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Gatland hits out at critics as Lions get set for step up in class

By Ruaidhri O’Connor

Team announcement day in Auckland and for the two men who will occupy the coaching box at Eden Park tomorrow morning, this was a day for facing down some awkward questions.

Warren Gatland opted to meet his head-on, Tana Umaga did anything but.

The clash between the Blues and the Lions sees this tour take a serious turn. Umaga has fielded eight All Blacks in his impressive-looking team and although they are statistically the worst ranked New Zealand side in Super Rugby, they represent a dangerous opponent for the tourists.

Gatland, for his part, fields an entirely new starting XV, as promised. He is handing Lions debuts to a host of players, including the Irish contingent of Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Jack McGrath and CJ Stander, while Peter O'Mahony will get his chance off the bench.

The Kiwi coach's press conference was meandering along quietly in a vast room at the Lions' team hotel yesterday when he was asked to address the preconception about how his team will play.

The 'Warrenball' tag has followed the Lions coach for the past number of years and he decided it was time to address it on the back of some hostile local reportage.

"When did that way start? You don't know the answer to that, do you?" he asked his questioner.

"I kind of look and go: 'Was it when we were successful at Wasps or when I was coaching Waikato to 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 gain line, 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."

Earlier in the day, Umaga's reunion with the Lions brought about the inevitable questions about the 2005 incident that ended Brian O'Driscoll's tour.

He visited Ireland last year with the Maori and forbade questions about that tackle, but there was no avoiding it yesterday.

When he first took to the stage to unveil the team to take on the Lions, he had two rows of burly team members in front of him, but they took their seats and he began his press conference flanked by just a pair of All Blacks - captain James Parsons and the intimidating Sonny Bill Williams.

When the first question about 2005 didn't zero in on the O'Driscoll moment, he thanked the person who asked it.

When the question he'd been expecting came, he neatly side-stepped.

"It's not about that time, that's 12 years ago so if people haven't put it behind them, then they never will," he said.

"It's about this group now and their time against the Lions and the memories they make, which are hopefully positive ones, and we move on from there."

A second bite of the cherry brought about a Sonny Bill shutdown. Time to move on.

Over at the Lions HQ, Gatland continued his deconstruction of the tag that has clearly weighed heavily on him.

"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?" he said.

"We know we didn't play so well on Saturday and it gives us an opportunity to go out against the Blues and be positive.

"The message to the players is that 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 do 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 and express themselves, back their skills and back their ability, and 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."

We'll see how that plays out tomorrow morning when they take on the first of the five Super Rugby teams they'll meet in the coming weeks.

The Blues are a potent attacking outfit who can struggle to close out games, but possess a vast array of firepower and represent a huge step up from the Provincial Barbarians the Lions struggled to beat on Saturday.

They have seven New Zealand internationals in their starting line-up and one on the bench. Their centre-pairing of Williams and George Moala is exceptional and will test the Irish pair of Payne and Henshaw, while their back-row of Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson and Steven Luatua is a real match for James Haskell, Justin Tipuric and Stander.

The Lions will hope to back their set-piece, with captain Ken Owens leading a relatively inexperienced line-up.

On the evidence of Saturday, they're in for a long night.

They'll need to adapt to the pace of the game early, hold on to the ball and limit their mistakes.

The Blues possess broken-field players with the potential to do damage and the challenge is for the Ospreys pair of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar to keep their kicks in line and not invite them to counter-attack.

Umaga (left) will have watched the way Bryn Gatland pulled the Lions back three out of position last Saturday, but the tourists will hope the combination of Leigh Halfpenny, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly can handle it better this time around.

If Gatland's team are to succeed, they'll need to channel their coach's belligerence.

They'll hope Umaga's charges will echo their coach's less confrontational approach.

It seems unlikely.

Belfast Telegraph

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