Auckland, New Zealand, Jun 21 – British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has vowed to “let the rugby do the talking” as his side prepares for a blockbuster first Test against the world champion All Blacks.
Gatland has traded barbs with New Zealand counterpart Steve Hansen in recent weeks but said he wanted to look at the positive aspects of the tour ahead of Saturday’s clash at Eden Park.
“Lions tours are special and the hospitality that we’ve had from the New Zealand public has been absolutely brilliant. We’ve loved being here,” he said.
“Let’s just hope we can have a great series and everyone can enjoy the rugby and let’s let the rugby do the talking.”
Hansen has accused Gatland of having only one style of play, claimed inside knowledge of the Lions reinforcements and warned New Zealand’s thumping 78-0 over Samoa last week was “just the start”.
After initially biting his tongue, Gatland said Hansen’s comments showed he was worried about the Lions and also accused New Zealand players of illegal blocking tactics.
The Kiwi-born coach complained too that he had been “hammered” by a personal campaign against him in the local media.
But he was in a conciliatory mood after the Lions shone in a 34-6 win over Waikato Chiefs, saying the tourists had tried to avoid venting their frustrations about issues such as obstruction.
“We haven’t come out and bitched and moaned about everything,” he said.
“The referees came back to me and said (Waisake) Naholo’s try for the Highlanders shouldn’t have been awarded because it was blocking.
“We haven’t complained about that stuff… the referees have identified some of that and hopefully it gets stamped out of the game.”
– ‘Lively debate’ –
Gatland conceded the Lions’ Test selectors had a difficult task after the mid-week team of second stringers thrashed the Chiefs.
Wing Jack Nowell crossed twice, while his England team-mates Elliot Daly and Courtney Lawes also staked their claim to take on New Zealand with stand-out performances.
“Some guys put their hands up,” Gatland said. “We’re pretty happy with where we’re at at the moment.
“The selection meeting will be with all the coaches… I’m sure there will be some lively debate and discussion.”
Gatland still has pieces of his Test jigsaw missing, with the back three, lock and back-row likely to be the biggest areas of discussion.
He said the Lions’ fluidity in attack against the Chiefs showed the composite team of players from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland was beginning to gel.
But he said they would have to step up against Hansen’s back-to-back World Cup-winners at Eden Park, a venue where the All Blacks have not been beaten for 23 years.
“From a defensive point of view we’re getting stronger and stronger against the best attacking teams in world rugby,” Gatland said.
“We score multiple tries week-in, week-out and we’re strangling them a little bit in the way that we’re defending too.
“On Saturday, we’re up against the best team in the world in their own backyard, a place they haven’t been beaten at since 1994, so we have to take things up a level.”