British & Irish Lions coach Rob Howley has branded the personal attacks on Warren Gatland in the New Zealand media an “absolute disgrace” and tipped his Kiwi boss to one day coach the All Blacks, writes Simon Lewis in Auckland.
Howley, 46, has served head coach Gatland as both a player and an assistant coach for the past 16 years with Wasps, Wales and on three tours with the Lions as attack coach and believes the New Zealander is one of the best coaches in world rugby. Yet he is mystified why the 53-year-old has been subjected to a media campaign which included one newspaper caricaturing him as a clown.
If the Lions were to win Saturday’s series-deciding Test (Kick off: 8:35am) it would silence a lot of his critics in his homeland but Howley has admired the way Gatland has dealt with the negativity over the past six weeks.
“The way Warren Gatland’s been treated, it’s been a disgrace, hasn’t it? It’s an absolute disgrace,” Howley said.
“We all love sport and rugby but when... you can be critical of technical or tactical elements of the Lions or New Zealand but when that becomes personal criticism I think we all step over the mark and that’s happened over the last four weeks of the tour.”
Howley said the Lions were not using the clown picture or any other media attack on Gatland as motivation.
“Not at all. The players have their own intrinsic motivation. To play for the Lions every four years is the pinnacle of your career anyway. We’re certainly aware of the New Zealand media and how they’ve portrayed certain personnel over the last couple of week. It’s disgraceful isn’t it?”
Quite unlike anything former Wales and Lions scrum-half Howley has seen before.
“It’s not nice in terms of your family. I’ve had some element of that when I’ve stepped up as head coach (of Wales, in Gatland’s absence) but it’s not for me to comment on that. What we’re commenting on is the way Warren Gatland has been treated by the New Zealand media, his own media really. He’s a Kiwi.
“You have to applaud what Warren Gatland’s achieved as a Kiwi in the Northern Hemisphere – and I’ve no doubt what he’ll achieve when he comes back to New Zealand as well. He’s probably one of the best coaches in world rugby at this moment in time.
“He’s just relaxed. Even in the last six weeks, he’s been relaxed and chilled. I’m sure there have been moments away from us when he’s had conversations with (his wife) Trudi but his perception to the players has never changed. He’s always been in control, he’s always known what he’s wanted and hopefully, we’ll see the benefits of that on Saturday evening.”
Gatland already has the satisfaction of being the first head coach to beat the All Blacks on home soil since 2009, when Peter de Villiers’ South African side won in Hamilton. It is an achievement to rank with the Heineken Cups he won with Wasps and the Grand Slams with Wales as well as the 2013 Lions’ series victory over Australia.
Asked if he sensed from the home media in New Zealand that his achievements did not count for much, Howley replied: “It’s disappointing really, isn’t it? His achievement last Saturday night counted for quite a bit.”
And as to Gatland’s future and the possibility he could be an All Blacks coach one day, Howley added: “I got no doubt he will be. I think his achievements as a coach, whether it’s in Connacht, Ireland and Wales, and when you look at the success and what he’s won…
“I’ve learned hugely from Warren Gatland. He’s been unbelievable. I learned more as a player when I was coached by Warren Gatland at the age of 31 than I had by any other coaches. And I’ve been very fortunate to be coached by a lot of coaches.
“Warren Gatland taught me a hell of a lot as a player at the age of 31 and 32, and you never forget that as a player _ that learning and the knowledge. He understands the games, he understands players, and I think that’s the biggest asset that he’s got. He understands what players are because whenever he makes a decision, he always remembers when he was a player.
“I think his time behind Sean Fitzpatrick on the (New Zealand) bench served him pretty well in terms of his thought process and what he’s able now to talk to players about.”