There is a song by the Kinks called Death of a Clown, which seems rather apt in the wake of a New Zealand newspaper’s caricature of the head coach of the British & Irish Lions with white paint and a red nose.
Even more on the money are the opening couplets which read: “My makeup is dry and it cracks round my chin/I’m drowning my sorrows in whiskey and gin /The lion-tamer’s whip doesn’t crack anymore / The lions they won’t fight and the tigers won’t roar.”
Three days after Warren Gatland called on his players to show some fight and pride after being outmuscled by the All Blacks, the Lions head coach found himself done up for the second time in the past eight months as a glum purveyor of circus high-jinks.
His crime? Questioning the motives of All Black players who hustled and harried his star scrum-half to the point where Conor Murray’s fitness was genuinely on the line as Jerome Kaino dived at his standing foot at Eden Park last Saturday.
“Implying the All Blacks are dirty is the unforgivable sin,” wrote one Kiwi journalist piously in New Zealand’s best-selling newspaper, the Herald, yesterday.
“Questioning their playing ethics and morals is a line that can’t be crossed,” he continued, blithely ignoring Malikai Fekitoa’s forearm smash on Simon Zebo’s neck last November.
Gatland, speaking after Tuesday’s exciting 31-31 draw with the Hurricanes, pretended he hadn’t noticed or even heard he had once again been ridiculed in his own homeland by a media which seems oblivious to the fact they have in their gift the best sports team on the planet and should be above personal attacks on pretenders to the throne.
“I haven’t seen that? Which newspaper was that?” Gatland asked archly during his post-match press conference.
Informed that he was being lampooned as a result of his war of words with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who had reacted angrily to the suggestion his players had been accused of being overly physical during the first Test by going on Sport Radio NZ and labelling the Lions head coach as “desperate” and “predictable”.
“I haven’t read anything from Hansen’s quotes,” Gatland continued. “The only thing I heard was that he had rung up a radio station. I thought that was quite unusual for an international coach. But I’m not worried about what Steve Hansen says or what any newspaper draws me up as. I just hope it was a happy clown.
“Look, as a Kiwi, you’d like to think you’d come home and things would be more positive from one or two members of the media. That hasn’t happened.
“But you can’t let that get to you. You’ve just got to take that on the chin and not get affected by it. There’s been a significant campaign against me personally. But that’s water off a duck’s back to me. I’ve just got to concentrate on doing my job and not worry about any specific individuals who try and make it personal. It’s just part of professional sport. I couldn’t give a toss if that’s happening.”
There was a smidgeon of regret from the All Blacks camp that perhaps the Herald had overstepped the mark again. When asked for his take on the Gatland clown caricature, assistant coach Ian Foster, a former Waikato team-mate and long-time Hamilton neighbour of Gatland’s, replied: “I wouldn’t like that.”
And that was it. Foster is a thick-skinned rugby man who considers the pre-match “noise” part of the bigger picture. Being diverted by it in the midst of getting a team ready for Saturday’s Test match would be sacrilege.
“It doesn’t change a thing,” Foster said. “I wasn’t even aware (of the cartoon). That’s why I’m not going to comment on that particular question. Doesn’t make any difference for us. We’re preparing on our game.
“You know, there’s a few little issues floating around, but at the end of the day this is going to be a titanic Test match, isn’t it? We’re 1-0 up, but we know there’s going to be a very desperate team down the road, and if we’re not desperate — and match that, and better that — it’s going to be a hard night for us.
“This whole week’s about us preparing and playing as well as we can. When there’s a lot at stake, often there’s lots of noise around games and people try and chuck things at you from different sides, but at the end of the day it doesn’t change a thing. We’ve got a pure rugby team to play on Saturday.
“We’ve had two weeks of a lot of noise early in the weeks, and it seems to keep you guys (the media) pretty excited, which is good. But at the end of the day our job as coaches is to put all that stuff to one side. And we expect it. I guess we probably give a little bit, they give a little bit, and that’s all part of things when stakes are high. So he’s doing what he thinks he needs to do to prepare his team, and we’ll do what we need to do.”
As to whether there has been too much noise between Hansen and Gatland over the last few weeks, Foster said: “You get used to it. It’s part of the environment when you play a big series and this is a big series.
“For us, we have been looking forward to this for a long, long time, and we know that the Lions have as well. It’s generated massive interest here and overseas, so there’s a lot at stake. Everyone is looking for an edge. People are just trying to find that edge in different sorts of ways, and I wouldn’t read too much more into it than just that.
“The more that’s at stake, the more people want to do what they need to do to get their team an advantage. I don’t know whether people like it or dislike it, but it is what it is. We don’t take it as personal, it’s just what some people do. If we start sulking about that, we’ll get upset and distracted by it. Isn’t that the objective of it? We need to stay in our own mind clear and focused on what we do and remember that at the end of the day it’s about a game of rugby on the Saturday and we’ve got to be ready.”
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