Gatland vents frustration over Lions’ mindset and weakness in contact area

New Zealand 30

British and Irish Lions 15 

Warren Gatland has demanded his British & Irish Lions show some pride when they re-engage with the All Blacks in Wellington on Saturday following a chastening first Test defeat at Eden Park.

The Lions head coach questioned his forwards’ attitude for periods during last Saturday’s 30-15 loss to the world champions in Auckland when the scrum was overpowered and the breakdown lacked the required levels of intensity to live with the likes of rampaging New Zealand locks, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, as well as the combative back-row trio of returning captain Kieran Read, Sam Cane and Jerome Kaino.

In a game of relentless pace and sometimes exhilarating rugby it was the All Blacks’ aggression in the collisions, their mastery in producing incredibly quick ball from rucks and their shutdown of the Lions’ line speed - rather than the expansive game for which they are renowned - that tipped the 2017 contest firmly in their favour.

It now leaves the tourists facing a must-win second Test here in Wellington this weekend if they are to keep the series alive until the decider back in Auckland on July 8.

For Gatland, the remedies are simple and easily fixed but during his Sunday media briefing, when he dropped strong hints both Maro Itoje and tour captain Sam Warburton would be coming into Saturday’s team, the head coach left little to conjecture an attitude adjustment was top of the priority list and the wounded Lions pack would have to come out scrapping at Westpac Stadium.

“If I was playing on Saturday night and I felt that I was physically dominated, I’d be a little bit disappointed in myself and I’d be doing everything I could physically do the following week to make sure I fixed that area of the game,” Gatland said. “If I felt my pride was hurt a little bit, I’d be wanting to fix that.

That’s what I’d be doing as a player. I think they’re aware that we weren’t as strong in that contact area as we can be and we have to improve.”

Gatland added: “Sometimes it’s an attitude thing, getting off the line and winning collisions. It’s just a mental thing. In fairness to them (the All Blacks), they were pretty aggressive at the breakdown; came hard and won the collisions. It’s disappointing, sometimes that’s a pride factor, you know?

“If you’ve played at the top level you know when that area hasn’t been right and sometimes it’s mindset. You do whatever it takes for the following week to make sure you change that and turn it around and fix it.

“That’s what you do and I’m sure that’s what these players will be focused on this week, and as coaches we’ll be focused on it as well.

“It’s as simple as mentally getting things right. You have to challenge the players mentally for that physical challenge and on Saturday that’s one area they got the better of us, I’ll be frank about that. We need to make sure we’re a lot more physical in the contact area in both attack and defence.

If we get that right the transfer from that area to other parts of the game will be huge.

“I’m not saying it was for the entire 80 minutes, there were times when we were excellent, times when the defence was good and times when we carried well. But overall they got the better of us in that area and we need to improve in that aspect.

“This whole week is about fixing that area and that whole mindset. The All Blacks were very direct in the way that they played, and again we may have to be the same in terms of doing that.”

Gatland clearly does not accept the premise Steve Hansen’s, beaten only once since retaining the World Cup in October 2015, and that by Ireland last November in Chicago, were simply better that his side.

The Lions, after all, scored the try of the game and probably this long season with a sweeping end to end move towards the end of the first half, sparked by a Liam Williams linebreak in his own 22 and finished at the other end by Sean O’Brien that had All Blacks fans on their feet applauding and head coach Hansen proclaiming it “one of the best tries I’ve ever seen”.

That brought the half-time score to 13-8 in favour of the home side, hooker Codie Taylor having scored the first of the game’s five tries with an excellent pick up of a pass off his toes to dive over in the corner after 18 minutes.

The Lions had excellent scoring opportunities at the start of both halves, Elliot Daly held up brilliantly by Israel Dagg in the second minute and three minutes after the interval when a shot at the posts was passed over for the corner, only for the five-metre lineout maul to go awry, the All Blacks stealing the ball and keeping their noses in front.

And oh how the Lions paid for their profligacy against a ruthless All Blacks whose physicality was almost as brutal as when they exacted revenge on Ireland in Dublin, two weeks after their historic first defeat.

Instead of possibly tying the game at 13-all or even going ahead with a converted try, the Lions found themselves 20-8 down a dozen minutes later as a dominant scrum led to a wonderful Read pick up and feed to Aaron Smith whose pass to Sonny Bill Williams led to a missed tackle from Jon Davies.

From there, Rieko Ioane did the rest, scoring the first of two tries on his first All Blacks start.

The second was even more calamitous, full-back Williams letting a high ball through his hands, the bounce falling invitingly into the arms of Ioane who burned past Daly, no slowcoach himself, to put the game beyond the tourists.

“A couple of tries of theirs, you feel they were fairly soft in the way they’ve been executed,” Gatland said. “We might have to shake it up a little bit. I think someone like Maro Itoje made an impact coming off the bench and was very physical. I thought Sam Warburton was excellent as well at the breakdown when he came on.

“There’s the guys on Tuesday night (against the Hurricanes) who get a real chance to make an impact in that area as well. Sometimes at the top level, it’s not about playing pretty rugby and we’ve seen the All Blacks be prepared to be pretty physical in the past. They were pretty brutal in that breakdown area and we need to match fire with fire if we’re going to do well on Saturday night.”

No wonder Steve Hansen wore the broadest of smiles on Saturday at Eden Park. His players had rolled their sleeves up and beaten the Lions at their own game and the All Blacks coach was entitled to gloat a little.

“Tonight’s Test was always going to be won in the tight five,” Hansen said. “We won that battle, but that doesn’t guarantee that will happen next week. We’ve got to be extremely proud of what they did. You don’t become the number one side in the world without a quality tight five.

“I always find it amusing when people tell us they are going to beat us up in the tight five. We can play down and dirty rugby too if we have to. I mean down and dirty in the most respectful way.”

NEW ZEALAND:

B Smith (A Cruden, 27); I Dagg, R Crotty (A Lienert-Brown, 33), SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara, 56); J Moody (W Crockett, 54), C Taylor (N Harris, 66), O Franks (C Faumuina, 54); B Retallick, S Whitelock; J Kaino (A Savea, 46), S Cane, K Read – captain (S Barrett, 77).

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS:

L Williams (L Halfpenny, 72); A Watson, J Davies, B Te’o (J Sexton, 57), E Daly; O Farrell, C Murray (R Webb, 68); M Vunipola (J McGrath, 52), J George (K Owens, 68), T Furlong (K Sinckler, 59); A W Jones (M Itoje, 48), G Kruis; P O’Mahony – captain (S Warburton, 54), S O’Brien, T Faletau.

Referee:

J Peyper (South Africa)


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