Warren Gatland puts to bed idea of discontent in Lions camp
‘We had quite a big sing song in the changing room. It was a good feeling,’ Gatland said
Lions’ head coach Warren Gatland takes to the pitch before the game. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
A satisfied Warren Gatland maintained that the Lions are in a good place after recording a third successive tour win at the expense of the Chiefs in Hamilton, while also admitting that the toughest test of all awaits the British & Irish Lions on Saturday against the All Blacks in their Eden Park fortress.
The performance also put to bed the propagandist proposal from the NZ Herald that there was a split in the Lions camp. The Lions head coach, still clearly annoyed by that baseless theory, said as much afterwards as well.
“Whatever people might say about a split in the camp, those boys are pretty together. There was a real spirit in there and there was a sing-song after the game. It was important for this group. It was a really strong performance against the Maori and we didn’t want this group not winning tonight and they put in a commanding performance.
“In the changing room afterwards, everyone realised just what it meant, not just for the players that took the field, but the rest of the squad. They were incredibly vocal and you could see how pleased they were for the players that took the field. We had quite a big sing song in the changing room. It was a good feeling, I was pleased for the players.”
Gatland also said that “some players put their hands up tonight”, and insisted that the coaches’ selection meeting will have some heated debate, despite strong evidence that the starting XV for next Saturday is pretty much cast in stone.
“The selection meeting will be with all the coaches. It’s the consensus of that group, it’s never one person’s call. It’s coaches discussing the options and the positions and collectively agreeing. I am sure there will be some lively debate and discussion. It won’t be saying, it will be all of us contributing and having a voice and an opinion.
“I think the performances have been good. Not everyone agrees with that opinion. We are pretty happy with where we are at the moment. The selection meeting will be tough and that’s the way we want it. Guys put up their hands tonight and there will be some healthy debate. We spoke about the quality of the squad before we left and some players haven’t disappointed us.”
That said, the back three of double try scorer Jack Nowell, Liam Williams and Elliot Daly all enhanced their claims in what is perhaps the coaches’ trickiest conundrum of all – who to wear the number 23 jersey.
But Gatland was giving nothing away. When asked if Daly’s withdrawal hinted at his inclusion in the test 23, Gatland said: “Possibly.”
Of the back three’s performance, he said: “Someone like Jack Nowell, it just hadn’t happened for him in the first couple of games. He is a player who is prolific in terms of getting his hands on the ball. He showed that when he scored his tries. I was pleased to see him play well and I thought Elliot looked sharp and Liam. It was a combination that looked pretty dangerous and pretty potent.
“There were a few times in the first half when we were a little bit lateral with the ball, but we were much better in the second half. We showed nice things out there and scored some great tries.
“That is something we have been working on. It takes a bit of time when you are putting combinations together and guys getting used to each other’s voices. The one that Jared Payne scored was an outstanding try. We are creating them and now we are starting to finish them.
“From a defensive point of view, we are getting stronger and stronger. We are playing against teams that have scored multiple tries week-in, week-out and we are strangling them a little bit. But on Saturday we are up against the best team in world in their own back yard where they haven’t lost since 1994. It’s going a big test for us.”
Nor is Gatland entirely happy with where the Lions are entering the pivotal first test. “I am still not happy that we lost a couple of games. We have always said how difficult this tour was, we’ve known how tough the schedule is and the quality opposition. It’s not like previous tours. This is unlike anything that’s been taken on before. We said if we lost a couple of games, it’s about improving from week to week. We have demonstrated that. We have got better the longer we have been in New Zealand, as combinations have come together. We said we would do that and we have done.”
Somewhat pointedly, the Lions made only three enforced replacements, meaning only Allan Dell of the six players called up last weekend made it onto the pitch. Even when Courtney Lawes was undergoing his HIA, Alun Wyn Jones was brought on, despite him assuredly being in Saturday’s match-day 23.
On this, Gatland said: “Alun Wyn was only on for six minutes. If Courtney had failed his HIA, we might have replaced Alun Wyn. We wanted as many of the players as possible to go 80 minutes tonight. Some of them haven’t played much rugby for a while.”
Interestingly, on foot of Gatland highlighting the New Zealand tactic of blocking runners, Jerome Garces penalised the Chiefs on one occasion for obstruction as Nowell chased a high kick.
“There was one given on Saturday as well,” Gatland noted. “Look the referees have identified that. I just said it was frustrating that there had been subtle blocking. We haven’t come out and bitched and moaned about anything. Sometimes decisions go against you. Refs have picked up on it and there was one there tonight and hopefully it gets stamped out of the game.”
For Rory Best, this was a pleasantly different script from four years ago at the same juncture of the tour, when he led a Lions side that lost 14-12 to the Brumbies four days before the first test against the Wallabies.
“We wanted to produce and performance. We said we didn’t want to regret this performance. When your tight head prop who has won has played the whole game wins a turnover in the 80th minute that showed the commitment we had. It was important we felt we had contributed with a victory.”