Warren Gatland senses fear of Lions and defends call-ups
Head coach Gatland seized on the Lions’ fine 32-10 victory over the Maori All Blacks to bite back at a host of critics, with New Zealand boss Hansen chief among them.
The All Blacks coach has systematically picked on the Lions’ playing style and their plans in calling up mid-tour recruits, before offering a premature prediction of the tourists’ Test line-up.
The three-Test All Blacks series will start in Auckland next Saturday, with Gatland attempting to turn the heat back on Hansen.
“I’ve been surprised by Steve Hansen, who is normally pretty calm,” said Gatland. “He has been doing a lot of press conferences and I can only take that as a sign of respect in that he is a little bit worried.
“The All Blacks arranged a pretty quick warm-up game against Samoa and if you saw the first 20 to 30 minutes, they needed that.
“Obviously they were outstanding in the second half of course. But it’s unlike Steve and maybe he is worried by potentially how good this team can be. We know we have got a big step up to play the All Blacks but all I can say is that this could be a great Test series with fantastic rugby.
“Everyone could get excited. Wherever we have been in New Zealand, the welcome has been brilliant. I can’t speak more highly of that. The off-field stuff, similar to the stuff that people have been saying, puts a bit of a dampener on the tour. But that’s professional sport, you’ve just got to deal with that and move on.
“It’s not anything that is a worry for us but you go, ‘whoah, he is a little bit more worried than he normally is’.
“Saying these comments about us, things he knows about or doesn’t know about, that is normally a sign of a man that is a little bit worried.”
The Lions have added four Wales players and two from Scotland to their squad, in a bid to ease their fixture burden – rejecting the chance to draft in anyone from England or Ireland due to extended travel times to New Zealand. The Wales players drafted in are Gareth Davies, Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey and Tomas Francis, while Finn Russell and Allan Dell join up from Scotland.
Wales flanker Ross Moriarty has been ruled out of the rest of the Lions tour because of a back injury.
Gatland has come under fire from a host of famous rugby faces who say that the call-ups devalue the Lions shirt. He has been accused of favouring geographical proximity over meritocratic selection. Wales are currently in New Zealand while Scotland are in Australia, whereas Ireland are in Japan and England in Argentina.
Gatland insisted that he had long planned to bolster his squad for Tuesday’s match against the Chiefs, and informed his original 41-man squad back in May.
Gatland’s Lions mentor Sir Ian McGeechan even admitted the policy was “difficult to justify”, but the coach stood firm by his plans.
“I understand the concerns but as I’ve said it’s all about the Test series, it’s all about us doing that for the best opportunity for the first Test,” said Gatland. “We did that in 2013 [in Australia] and if we hadn’t have done that then we could have easily lost the series.
“Does it devalue the shirt? You’re only a Lion when you get on the field and there’s a few of those players that were probably unlucky not to be in contention in the first place. We’ve picked up a couple of injuries. In terms of devaluing the shirt, I can see some people’s point of view on that but we’re here to win a Test series. We found it difficult the first ten days when we were here in terms of jet-lag and tiredness and stuff. The players that have come in will be able to fit quickly into that time zone.”