Warren Gatland: Our job is to gain respect the Lions deserve

The coach said he was unsurprised 78 per cent of Kiwis didn’t know any Lions players

Lions rugby stars Sam Warburton, Stuart Hogg, Leigh Halfpenny, Maro Itoje, Johnny Sexton and jamie George take part in a challenge to knock a drone out of the sky with a rugby ball from 25 metres. Video: Standard Life Investments

 

Intent on giving every member of the squad at least one start in the opening three games, the Lions coaches began looking into potential starting selections for next week’s encounters against the Blues and Crusaders. But maintaining a fair and level playing field is their priority, something head coach Warren Gatland believes hasn’t always been the case previously.

Gatland is adamant that a test team for the first meeting with the All Blacks will not begin to take shape until the meeting with the Maoris a week before the first test. In this he is mindful of not repeating what he believes were mistakes of the past, notably on the 2001 tour to Australia.

“Obviously the main focus is on the test matches, but having been involved in 2013 and spoken to people with previous experience of the Lions, it’s about giving everyone an opportunity and keeping harmony within the squad. That’s paramount for these guys at the moment.”

“I know (from) the players involved with Graham Henry in 2001 that he lost half the squad on day one because (he said) ‘You guys over here and you guys over there.’ And the players knew straight away ‘well, that’s the test side and we’re just making up the numbers’. I think it’s important that these guys feel they are putting themselves in the shop window, that they’ve got a chance to go and prove themselves, and be in contention for the tests.”

“Our first focus is the first three games, giving everyone a chance and looking at some combinations, because that’s important with the lack of preparation time, and then we’ll start thinking a little bit more about the Saturday games with possibly the Maoris and then towards the first test.”

Much of the media scrutiny has already sought to focus on the apparent showdown between Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell for the test number 10 jersey, with Gatland seemingly not inclined to playing them both in a 10-12 combination.

Johnny Sexton on a static bike during training at Carton House last week. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Johnny Sexton on a static bike during training at Carton House last week. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

“We’ll see what happens on the weekend. Owen is on the bench, so he might get some time in the midfield. We know that’s an option for us, having played in the midfield. I, personally, and the other coaches, think he’s a world-class 10.

“It’s not just with Sexton and Farrell, you’ve got (Dan) Biggar as well. There’s some real experience there and knowing the three of them, they’re desperate to play and start in that position.

“It was quite funny last week at the end of the training, I just said I would have a chat with the 10s. Dan was there and Johnny Sexton was there, and Owen was over there and Johnny said, ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s a midfielder.

“There’s already a bit of banter about and the players are very aware of the competition in that position, so they’ll get a chance, the three of them, to start. Johnny starts on Saturday and then the other two will start the next two games.”

The Lions’ selection for game five, against the Maoris in Rotarua and a week before that first test, will be a significant pointer.

“Obviously, the Maori game is pretty important for us, isn’t it?” Gatland said.

“That’s a week before the first Test and you might be mirroring reasonably close to your starting 15 for the first Test.”

Discussing their relative strengths, Gatland said: “They’re both capable of playing flat to the gain line, which is important. They’re both great goal-kickers with a lot of experience and I think at the moment, not just the two of them but the three of them are bringing out the best in each other.”

“There’s going to be some real competition. It’s not just their attacking, they’re going to have to be strong defensively too. Their leadership is going to be important as well in terms of their communication and implementing the game plan that we can take the All Blacks on with.”

When it was put to Gatland that a recent survey showed that 78 per cent of New Zealand rugby fans are unable to name one Lions’ player, he was asked whether that surprised him.

“No, it doesn’t, no. Most of the journalists can’t as well.”

He added: “Most people in New Zealand still think that rugby in the Northern Hemisphere is played in six inches of mud and pouring down with rain. That’s our task, our job, to come to New Zealand and earn some respect and play some good rugby. If we can reduce that number from 78 to 77, then that’s been some success by the end of the tour.”

Otago’s Sam Anderson-Heather will captain a Provincial Barbarians’ team which features representatives from 14 provincial rugby unions, including Gatland’s son Bryn, who will start at out-half.

Bryn Gatland – son of Warren – will start against the Lions on Saturday. Photo: Nic Bothma/EPA
Bryn Gatland – son of Warren – will start against the Lions on Saturday. Photo: Nic Bothma/EPA

Heartland rugby veteran and Wanganui provincial stalwart Peter Rowe is vice-captain.

A powerful forward pack will be complemented by an exciting backline, featuring Bryn Gatland at first five-eighth and veteran Dwayne Sweeney at second five-eighth.

Their coach Clayton McMillan commented: “When we first looked at putting together a squad, the initial process was around understanding what sort of game we wanted to play and the type of player that would meet the profile of that game plan.”

“It’s always going to be pretty hard when you are bringing a group together from four corners of New Zealand but from what I can see and the feedback we’ve got, the boys have come together really well,” said McMillan.

The team assembled in Auckland on Saturday and were officially welcomed into Whangarei with a stirring powhiri on Monday. “We’ve kept things relatively simple with the emphasis on creating an environment where the players can express themselves and represent their provinces with pride. We recognise it’s going to be a hard game but we have plenty to play for and the boys can’t wait to get out there.”

“The unique and special occasion for bringing this team together has forced the boys to bond quite quickly, and they’ve enjoyed a fantastic week here in Whangarei,” he said.

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