MAORI ALL BLACKS 10 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 32
Warren Gatland saw his British & Irish Lions lay down a marker ahead of the Test series with the All Blacks and described rival head coach Steve Hansen was sledging his team because he was worried, writes Simon Lewis, Rotorua.
The Lions dominated a quality Maori All Blacks side in the Rotorua rain on Saturday, making them pay for a 47th-minute yellow card to scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow. They scored 14 points during his 10-minute sin-binning, a penalty try and a score from Maro Itoje that broke open the game and put the tourists into 29-10 lead against a side expected to turn on the style through a potentially devastating backline.
The rain helped the Lions, with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton pulling the strings at half-back, but Maori indiscipline paved the way for a vintage night from 2013 Lions goal-kicking hero Leigh Halfpenny, who kicked seven from seven, six of them penalties.
It was the perfect riposte for Gatland after a week that saw the Lions lose to the Highlanders last Tuesday, the All Blacks run 12 tries past Samoa in their warm-up game on Friday and Hansen rile the tourists throughout the week by suggesting their squad was developing splits in the camp which would be exacerbated by the arrival of extra players from the nearby Wales and Scotland camps.
Asked whether Hansen had been disrespectful to the Lions ahead of next Saturday's first Test at Eden Park, Gatland replied: “A little bit.
“Surprised by Steve Hansen, who is normally pretty calm and he has been doing a lot of press conferences and I can only take that as a sign of respect in that he is a little bit worried.
“They arranged a pretty quick game against Samoa and if you saw the first 20-30 minutes, they needed that. Obviously outstanding in the second half. It’s unlike Steve and maybe he is worried by potentially how good this (Lions) team can be.
“We know we have got a big step up to play the All Blacks but all I can say is that this could be a great series with fantastic rugby. Everyone could get excited. Wherever we have been in New Zealand, the welcome has been brilliant. Can’t speak more highly of that.
“The off-field stuff, similar to the stuff that people have been saying puts a bit of a dampener on the tour. But that’s professional sport, got to deal with that and move on. Not anything that is a worry for us but you go, 'Whoah, he is a little bit more worried than he normally is', saying these comments about us, things he knows about or doesn’t know about, that is normally a sign of a man that is a little bit worried.”
As to Hansen's suggestions, echoed by articles in the New Zealand media, that the Lions camp is split between a midweek side and the Test series squad and that the addition of four Welsh players and two Scots on Saturday as bench cover for the two remaining Tuesday tour matches would further divide the touring party, Gatland replied: “There is no way we are divided into two.
“We’ve got a big game against the Chiefs on Tuesday night. I look back on 2013 and we made between the first and third Test there were nine different selections, so the players who may not be involved in the first Test have to stay alive, you have to stay in it because you may not get a chance in the second or third Test.
“We’ve said all along that it’s about preparing and learning from the games warming up but it’s all about the Test series, it’s about winning the Test series and that’s what we need to do.
“I said if we drop a couple of games along the way then we can benefit from that if we learn from the experience. Everyone’s got to be excited for what can be a great Test series.
“We’ve been written off, and apart from people saying that’s put a split in us, it’s brought us closer together as a group. The harmony and the boys singing in the changing rooms from the guys who weren’t involved tonight and what it means to them in terms of the whole squad, we’re very, very close. If Steve Hansen knows what’s going on from outside, then he’s a much better man than I am.”
Gatland's post-match press conference was watched by Lions chief executive John Feehan, a sure sign that the head coach had plenty to get off his chest after a difficult week on the public relations front in New Zealand.
Feehan also heard Gatland defend his six call-ups amid criticism from outside, including England coach Eddie Jones, that the decision to bring in Wales quartet Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies, Tomas Francis and Cory Hill as well as Scotland duo Alan Dell and Finn Russell was based purely on geographical grounds rather than merit and that the revered Lions jersey was being devalued.
“Does it devalue the shirt? You’re only a Lion when you get on the field and there’s a few of those players that were probably unlucky not to potentially be in contention in the first place. We’ve picked up a couple of injuries.
“In terms of devaluing the shirt, I can see some peoples point of that but we’re here to win a Test series and it’s those (Welsh) guys covering from Auckland, not travelling halfway around the world. We found it difficult the first 10 days when we were here in terms of jetlag and tiredness and stuff. The players that came in from Auckland last night and (the Scots) from Australia will be able to fit quickly into that time zone.”
MAORI ALL BLACKS: J Lowe; N Milner-Skudder, M Proctor (R Thompson, 53), C Ngatai, R Ioane; D McKenzie (I West, 70), T Kerr-Barlow (B Hall, 74); K Hames (H Elliot, 70), A Dixon – captain (C Eves, 61), B May (M Renata, 74); J Wheeler (L Price, 70), T Franklin; A Ioane, E Dixon (K Pryor, 70), L Messam.
Yellow card: Kerr-Barlow 47-57 mins
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: L Halfpenny; A Watson, J Davies, B Te'o, G North (E Daly, 63); J Sexton (D Biggar, 67), C Murray (G Laidlaw, 67); M Vunipola (J McGrath, 59), J George (K Owens, 65), T Furlong (K Sinckler, 65); M Itoje, G Kruis (I Henderson, 59); P O'Mahony – captain (S Warburton, 63), S O'Brien, T Faletau.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)