Warren Gatland reveals hurt at Seán O’Brien’s public criticism

Lions head coach: 'I don’t know what planet he’s on but I was on a different tour to him . . . '

Warren Gatland: “I don’t know what planet he’s on but I was on a different tour to him if he thought we should have won comfortably.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Warren Gatland: “I don’t know what planet he’s on but I was on a different tour to him if he thought we should have won comfortably.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Warren Gatland has revealed he was hurt by Seán O’Brien’s public criticism of the coaching on the summer British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.

He also said he would not be seeking the head coach’s position for a third successive trip in 2021 because there were times this year when he “hated” aspects of the job.

Gatland was speaking for the first time since O’Brien made his remarks in a radio interview a month ago.

The Ireland flanker, who started all three Tests, claimed a more attacking gameplan from the start would have delivered a 3-0 series whitewash, that the backs’ coach, Rob Howley, struggled to get his message across and that in future the Lions should have the best coaches.

“The coaches and the backroom staff worked their absolute b******s off on the tour and to have someone come out and make a comment like that, it really did hurt,” Gatland said.

“It took a bit of the gloss off. My first reaction was that if he wanted to say something, there was a forum for that.

“No one had ever taken on a tour of that magnitude or difficulty. Did we learn as coaches from that experience? Would we have done some things differently? Of course. That’s part of the experience. All the pressure is on the head coach. You are under scrutiny from the four home nations about selection, performance and tactics. I don’t feel there is anywhere near the same pressure on players as there is on coaches.”

Gatland said he contacted O’Brien to talk about the player’s comments, but did not get a return call.

“I left a message to say I was disappointed. He texted me three weeks later to say that he had just cleared his voicemail. And that he had been taken out of context. I texted to say he could call me at any time but I’ve not heard back from him.

“When you take 41 players on tour, you are not going to keep everyone happy. I understand there are going to be disappointed players, but Seán had a fantastic tour. There’s no doubt about his contribution on the playing field. In the changing room, as a voice, from a leadership point of view, he contributed extremely well. It’s only fair to acknowledge that, but it was disappointing he highlighted one person [Howley].

Take ownership

“Seán spoke about Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell taking responsibility, which is strange because as a coach you want to empower your most experienced players to take ownership and responsibility. When you coach a young side you give them a lot of direction, a lot of information. The more experience they get, the more you pull back and allow them to take ownership. Ironically, I see that as a compliment; it’s what good coaching is about.”

It was the Lions’ second most successful tour to New Zealand, drawing the series having won a series there only once, in 1971.

“When you reflect on it, it was some achievement,” Gatland said. “On previous tours you would have midweek games where you knew you could back off a little, make changes and still win comfortably. The quality on this tour was relentless and I thought Seán’s comments that we should have won the series 3-0 were disrespectful to New Zealand.

“I don’t know what planet he’s on but I was on a different tour to him if he thought we should have won comfortably.”

Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola, who pulled out of the tour through injury, also said it would have been 3-0 had England’s Eddie Jones been in charge.

“I have never had any involvement with Billy,” Gatland added. “It is disappointing when you get second-hand people coming in and making comments as well.”

The tour took an emotional toll on Gatland, who was pilloried at the start of it in his native New Zealand, dismissed as a coach and depicted in one newspaper as a clown. His Test record as Lions head coach now reads three victories, two defeats and a draw, and that was achieved after three successive series defeats.

“I hated the press and the negativity in New Zealand,” said Gatland, who will be standing down as the Wales head coach after the 2019 World Cup, when he will not be short of offers. “When I look back at it now, there were lots of things that were satisfying and it was an achievement, but it was tough.”

Asked about South Africa in 2021, he said: “I’m done. I wouldn’t subject myself to that. What I’ve learned from my Lions’ experiences is how difficult it is to put some continuity together in terms of people and staff and the lack of preparation time. Let someone else reinvent the wheel.”

Gatland has submitted his report to the Lions, but does not anticipate it will be acted on.

“The last seven have all been about preparation,” he said. “All we have asked for is adequate time. There is something magical about the Lions and rugby people need to protect that. I just hope there are powerbrokers who consider the importance of the Lions for the future and not their own self-interest. What drives rugby globally is the international game.

“I would hate to see the game in England get like football where it dominates financially and the best players congregate there to the detriment of everything else. The balance has to be right.”

(Guardian service)

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