Personal criticism has actually been a huge positive, says Gatland

Warren Gatland savoured a rare Test victory in New Zealand but was determined not to get too carried away as he encouraged the baiters in his home country's media to keep up their personal attacks on him, writes Simon Lewis.

The British & Irish Lions levelled their series with the All Blacks at Westpac Stadium today thanks to a thrilling win against the 14-man world champions, who had centre Sonny Bill Williams sent off in the 26th minute for a no-arms shoulder charge into wing Anthony Watson's head.

The Lions still had to work extremely hard to hand New Zealand a first home defeat since 2009, overcoming an ill-disciplined third quarter which saw the All Blacks open an 18-9 lead through fly-half Beauden Barrett's boot and England prop Mako Vunipola yellow-carded for a late hit on the playmaker.

Yet head coach Gatland's team showed their character after a physical pummelling in last week's opening Test at Eden Park and scored two late tries through Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray with Owen adding a conversion and a 77th-minute penalty to seal the victory.

It was the first time the All Blacks had been kept tryless since September 2014 when they were held to a 12-12 draw in Sydney by Australia and came after a week in which Gatland had been subjected to personal attacks in the New Zealand media, one newspaper caricaturing him as a clown.

The Lions boss was a very happy clown after his side took the series to a decider in the third and final Test back at Eden Park in Auckland next Saturday and said if anything the negative press had galvanised his team.

“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,” Gatland said.

“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.”

Aside from Gatland's plea to bring on the clowns, his decision not only to make changes to his team following the 30-15 first Test defeat but also provoke a reaction from the players he retained after asking them to show some pride was vindicated in Wellington.

Passive, relatively speaking, at Eden Park as the All Blacks repeatedly broke over the gainline and played hard off their scrum-half Aaron Smith rather than throwing te ball wide, the Lions brought plenty of intensity to their collisions in the Wellington rain on Saturday while pairing Johnny Sexton and Farrell as a 10-12 combination rather than retaining battering ram Ben Te'o at inside centre also paid dividends.

“We spoke last week about improving our physicality in terms of stopping their go forward and momentum. That was an area of significant improvement for us,” Gatland said.

“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 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.”

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was far from downbeat about his charges given they were playing with a man down for 55 minutes.

"You can't say our attack was poor, because we didn't have the opportunity to do the things we needed to do because of being a man down. You can't say our defence was poor, because we gutsed it out," Hansen said.

"I told you during the week losing sucks, whether you've got 15, 25 or two (players on the field). It sucks and tonight was our turn to take it on the chin.

"It's all very well being good and gracious winners; we've got to do the same when we've got beaten. Tonight we got beaten by a team that played better than we did and we have to accept that.

"But we have to go away now as an All Black team, prepare better, work harder and come out to try and win the series next week."

Hansen also refused to criticise referee Jerome Garces for either Williams' red card incident or the late penalty Farrell kicked for victory after Charlie Faumuina was penalised for tackling Kyle Sinckler in the air, even though the prop jumped up to collect a pass at the last moment before they collided.

Williams will face a judicial hearing panel in Wellington on Sunday.

“There's no point whining about it, Sonny didn't use his arms so he put himself at risk, and unfortunately he collected young Anthony's head and put hm at risk. You don't want that and the referee deemed it a red card, so off you go boy.”

The Lions will on Sunday head south to Queenstown rather than return immediately to Auckland as they take in New Zealand's self-proclaimed adventure capital and recharge their batteries for the final Test.

Gatland played down the personnel changes – he also replaced last week's Test captain Peter O'Mahony with tour skipper Sam Warburton and dropped lock George Kruis for Maro Itoje - but rued the 13 penalties his side conceded and does not expect to be so fortunate to survive a repeat of that next week.

“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 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.”


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