Sunday 17 December 2017

Warren Gatland encourages Lions to express themselves amid New Zealand criticism

Ken Owens will captain the Lions on Wednesday
Ken Owens will captain the Lions on Wednesday

Warren Gatland has insisted the British and Irish Lions "don't want to play by numbers" after the latest bout of All Blacks criticism on the tourists' style.

New Zealand boss Steve Hansen has claimed he does not expect Gatland to stray from the punishing physical approach that has underpinned his career in the fast-approaching Lions Test series.

When quizzed on the latest round of implied All Blacks scorn on the Lions' game plan, head coach Gatland vowed the tourists will build a varied attacking strategy.

Gatland has named an entirely new starting XV to take on the Blues at Eden Park on Wednesday, where he wants his Lions to find their feet after a patchy 13-7 opening win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.

"I think in a way there's an opportunity for people to want to be critical," said Gatland.

"We experienced that four years ago (by winning the series in Australia) where people decided to be critical and a lot of people got caught with their pants down afterwards, didn't they?

"So we didn't play so well against the Barbarians on Saturday, and it gives us an opportunity to go out against the Blues and go and be positive.

"The message to the players is that we want to play positive rugby, we want to be able to move the ball and shift and create chances.

"And to match the All Blacks you've got to display a bit of X-factor and that X-factor means an offload, or doing something a little outside the box, and the players are being encouraged to do that.

"That's what we're going to need to do to be able to beat them, and express themselves, back their skill, back their ability.

"And we don't want to be proscribed, and we don't want to play by numbers.

"These players are being encouraged to demonstrate their level of skill, and to go out there and to do that.

"So hopefully we can show that on Wednesday and the players can do that and perform to what they are being encouraged by the coaches to do."

Ken Owens will captain the Lions against the Blues in the second clash of their 10-match tour, with the Wales hooker having staved off an ankle problem that had jeopardised his place on the tour.

All Blacks boss Hansen told The Mail on Sunday of Gatland's style that "every team he's coached has played the same way so I don't see why he would change now" ahead of the three-Test Lions series.

Gatland lamented the fixation with claims he favours a route-one style that Brian Smith dubbed "Warrenball", insisting he remains nonplussed as to why certain observers continue to suggest his coaching approach has limits.

Gatland led the Lions to a fine series win in Australia in 2013, and then pointed to his sustained success with Waikato, Wasps and Wales to underscore why he feels fully justified in coaching his own way - and without style tips from the outside.

When asked to comment on the latest critique of his coaching style, Gatland replied: "When did that way start? You don't know the answer to that do you?

"I kind of look and say: 'Did that start when we were successful at Wasps, or was that when I was coaching Waikato to the Air New Zealand Cup, or when did a certain style change?'

"If you can tell me the answer to that, when that time frame was appropriate, I can potentially give you an answer.

"Look, a few years ago, Brian Smith coined a phrase 'Warrenball', I don't know whether that was because he was jealous of how much success we had, I don't know.

"But we had a group of players who came through Wales at the time who ended up being big, physical players.

"And so the modern game of rugby is about getting across the gainline and trying to get front-foot ball and playing to space if that's possible."

Press Association

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