Lions tour: Steve Hansen hits back at 'desperate' Warren Gatland claims
Warren Gatland poked the bear, and sure enough it stirred, and roared.
The response was withering from All Blacks coach Steve Hansen in a radio interview, after Gatland's assertion that Lions halfback Conor Murray's career was put at risk by players "diving blindly" at his legs in Auckland on Saturday.
"I guess he might be a bit desperate. I'm not sure. I don't know why he'd be saying it," Hansen told Radio Sport, after Lions coach Gatland's Sunday night sermon.
Gatland did have a point, and Jerome Kaino's dive at Murray's left leg as he completed a box kick in the 10th minute didn't look good on replay. Murray crumpled on impact but wasn't injured, and match officials and the citing commissioner didn't find fault with the All Blacks flanker.
It was the assertion of intent to injure where Gatland annoyed Hansen, that the All Blacks were intentionally reckless, bordering on dangerous, and could hurt Murray.
"It's a little bit tough when you see someone dive at someone's leg, you feel for the player and it's concerning that they're not trying to charge the kick down because they're nowhere near it, they're diving blindly and hitting someone's leg," said Gatland.
He offered the early morsels in his Wellington arrival press conference, then went further in the British writers' briefing which one or two inadvertent New Zealand scribes were asked to leave.
"It's just a safety issue for me. I'd hate to see someone dive at his leg and have him blow a knee and then wreck his rugby career."
Hansen saw red. Not scheduled to address the media again till Thursday when naming his second test team, he accepted an opportunity to respond.
He told Radio Sport: "It's predictable comments from Gatland, isn't it? Two weeks ago we cheated in the scrums and last week it was blocking and now he's saying this. It's really, really disappointing to hear it because what he's implying is we're intentionally going out to injure somebody.
"That's not the case. We've never been like that and as a New Zealander I'd expect him to know the New Zealand psyche that it's not about intentionally trying to hurt anybody, it's about playing hard and fair."
By going public, rather than quietly addressing it in a meeting with second test referee Jerome Garces of France, Gatland probably achieved his first goal of ensuring Murray is "protected" with more official eyes on him during the second test in Wellington.
Gatland surely saw Hansen's response coming, too, after the pair traded verbal barbs earlier in the tour. Hansen labelled it "predictable" by Gatland to take the heat off his own team. The risk for Gatland is that it backfires, and the All Blacks lift another notch in a potential series-clincher on Saturday after their 30-15 first test victory.
"He's implying that we're trying to hurt the guy. Rugby is about playing within the laws and in this case we're trying to charge the kick down, and/or tackle him. Both those things are legal. That's what the game is built around. Just because he [Murray] one of their key players it doesn't mean to say that he has the right to go around the park without being charged down or tackled," Hansen told Radio Sport.
"It's just disappointing after such a great test match, two days later or whatever, he's come out and saying something like that."
After Hansen said his piece, both sides were keen to play it down and left it looking like another sparring duel between two coaches who need little invitation to defend their players and bite back.
All Blacks prop Wyatt Crockett said every team in the world did the same, and "you're generally trying to get to the ball with your hands.
"We try to put a lot of pressure on every kicker. We're trying to force them to do a poor kick, so we can attack off it."
Lions forwards coach Steve Borthwick, the former England lock, insisted he hadn't heard Hansen's comments as he was on the training field preparing them for Tuesday's match against the Hurricanes. He'd never seen someone try to injure a kicker in that way in his career.
"Both teams were putting pressure on, with us getting three chargedowns on Saturday as well. Pressure on kickers is part of the game, and it's reliant on the referees making sure the offside line is refereed well."