Back in the big city and with the self- proclaimed country boys disappearing in the Lions’ rear-view mirror, Warren Gatland’s bid to broaden minds regarding both his players and his own coaching philosophy has stepped up a notch.
With the slate wiped clean and all-new starting XV after a disappointing performance and narrow win in the opener against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians on Saturday in Whangarei, the British and Irish Lions will look to fire up their tour in their first clash with Super Rugby opposition tomorrow morning when they meet the Blues at Eden Park (8:35 am Irish time).
And with the naming of that matchday squad featuring a quartet of Irishmen - Jack McGrath, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne - who gave the All Blacks a taste of their own medicine in Chicago last November, head coach Gatland also came out fighting amid fresh barbs from the Kiwis about what they believe is their compatriot’s one-dimensional style.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen renewed the drip-feed of criticism against “Warrenball” at the weekend, talking about the Wales and Lions’ coach’s predictable preference for physicality and powering over the gainline at the expense of flair and backline ingenuity.
Erstwhile Ireland fly-half and England assistant coach Brian Smith is believed to have coined the phrase a few years ago as a jibe against the Wales gameplan and the mud has well and truly stuck.
Clearly, Gatland is sick and tired of having to defend himself against it, at least if his response yesterday to a sympathetic question about whether the Lions were ready to prove there was more to his team than bish, bash and bosh.
“What do you mean by ‘one way’? When did that way start? You don’t know the answer to that do you?” was Gatland’s testy response.
“I kind of look and go: ‘Was is it when we were successful at Wasps or when I was coaching Waikato in the Air New Zealand Cup. I don’t know, when did a certain style change? If you can tell me the answer to that I will answer the question when the time frame is appropriate – then I can potentially give you an answer.
“Look, a few years ago Brian Smith coined a phrase ‘Warrenball’ and I don’t know whether that was because he was jealous of how much success we had. We had a group of players who came through Wales at the time who ended up being pretty big physical players. The modern game of rugby is about getting across the gainline, trying to get front-foot ball and playing to space if that is possible. If you can get me when things started to change, I don’t know.”
Gatland can rightly point to a fine body of work as a coach who has found success with Wasps, Wales and the Lions, the first coach to win a series for them since 1997 when he led the tourists to success over the Wallabies in 2013. He should care less about perceptions.
“I don’t know, I think in a way it is an opportunity for people to want to be critical. We experienced that four years ago when people decided to be critical and a lot of people got caught with their pants down afterwards, didn’t they?
“We know we didn’t play so well on Saturday and it gives us an opportunity to go out and against the Blues and be positive. The message to the players is we want to play positive rugby, we want to be able to move the ball and shift it and create chances.
“To match the All Blacks you have got to display a bit of X-factor and if that X-factor means an offload or doing something that is a little bit outside the box, the players are being encouraged to do that because that is what we are going to need to beat them. We want players to express themselves, to back their skills and back their ability. We don’t want to be prescribed and we don’t want to play by numbers.
“These players are being encouraged to develop their level of skills and to go out there and to do that. Hopefully, we can show that on Wednesday and the players can do that and perform to what they are being encouraged by the coaches to do.”
The selection of established partnerships at half-back (Ospreys and Wales pair Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar) and centre (Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne) should encourage more fluidity and provide a platform for England wings Elliot Daly and Jack Nowell to do some damage. Gatland is certainly looking forward to reaping the rewards from his Irish midfield, with Payne having recovered from a calf injury that kept him out of the game in Whangerei last Saturday to make his first start against his old club.
“They’ve obviously played a number of times together. One of the reasons Payne was picked was because of his experience in New Zealand, and being involved with the Blues. He’s also played in a number of big games Ireland have won. He’s been one of the key components of their success and I think Robbie Henshaw has been outstanding. He’s a quality player and he’s more than someone who can get across the gainline and has real skill and we want to see that on Wednesday.”
Payne, 31, had seen time with the Chiefs and Crusaders before moving north to Auckland for a season with the Blues in 2011 and the Irish aside, he may be on friendlier terms with the opposition tomorrow than some of his new Lions team-mates.
“(Rene) Ranger, Charlie (Faumuina), Jerome (Kaino), I caught up with them in Chicago… it will be good to play against some mates and it’s going to be bloody tough,” Payne said. “They are a good team. If we give those boys too much space they are going to cause a lot of headaches…. We will be going after each other every now and again and if you get a chance have a joke at the bottom of a ruck if you are lying beside them!”
Closest of all, though, is his partner at inside centre and the reunion will be sweet given his season interrupted by a serious kidney injury and, latterly, a niggling calf issue.
“It’s good to be back with my old mate Robbie,” Payne said. “Hopefully we can pick up the combination pretty quickly and put on a good performance. We have had time together but we have been working hard and hope to take a step in the right direction on Wednesday.”
Far from breeding contempt, Gatland believes familiarity, among his players rather than New Zealanders’ perceptions about his playing style, is the value which can help the Lions find their rhythm and get this tour up and running.
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