in which to express his opinion."

And Gatland still questions O'Brien's judgment in specifically questioning Howley's skills.

"I'm not sure people always realise the impact of this stuff," he suggests. "It was Rob Howley's daughter's first week at university. What's it they call it, 'Freshers' Week'? Supposed to be the highlight of going to college and she's crying all week because of what's in the newspapers.

"You think of the impact that has on a family when one person is highlighted. I mean Sean was complaining that Johnny (Sexton) and Owen (Farrell) drove everything attack-wise the week of the second Test. But that's surely what you want, it's exactly what you're trying to do.

"Because they're the ones out there, the ones who have to experience it. Two absolutely world-class players. You don't want to be directing them or driving them. You want their input. You want them to take over."

As to O'Brien's contention that the Lions should have won the series 3-0, Gatland summons a reminder that their win in Wellington represented the All Blacks' first home defeat in 47 Test matches.

"Sean must have some very valuable information if that's his belief," he chuckles. "And I'd love to get my hands on it because it's worth a lot of money!"

The business of November internationals seems grey and faintly humdrum now compared to those three epic summer Tests on the far side of the planet.

Gatland admits to being surprised by the monstrous scale of Ireland's demolition of the Springboks last week and envisages a compelling World Cup cycle looming for the home countries now.

"What's really interesting is that England, Ireland and Wales are all pretty similar in age-profile and experience now," he says. "And we're all thinking we can, hopefully, have good World Cups in 2019.

"I look at Ireland at the moment and those two props (Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath) with Cian Healy in the three years' time, they will be absolutely world-class. Maybe even quicker than that.

"You've some back-row stuff. You've Conor Murray, world-class. Johnny... you know if he doesn't pick up injuries. But you've got a couple of options there now too, with the likes of (Joey) Carbery to bring in. (Garry) Ringrose is obviously a special talent. Any coach would love to have someone like (Robbie) Henshaw in your team. A quality person on and off the field. And you've got some pretty good talent out wide too.

"So there's a nice balance to what Ireland have got at the moment. They're in a really good place. I'm looking forward to coming here in the Six Nations!"

And the Lions? What about that comment that he was "done" with the experience?

"At the time, I think it was my reaction to how tough it had been, especially coming back and encountering all those different comments," he says now. "Knowing how tough it is, you're just going, 'Is it worth it?'

"And there's a cynical side of me saying, 'Let someone else do it now and, when they fail, people will realise how hard it is!' Look, when Wales win the World Cup in 2019 and they say 'Will you reconsider?', there's a possibility that you may," he says, smiling. "Time is a great healer.

"But, between now and 2019, my only focus is on preparing Wales for that World Cup."

Warren Gatland's IN THE LINE OF FIRE - published by Headline - is the ultimate insider's story of the most thrilling and epic Lions tour to New Zealand for generations.

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