Wednesday 27 March 2019

Warren Gatland feeling pressure ahead of D-Day mission

Lions coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Lions coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Warren Gatland's Tuesday began with him presumably choking on his porridge at the sight of himself depicted - for the second time - as a clown on the front page of a national daily newspaper and ended with him admitting that pressure from former players and the media forced his hand on a major selection decision.

His team drew their final warm-up match against the Hurricanes, throwing away a 14-point lead in the final quarter.

Part of the reason for the poor finish was Iain Henderson's yellow card, but the other factor must be the fact that the Lions were playing with 17 men against the home team's 23 because Gatland was so reluctant to bring on the so-called 'Geography Six'.

Ten days ago, Gatland risked the wrath of former Lions, fans and the media by calling up a sextet of unheralded, barely-qualified players based on their proximity to New Zealand to allow him to ring-fence his Test team.

They were to go on to the bench against the Chiefs and the Hurricanes, but somewhere along the line the coach got cold feet about a plan he first hatched in September and he decided that they would only be brought on in case of emergency.


Inset: The front page of yesterday’s New Zealand Herald
Inset: The front page of yesterday’s New Zealand Herald

"So much was made about devaluing the jersey... we made a decision that we would try to get through the game with as many of the starting XV as we could," he said when asked about his decision not to bring any of them on in the closing stages as his players were visibly tiring.

"It was a remarkable admission from a coach who has spent much of this tour on the back foot because of the pressure from Steve Hansen and his proxies in the 'New Zealand Herald' who yesterday ramped up their campaign to undermine him.

Although he said the image of him as a clown was "water off a duck's back" and asserted that he doesn't give "a toss" about it, Gatland is a Kiwi whose family reside near Hamilton. The brickbats have to hurt just a little bit.

The crude image of him as a clown and bizarre personal attack from the biggest-selling daily newspaper here was the latest chapter in a sideshow that has existed throughout the tour.

Taking their cue from Hansen deriding Gatland's complaints about the All Blacks roughing up Conor Murray, calling his opposite number "predictable" and "desperate", the paper have gone in with two feet.

They first used the clown avatar for Michael Cheika and when Gatland expressed his disappointment, he got the same treatment.

Yesterday, they flogged the long-dead horse for a third time.

"I'm not worried about what Steve Hansen says or what any newspaper draws me up as. I just hope it was a happy clown!" Gatland said in an attempt to defuse the issue. "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.

"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."

If he didn't give a toss, then he would have brought on the players in his match-day 23.

Whose interest was served by keeping CJ Stander on for 80 minutes and Iain Henderson on for 70? Why was the wretched Greig Laidlaw left on for the duration when the zippy Gareth Davies - a better scrum-half than the Scot - was left warming up?

Tomas Francis almost got on, but was twice pulled back before entering the field.

Whatever one thinks of their selection, each of these players gave up an international cap to come to New Zealand and for their willingness they got a torrent of abuse.

They leave today and only two of them can call themselves Lions: Allen Dell got a few minutes against the Chiefs and Finn Russell was on briefly last night, while Dan Biggar went a for a head injury assessment.

Suddenly, the man who was so sure in his own convictions that he was able to risk the wrath of a nation to drop Brian O'Driscoll is concerned by the court of public opinion over an issue that he had already addressed after calling them in.

Meanwhile, the All Blacks are continuing to run the show. By putting Jerome Kaino in front of the cameras yesterday, they nipped the Murray issue in the bud, while assistant coach Ian Foster - a former team-mate of Gatland's - was put forth to set the tone after Hansen's broadside the previous evening.

"We've had two weeks of a lot of noise early in the weeks, and it seems to keep you guys (in the media) pretty excited, which is good," he said.

"But at the end of the day our job as coaches is to put all that stuff to one side. And we expect it. I guess we probably give a little bit, they give a little bit, and that's all part of things when stakes are high.

"So he's doing what he thinks he needs to do to prepare his team, and we'll do what we need to do.

"You get used to it. It's part of the environment when you play a big series and this is a big series.

"For us, we have been looking forward to this for a long, long time, and we know that the Lions were too. And it's generated massive interest here and overseas.

"So there's a lot at stake. Everyone is looking for an edge. People are just trying to find that edge in different sorts of ways, and I wouldn't read too much more into it than just that."

Although the players will say they are immune to the media battles, it seems Gatland has lost his mettle at a critical juncture. With the second Test looming, it is not great timing.

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