Lions tour: Impressive Warren Gatland shows true colours as pressure mounts before first test

Coach Warren Gatland was back in Hamilton for Lions training on Sunday ahead of their match against the Chiefs.
DAVID ROGERS/GETTY IMAGES

Coach Warren Gatland was back in Hamilton for Lions training on Sunday ahead of their match against the Chiefs.

OPINION: "My job is to win a test series and I will do whatever it takes to do that."

Warren Gatland is home. The Lions coach is over his jet lag and is finally talking like a Kiwi again. He doesn't give a stuff about the Lions, at least not deep down, not in the part of his soul that still wanders the banks of the mighty Waikato. Gatland cares about winning.

The press conference that Gatland gave after his team flattened the Maori was perhaps the most impressive of his career. I guess the victory provided a bone to distract his more canine tendencies. The bogan attack dog did not feel the need to defend his territory. But even so, Gatland spoke with thoughtful consideration for the other point of view.

A try to lock Maro Itoje and the Lions have control over NZ Maori in Rotorua on Saturday.
ANDREW CORNAGA/PHOTOSPORT

A try to lock Maro Itoje and the Lions have control over NZ Maori in Rotorua on Saturday.

That hasn't always been the case, but when inevitably asked if his choice of replacements had devalued the Lions shirt, Gatland said, "I understand the concerns ... Does it devalue the shirt?

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Midfielder Ben Te'o was one of the Lions' stars in the win over NZ Maori.
DAVID ROGERS/GETTY IMAGES

Midfielder Ben Te'o was one of the Lions' stars in the win over NZ Maori.

"The players that came in from Auckland last night and from Australia will be able to fit quickly into our time zone. These guys will be with us for a week and they are for bench cover. They understand that's the way it is."

Gatland went on to explain that when he called up Christian Wade in 2013, the England winger, "It was obvious the travel had an impact and affected his ability to play."

Like the current England squad, Wade had been on a tour of Argentina. Gatland wasn't about to make the same mistake a second time. I don't agree with the decision, but I do not blame Gatland. He has not been employed to be sentimental. We found that out when he cut Brian O'Driscoll in Australia. We found that out when he snubbed Scotland ahead of this tour.

It is all very well for manager John Spencer to talk piously about protecting the Lions image, as he did earlier in the tour, but the Home Nations burned that particular icon when they first appointed an overseas coach in 2001.

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It is no surprise that support for Gatland came from another New Zealander. Joe Schmidt said, "I just think it's practical ... You cannot beat the All Blacks with 15 players. You have to have a fully fit group who have had the full preparation of the week. Personally, I do see that making sense."

If you employ mercenaries whose livelihood depends on results, don't start complaining when they behave like mercenaries. You had to smile when Ian McGeechan wrote in the Telegraph that "these call-ups devalue the jersey." McGeechan may be right, but having earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Lions, should he be undermining the coach in the week before the first test?

I should not think that Gatland was at all impressed by those comments. When McGeechan accused him of striking the wrong note, the Lions coach may well have been musing on black pots and kettles.

Still, as far as the Lions are concerned, the Doomsday clock is close to midnight and so Gatland can expect the attacks to keep coming. Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach, has happily taken a few swipes in the previous couple of weeks.

Gatland said, "The off-field stuff puts a bit of a dampener on the tour ... It's unlike Steve and maybe he is worried by potentially how good this team can be. We know we have got a big step up to play the All Blacks, but all I can say is that this could be a great series with fantastic rugby. Everyone should get excited."

In the past Gatland has played some similarly puerile mind games, so it may be premature to expect a Damascene conversion. But the comments were in keeping with the rest of the press conference. Let's be positive. Let's respect each other. Let's try for the higher ground.

It may be that there is still a bit of Mourinho in there, trying to get out, a street-fighting urchin yearning for a pair of shiny Versace shoes and an Armani overcoat. But nevertheless this was a performance of some grace and charm.

And was there also some truthfulness. When asked about Owen Farrell's condition Gatland reflected that the Englishman could have played, at a pinch, but there was no point in taking the risk.

It could be the sweet methane smell of the Waikato air. But how good it would be for both the Lions and this tour if Gatland, the local boy done good, is now settled on a few home truths.

 - Stuff

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