All Blacks stay tight-lipped but ‘Murraygate’ saga rumbles on

Gatland, said Hansen, had taken gloss off great Test match and Lions performance

Warren Gatland said that the All Blacks took cheap shots at Conor Murray during the first Test. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Inpho

Warren Gatland said that the All Blacks took cheap shots at Conor Murray during the first Test. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Inpho

 

Hell hath no fury than an All Black criticised, especially when the head coach feels compelled to defend his team’s honour. The fall-out from ‘Murraygate’ is hardly ‘Speargate’ revisited, but the latest spat between Warren Gatland and Steve Hansen has revived memories of the first test at this same juncture in 2005.

Then Brian O’Driscoll’s tour was ended one minute into the first test due to the double spear tackle by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu. Granted there is nothing like the same concerted campaign from the Lions as was the incessant four-day media blitz, which began on the night of the first test in Christchurch and continued well into the week of the second test in Wellington.

Nor did the All Blacks squad feel compelled to ring the room menacingly when Graham Henry sat alongside Umaga at the top table to face the media. Henry claimed then that no All Black had ever gone out to injure an opposing player, a claim he might fervently wish to be true, but which no one can state categorically over the course of more than a century about any one country.

By contrast, Hansen merely phoned the Devlin Radio Show on RadioSport to respond to Gatland’s claim that Conor Murray had been on the receiving end of a potentially dangerous late tackle to his standing leg.

Although Gatland didn’t name Jerome Kaino, it’s clear that was the 10th minute incident he was referring to during his Sunday press conference when he said: “The concern for me was there were a couple of times where there’s a charge down where someone has dived at Conor’s legs. I thought that was a little bit dangerous. After he’s kicked, he’s been pushed to the ground a few times.

“It’s just a case of making sure he’s being looked after and protected and not harrassed after he’s box kicked. We will probably just get some clarity from the referee later in the week.”

Hansen’s opening remarks on the Devlin Radio Show were: “It was predictable comment from Gatland isn’t it? Like two weeks ago, it was we cheated in the scrums. Last week it was blocking and now he’s saying this. But it’s really, really disappointing to hear it because what he’s implying is that we’re deliberately going out to injure someone and that’s not the case. We’ve never been like that, and as a New Zealander I would expect he would know the New Zealand psyche. It’s not about intentionally trying to hurt anybody, it’s about playing hard and fair.”

Gatland, claimed Hansen, had taken the gloss off a great test match and his own team’s performance.

Devlin followed up by reading out the following comment from Gatland: “It’s a little concerning. They’re not actually trying to charge the kick down. They’re nowhere it and they’re diving blindly at someone’s leg.”

In response to this, Hansen said: “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. He (Murray) is one of their key players, but that doesn’t mean to say he has the right to go around the park without being charged down or tackled.”

At no point did Gatland say the All Blacks were not allowed to tackle Murray or charge down his kicks, more that he objected to the scrum-half being tackled late on his standing leg.

Gatland will raise the matter with the second test referee Jerome Garces on Friday, yet Hansen countered: “I wouldn’t expect it to be a topic of conversation with the officials because it wasn’t in the game. There is a guy who is watching for foul play all the time and if he thought it was foul play he would indicate it to the referee in the course of the 80 minutes. It never was and it never will be as long as I’m involved with the All Blacks,” amid echoes of Henry’s comments a dozen years previously.

As Joe Schmidt feared after the win in Chicago, Ireland “poked the bear” before the thunderous rematch in the Aviva stadium, when Sam Cane was fortunate not to see yellow, at least, and Malakai Fekitoa not to see red for dangerous tackles on Robbie Henshaw and Simon Zebo when, co-incidentally, Jaco Peyper was also in charge.

Clive Woodward and Alastair Campbell undoubtedly poked the bear at this exact point 12 years ago. It’s doubtful whether Gatland has done the same, not judging by the reaction from Wyatt Crockett and Charlie Faumuina, the replacement props whose first scrum helped turn the game decisively the home team’s way.

Asked about the verbal spat between Gatland and Hansen, Crockett said: “I’m not too sure. That sort of stuff is not our focus.”

Asked how it felt as players to have it implied you are trying to injure an opponent, Crockett said: “We’re not too worried about that sort of stuff.”

And so on and so on. Admittedly, it was more revelatory than Steve Borthwick’s press conference, but not by much. Was Crockett expecting a backlash from the Lions scrum?

“It was a pretty good contest, the scrums were a good battle and we’ve been working really hard as a group. We’re reasonably happy with the weekend but we’re trying to get better.”

The only time either expanded into more than two cryptic sentences was when talking about Reiko Ioane, Kieran Read and the Americas Cup.

Otherwise, it was another masterclass from All Blacks players in going through an entire media briefing without saying anything really; an approach that, incredibly, was celebrated in the NZ Herald last week.

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