British and Irish Lions chief executive John Feehan has backed Warren Gatland and his coaching team in the wake of a stinging attack by Sean O’Brien.
Ireland and Leicester flanker O’Brien took aim at the approach of the Lions set-up, led by Gatland, during their summer tour of New Zealand.
The Lions drew the three-Test series, but O’Brien felt it should have been a victorious one for the tourists.
O’Brien, 30, was particularly critical of attack coach Rob Howley, claiming he was set in his ways, with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell having to take control of the side in the closing stages of the tour.
“The coaches have a lot to answer for in terms of our attack, rather than Johnny and Faz trying to drive it,” O’Brien said. “If I was being critical of any coach, it would be the fact that I think Rob struggled with the group in terms of trying to get stuff across, whereas Johnny and Owen drove everything in the second week, for instance, in our attack and had a better plan in place.
“I don’t know if it was people not buying into what he [Howley] was about or whatever else. That’s the hard thing about a Lions tour as well; getting everyone to listen to a coach that was probably set in his ways.”
But, in response to O’Brien’s critical remarks, Feehan provided full support to his coaching team. “I said all along that I think we had the best coaching team available and I think they proved that in what we achieved in New Zealand,” Feehan said last night.
“To draw a series with the All Blacks, who had not lost a Test match at home for eight years, was a remarkable result, and Warren and the coaches deserve huge credit for that.
“People will always have their views on what could have been done better but the fact is that, against all the odds and with limited preparation time, this squad became only the second Lions team in history to either win or draw a series in New Zealand in 13 attempts. That achievement cannot be underestimated.” O’Brien also felt that the build-up to the first Test in Auckland – one which the Lions lost by 15 points – had been too intense and that the same mistake was almost repeated before the Tour’s concluding match.
Gatland acknowledged the work overload ahead of the first Test and claimed to have rectified it during the Tour.
“The first week we definitely over-trained on the Thursday,” O’Brien told the Off The Ball podcast.
“Maybe the coaches were panicking a little bit about getting the information into us and the workload.
“I think we nearly did a similar thing on the last week. Maybe it’s more of a coaching point of view in terms of taking lessons. Maybe less is more sometimes on a tour like that.
“We probably should have won the tour and we probably should have won it comfortably enough. I think there’s a lot of learning to take from the tour in terms of the coaching set-up as well and from a player’s point of view in terms of how we dealt with things, but it’s a weird one I suppose, drawing a series.”
The Lions won the second Test in Wellington 24-21 before the final Test in Auckland ended in a 15-15 draw.
“It’s a tough place to go and get a result, obviously,” O’Brien added.
“I think before the tour if you’d have asked anyone, they’d have said the All Blacks would probably wipe us. So we can be proud of some of the performances we put in but I think, as a player, it’s one that probably got away from us.”