The Lions have outscored the All Blacks by four tries to three in two pulsating Test matches and as the series decider with the world champions looms, head coach Warren Gatland believes his players may just be earning the respect of New Zealand’s famously one-eyed rugby population.
The days since last Saturday in Wellington, when the Lions inflicted a first home Test defeat on New Zealand since South Africa in 2009, have put Kiwi supporters in an angsty mood, prompting their head coach Steve Hansen to declare yesterday: “You would think the All Blacks had never lost a game and the sky has fallen in!”
Former team captain Sean Fitzpatrick told Sky Sports he had been informed of tensions in Hansen’s camp and fists flying in training this week, something the players and head coach have denied. But it is evident the Lions are now viewed in a better light than the initial dismissal of them as no-hopers heading for a Test whitewash like their predecessors in 2005.
The wonderful first Test try started in his own 22 by Lions full-back Liam Williams and finished by Sean O’Brien served notice of the potential of the 2017 team and last Saturday’s series-levelling 24-21 victory at Westpac Stadium delivered a message loud and clear that this was not just another bunch of stiffs playing one-dimensional “Warrenball”.
Whether that has translated into actual respect for the Lions, though, is still up for debate, at least for Gatland, who points to a dichotomy between New Zealand media’s coverage of the tour and the voices he hears from the public as the squad traverses his homeland.
Being portrayed as a clown in the New Zealand Herald was just one instance.
“That’s been a hard one,” he said yesterday of the question of earning respect. “Despite the direction one of the national newspapers in New Zealand has sometimes taken, everywhere I’ve gone, there have been people being positive about the tour. It’s kind of been a yin and yang type of thing. You are hearing one side of it or reading one side of it, but that is not reflective of what I have been experiencing here.
“I was talking to Jan Gethin and Dennis Gethin (Welsh Rugby Union president) last night and they happened to be on a plane coming with Graham Henry, who they knew from Wales.
“Graham said to them he has been embarrassed about some of the media coverage in New Zealand. But that has been the way and is it the future of professional sport? I’m not too sure. Things are changing all the time on social media and all that stuff. But from a personal point of view, the reaction from the public here has been awesome.
“I think we’ve played some good rugby. People expected us to come here and kick the leather of it, drive every single lineout, to try and scrummage people to death. We haven’t done that. We’ve played a good brand and people have been surprised by that, almost reluctant to give us credit for that.
“We’ve scored four tries and they’ve been four great tries. The All Blacks have scored three tries: One was a tap, the other was a bounce that went through Liam Williams’ hands from a box kick and the other was a great bit of skill from Kieran Read where he has passed off the floor at a scrum and they’ve scored from that. We’ve played some excellent rugby.
“I’d like to think we leave here with some respect for the way we have played and that will be reflected on Saturday.
“We’re confident we can improve again.”
Lions Test wing Anthony Watson agreed with his boss but not before commenting wryly of New Zealand crowds: “They still boo whenever we kick for goal so it obviously hasn’t changed a huge amount but I think some of the tries we have scored were pretty outstanding. Hopefully, we have changed people’s opinions a bit.
“Just from the one way we’ve gone about ourselves in training. From the first week at The Vale, and then Carton House, if it was the right decision to run it in our own 22, we were going to run it.
“That was the approach, and we’ve had a couple of instances out here when we have been able to show that.”
Gatland will be looking to his players for a few more examples, just to leave a lasting impression of these 2017 Lions.
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