Warren Gatland: Cover players were for cover and no more
The Lions coach said he didn’t bring on any of the six players due to criticism he received
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, after the draw with the Hurricanes in Wellington. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
He was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. Even so, it was surprising to hear Warren Gatland admit that the furore which greeted his decision to call up six players as cover two weeks ago contributed to them again not being employed off the bench barring injuries or yellow cards in the Lions’ 31-all draw with the Hurricanes.
For the second game running, following on from last week’s 31-10 win over the Chiefs, the four Welsh players and two Scottish players called up for the last two weeks of the tour were only used in the event of emergency.
On this occasion, as the Lions saw leads of 23-7 at half-time and 31-17 around the hour mark whittled away, there seemed a more compelling case to introduce them, but Gatland re-iterated that this was the stated policy when they were called up; their primary purpose being to save as many of the 23 involved in the first test weren’t involved last night.
Those players were called out as cover, that was the case.
“I know there’s a lot been made about that in terms of the decision we made to bring players in for cover and protect as many of the Test 23 as we could,” Gatland said.
“If we hadn’t had those players there tonight we’d have probably had players from the bench on Saturday who would have been exposed. We lost Robbie Henshaw and Dan Biggar went off with a HIA. So potentially we would have been exposing players from the Test 23 earlier on. I think so much was made about devaluing the jersey and all those bits and pieces, so we made a decision that we would try to get through the game with as many of the starting XV as we could.”
Asked if the outcry which accompanied the decision to re-enforce the squad with six players whose call-ups were largely based on the proximity of the Welsh and Scottish tours rather than pure merit, Gatland admitted: “Possibly.”
He added: “You may have been a little bit more positive about bringing those players on fresh. So much was made of that and I understand people’s views, so you’ve got to take cognisance of that. So we make a collective decision that we make them as injury or HIA replacements, which is what happened on two occasions.”
Indeed, of the six, it was only the Scottish prop Alan Dell – last week – and his compatriot Finn Russell – against the Hurricanes – who made brief cameos as temporary replacements, while Gareth Davies, a fine, in-form Welsh international scrum-half remained unused in both games.
Meanwhile Leigh Halfpenny had to play an hour, and George Kruis almost half-an-hour, while a dozen of the starting team had to go the full 80. The exceptions were the injured Henshaw, whose tour appears to be over, and Dan Biggar, who returned after a HIA and – most significantly it seemed – Courtney Lawes, whose energy levels were saved after 54 minutes.
Admittedly, Iain Henderson only played 70 minutes after a game-changing yellow card, during which time the Hurricanes came back from 31-17 down to draw the sides level.
“He carried fantastically well,” said Gatland. “It was a big moment in the game with his yellow card. It was a penalty to us which ends up being a penalty reversed and a yellow card and that’s the game. It was a crucial moment. It’s disappointing because you’re in so much control of it. We went from 68 per cent territory to about 25 per cent, so it was a massive swing in the game, and disappointing that we ended up with the yellow card, particularly when the referee looked at it and thought it was a penalty. He was asked to look at different angles and then eventually made the decision to give a yellow card.”
Asked if this might count against him more than his tour de force when he was on the pitch, Gatland said: “It’s a bit early to look at that. Sometimes players are unlucky in doing that and he’s probably disappointed with himself. Look, he carried extremely well and that was a big positive. I thought Courtney Lawes carried well too in the first half. It’s a position right from the start where we knew we had a lot of strength. It’s a toss-up in terms of selection. We’ll meet tomorrow evening and look at selecting the side before we announce it to the players on Thursday.”
In any event, Lawes and Henderson gave the stand-out Lions performances.
“Those two guys had really strong games tonight to give us some real food for thought. I thought a couple of times in the game Haskell and CJ Stander carried well. The back-three didn’t really get a lot of opportunities. George North was a bit unlucky on that kick-through. He’s put a foot in touch and that’s quite significant in the game in terms of it would have given us a more comfortable margin.”
As an unsavoury aside, Gatland was portrayed as a clown by the New Zealand Herald, something the paper also did to Michael Cheika last year.
“I haven’t seen that? Which newspaper was that?” said Gatland. “I don’t know what that’s in reference to. Was it in reference to Michael Cheika?”
Informed that it was in reference to his latest spat with Steve Hansen, he said: “I haven’t read anything from Hansen’s quotes. The only thing I heard was that he had rung up a radio station. I thought that was quite unusual for an international coach. But I’m not worried about what Steve Hansen says or what any newspaper draws me up as. I just hope it was a happy clown!
“Look, as a Kiwi, you’d like to think you’d come home and things would be more positive from one or two members of the media. That hasn’t happened. But you can’t let that get to you. You’ve just got to take that on the chin and not get affected by it.
“There’s been a significant campaign against me personally. But that’s water off a duck’s back to me. I’ve just got to concentrate on doing my job and not worry about any specific individuals who try and make it personal. It’s just part of professional sport. I couldn’t give a toss if that’s happening.”
Henshaw’s bad luck with selection, being pitched into the midweek team from the start and never playing in one of the Saturday games, hit a new low when he departed after 18 minutes when clutching an injured right shoulder.
“He doesn’t look great at the moment,” said the Lions head coach. “He’s in a bit of a sling with a shoulder. I think there’s a good chance his tour could be over. I think we’ve got enough cover within the squad at this stage not to have to replace him, if that’s the case.”