Lions coach Gatland bites back at Steve Hansen in a pre-Test war of words
Nothing focuses the mind like Test week and as soon as his team had comfortably dismissed the Maori All Blacks with a display packed with power and tactical awareness, Warren Gatland turned his attention to Steve Hansen and his All Blacks.
Since the touring squad was announced, the New Zealand coach has been chipping away - questioning the style of play, the squad harmony and even stealing a march by leaking information before the Lions were ready. If he doesn't want to be quoted directly, his proxies in the local media will get the message out.
Gatland has largely kept his counsel as he attempted to build a team that can compete with the world champions, but after the shadow Test team so comprehensively won a match being billed as the fourth Test, he finally responded, accusing Hansen of being "worried".
The Lions coach's theory is that his normally taciturn opposite number has been uncharacteristically opinionated in his media dealings and it's unlikely to have cost Hansen much sleep.
However, Gatland's comments in Hamilton are likely to catch the World Cup-winning coach's attention as the visiting coach chose to highlight elements of the All Blacks' play as illegal and effectively accusing the entire New Zealand system of pulling the wool over referees' eyes.
South African referee Jaco Peyper, the man who presided over New Zealand's hot-tempered win in Dublin last November, took charge of the Maori game and is in the middle again next Saturday and the coach's comments are directed his way.
Gatland's team have been criticised heavily for their lack of attacking penetration, but he laid at least some of the blame at the feet of the illegal work opponents have been carrying out.
"The frustrating thing for us is the amount of blocking that's going on, the off-the-ball stuff, it makes it difficult to complete attacking opportunities and situations because there is so much happening off the ball in terms of holding players or subtly holding players," he said pointedly. "We've raised it with the ref already. If you listen to the ref's mic they were talking about it constantly through the game. They gave a couple of penalties last night for blocking.
"It's one of the hardest things to pick up because it tends to happen quite a long way off the ball. In fairness to the ARs (Assistant referees), they did raise it on a number of occasions. Sometimes it was put through to the TMO who said it didn't have a material effect and told the ref to talk to the players about it.
"We'll keep raising it because it was picked up on a couple of occasions last night, they stopped doing it as much.
"That made it a lot easier for us to get up in the air and to compete. In a couple of games we haven't been able to get up in the air because there has been that interference."
Gatland will meet Peyper before Saturday's Eden Park opener and put his concerns to him. He believes the obstruction has cost his team points.
"Absolutely yeah. When you go look at the tapes and all the stuff off the ball, where someone's run a line or stopped someone getting through, some of it is very subtle," he said. "That's made it difficult. It's part of the game in New Zealand, all teams here are doing it. Some referees are picking them up for that. A few years ago people weren't quite so subtle. They're very, very subtle now."
Of course, Gatland risks his own players being called up for the same offence, but his willingness to go public is a sign that he is increasingly confident about his side's prospects.
Saturday's win was essential after the decision to call in four Wales and two Scotland players of questionable merit into the squad.
Cory Hill, Tomas Francis, Gareth Davies and Kristian Dacey arrived from the Welsh squad in Auckland on Friday, while Allen Dell and Finn Russell have been brought in after Scotland's win over Australia. Proximity was the key factor.
The decision was unpopular, drawing criticism from Eddie Jones and a host of former Lions, with even Ian McGeechan expressing his disapproval. The victory over the Maori made all of that seem pretty unimportant. The players are all on the bench for tomorrow morning's clash with the Chiefs and will do the same next week against the Hurricanes before heading home ahead of the second Test.
The coach accepted the criticism, but said his only goal is to win the series.
The bulk of the 23 will sit out the game in order to be ready for the opener and Gatland said back three, centre, back-row and second-row are still to be selected.
One big decision that will have a bearing on how the team shapes up is whether he deploys Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell together. "Coming on against the Crusaders and on Saturday, he (Sexton) has come back and played well," Gatland said. "Generally his kicking game has been pretty good, he attacked the line. We are really happy with him."