Vindicated Warren Gatland wants only a series win
Lions coach said demonising in New Zealand press has helped to motivate his team
Lions coach Warren Gatland leaves the pitch following his side’s Test win over New Zealand in Wellington. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Warren Gatland hailed his team’s character after becoming the first side in 46 games to beat the All Blacks on New Zealand terrain, but was far from triumphalist and cited the world champions’ revenge mission in Dublin last November in forecasting a brutally tough series decider next Saturday in Auckland.
The Lions head coach could feel vindicated in all his selections, namely promoting Sam Warburton, Maro Itoje and Johnny Sexton, as well as those he retained – chiefly Alun Wyn Jones – although save for a cheeky jibe back at the New Zealand Herald, he batted any personal satisfaction away.
At 18-9 down we had to show some character and we did that and got ourselves out of a hole and put ourselves in front
Compared to the first test, most significant was the improved physicality close in when meeting the All Blacks rumblers on the gain line or in front of it. Jones, Warburton and Itoje – albeit his ill-discipline was pointedly highlighted by Gatland – led the charge from the off with the Lions not missing one tackle in the first half. With some impact from Jack McGrath, who may well start next week, Kyle Sinckler and Courtney Lawes, there was a critical spell of multi-phase defending inside the last 10 minutes at 21-all.
“We spoke last week about improving our physicality in terms of stopping their go forward and momentum,” said Gatland. “That was an area of significant improvement for us. The most disappointing thing of the game is that the weather conditions allowed us to slow the tempo of the game down and play a little closer, but the All Blacks were very effective in the third quarter and squeezed penalties out of us.
“At 18-9 down we had to show some character and we did that and got ourselves out of a hole and put ourselves in front. It’s a win for us, it keeps the series alive. Obviously the Sonny Bill Williams red card was significant. We are not getting too carried away with it.
“In rugby you can turn 15 or 20 point scores around in the following week. But we showed improvements in certain areas. Our kicking game wasn’t that brilliant at times. In the first half they kicked 16 times to our nine. But we showed some great character to come back and the way we controlled that last 10 minutes was especially significant.”
I was disappointed with the accuracy of some of our kicking, particularly in the first half. That’s an area we need to work on
Yet Gatland maintained the win was not down to him and the other coaches shaking the team up.
“I don’t think there was a massive shake-up. We felt we created opportunities in the first Test and we just weren’t putting the ball through our hands. We made a couple of changes and we did that tonight.
“I thought our loose forwards were excellent,” added Gatland in reference to the Warburton, Toby Faletau and Sean O’Brien combination, “and the guys that came off the bench did a good job. It was just a tweaking and picking a side that we thought could do a job tonight.
“We nearly got caught, but we were good enough to come out of that. We will see what happens over the next few days. We will have a couple of days off. We are off to Queenstown for a bit of skiing and some recreation stuff … that was a joke!
“We will have a couple of days off to recover and then start thinking about the final Test in Auckland. I think it’s going to be pretty brutal next weekend.”
All Blacks 21 Lions 24 - highlights
Asked if he felt vindicated by his “contentious” selections, Gatland smiled and said: “Contentious by you guys! It’s funny how hindsight is a great thing. I thought our second rows were good and then Maro has given away a couple of stupid penalties, which can be costly. Courtney Lawes has come on and given us good impact.
“I thought the 10-12 combination caused them lots of problems. There’s no doubt that without Sonny Bill there, it made it easier for them to cause problems and we went out of the back a little bit and broke behind them and created some difficulties. Then that short pass to Jamie George when they were a little bit confused was a good decision. I thought that 10-12 combination went pretty well.
The last couple of weeks in terms of the criticism and personal attacks has been a little bit tough to take, not so much for myself, more for family members
“I was disappointed with the accuracy of some of our kicking, particularly in the first half. That’s an area we need to work on. It was kind of one of those games, particularly in the first half, when it’s almost like you were better off playing without the ball because the team with the ball were tending to make mistakes.
Regarding the pivotal red card received by Sonny Bill Williams, Gatland said: “It’s just one of those things. He led with his shoulder and the referee felt he had no choice. He has made the decision. It was a significant loss for the All Blacks in terms of that he’s a key person and we are aware of that.”
Still, the Lions don’t look like a side who are going to go away now, and they must derive significant self belief from their achievement here.
“We take a huge amount of confidence in terms of we stepped up physically, which was the challenge and we scored a couple of nice tries.
“We know historically when New Zealand teams lose they respond and there’s no better example than what happened in Chicago last year and then in Dublin in the following game. We know we are going to be in for an almighty battle in Eden Park next week.
“But we have come out of tonight with some belief and confidence. We kept the All Blacks tryless, I don’t know the last time that happened,” he said. The answer is not since the All Blacks drew 12-12 with ustralia on a sodden night in Sydney three years ago.
“In the first two Test matches, they haven’t really stretched us from an attacking perspective. We are the ones who have played some pretty positive rugby. We improved in certain areas and will look to improve on others. Hopefully it will be one hell of a Test match in Eden Park next week.”
Changes will be minimal, as much of this starting team have earned retention for next week, and the Lions have seemingly emerged without any further injuries. With Stuart Hogg, Ross Moriarty, Robbie Henshaw and George North the only casualties from the original squad, they have 37 fit players to pick from and, for the first time, no midweek game.
The option of taking a few days off in Queenstown before returning to Auckland on Wednesday to begin training will be questioned, but they certainly need some respite.
“We have some sore bodies, but nothing serious to report. Given the experiences of four years ago, we will take the next 24 hours and just settle down. We will pick a team that we think will do the best job for next Saturday.
“As we’ve said all along, it isn’t just about the 23 players. It’s about everyone. Certain factions have tried to divide us, but they haven’t been successful in doing that. It’s been an incredibly united group of players. Everyone has been pushing each other on. You saw that in the celebrations in the changing room afterwards. You don’t get that unless you’ve got a group of guys that are proud of what has been achieved, not just the 23 but everyone in the squad.”
Gatland also had a nice little dig back at the New Zealand Herald, for their almost daily demonising of him and culminating in it portraying Gatland as a clown last Tuesday.
“The last couple of weeks in terms of the criticism and personal attacks has been a little bit tough to take, not so much for myself, more for family members.
“Ironically, the Kiwi public are probably the fairest people you will ever come across. They have no idea how much it has galvanised us a group in terms of the good luck messages we have received from Kiwis, people shaking your hands and saying well done, ex-All Blacks contacting us saying I hope you do well and that some of the personal stuff in the press has been over the top.
“There is a huge proportion of Lions fans and Kiwis wanting us to do well and saying the criticism has been unfair. So ironically, it’s actually been a huge positive, so whoever’s been doing it, keep doing it because it’s not working and it’s actually worked for us.”
Although Warburton had described it as the biggest one-off challenge of his career, and this was his first win over the All Blacks, the Lions captain admitted:
“I didn’t even celebrate after the final whistle. I just thought ‘we are evens now’. I will genuinely only be happy if we get that Tests series win. Whatever happens we will come back with some credibility, but I want to get the job done and bring the series home.
“We can’t stress how important the Lions is for players. It is the absolute pinnacle of our careers. The Test matches are really important, getting wins keeps it alive for the fans. It’s great that we managed to put that performance into the jersey and hopefully that will keep the Lions going for at least another four years.
“I hadn’t realised we hadn’t conceded a try. That is an incredible achievement. I’m very proud of that defensive effort. You can talk tactics as much as you like, but sometimes it’s about desire to get off line and put some hits on.”