With the preparations nearly done, and the Test decider approaching ever faster, Warren Gatland and Steve Hansen have come under the media microscope...
With the hours counting down to a game being talked up as the biggest since the 2015 World Cup final, camps from both sides have been fulfilling their media obligations.
What has been striking is the differing demeanour of the two coaches. In the All Black corner, Steve Hansen, as you’d expect, has worn the frown of a man who said losing ‘sucks’, but he appears, outwardly, to have taken the loss in his stride, and cut a relaxed air at the Heritage hotel, swatting away assertions that he was under pressure. “I’m feeling pretty good. You’d think we’ve never lost from reading the stories, it’s like the sky is falling in,” he said with a wry smile.
He then put a narrow three-point victory into perspective. “Life tells us we’re only playing a game of rugby. Real pressure is when you’ve got to spend half an hour giving someone CPR to save their life and if that doesn’t work breaking the news to their children, mother, father or extended family. If we win, lose or draw, we’ll be a better team for it.”
A ten-minute walk away, at the Pullman hotel, Warren Gatland didn’t seem at ease. He was terse and defensive with the assembled media early on, with a series of one-word answers, quipping that after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, he may retire to an isolated beach and put his feet up.
Despite public protestations to the contrary, the Hamilton-native is not doing a great job of hiding his emotions, in a period where he has come under sustained criticism in a country in which he has so much pride. No one is buy that the opprobrium is ‘water off a duck’s back’.
Back at the All Blacks presser, across town, a rapt audience listened to Hansen disclosing that the Barrett brothers had their own nicknames for each other, of which one, Lloyd, was from the comedy Dumb and Dumber. He went on to say the All Blacks were a brotherhood but that his players would have to be pretty sharp to catch him out, to chuckles all around.
Questioned on whether Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape presented a risk, Hansen shrugged his shoulders, and straight-batted the fact the two players have barely 80 minutes Test rugby between them.
“Jordie is very good aerially. He played well enough for the Hurricanes against the Lions and we have confidence in him. We wouldn’t have put him there if we didn’t believe in him. We think Ngani’s all-round game is slightly better than Mala’s (Malakai Fekitoa). We were going to go with SBW (Sonny Bill Williams) and Crott’s (Ryan Crotty) but we don’t have them. We’ve had to push Ngani quicker than we’d hoped but he’ll do a job for us.”
Back at the Pullman, Gatland was defending, quite rightly, his decision to take the squad to Queenstown to unwind. “We could have flown to Auckland but we had the opportunity to go to Queenstown. Why not use that? It’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world and we did the same in Noosa in 2013 and on safari in 2009.”
Of one question, both coaches were in agreement, that the Series would not define the players. “You want those big moments in sport. The players have an opportunity to leave a legacy, to do something special. You don’t want those moments to pass you by”, Gatland, opined. Hansen backed this up by saying, “Is the Lions Series hugely significant? Of course. Will it define the players in this team? No. There’s a much bigger story ahead for this team yet.”
Gatland, who has looked weary at times during the arduous six-week tour, was asked whether he had enjoyed the experience? “The last few weeks have been challenging for my family. It’s been hard preparing two teams a week with all the travelling. Hopefully we’ll get the result that makes it worth it.”
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Steve Hansen, in a roundabout way, was asked how he had dealt with the incessant attention. “You just come to expect it. If you didn’t have those people who were passionate about the sport you wouldn’t have the All Blacks. The fans have a big part in that because of their high expectations. They’re nervy when we lose, because it hasn’t happened before. When you go for a walk, you don’t go out of the hotel thinking you’re going to get away with it, even if you pull your hoodie up and put your sunglasses on. Do you shrivel up and stay inside or do you go outside and enjoy being alive?” The rhetorical question didn’t require an answer.
Back at the Lions HQ Gatland was finally loosening up, a little, on being questioned how he’d like the 2017 tourist to be remembered. “We want to be seen as good tourists, on and off the field. People have tried to pigeonhole us as trying to kick the leather off the ball but we’ve played some good rugby.”
There was then another pointed defence of the Lions concept, which has come under such scrutiny. “This tour shows how special the Lions are and how it needs to be protected. We’ve been written off from day one and in the future we have to decide how many games will be played. A game before the First Test is not ideal but we’ve known from the start it would be tough.”
With the luxury of no changes to his 23, Gatland says he hopes referee Romain Poite comes with an open mind as the Lions have a chance to seal their legacy. “Everyone is aware of the size of the game but it’s about having emotional control. I didn’t need a word with Mako (Vunipola), I spoke to the whole team. I wasn’t happy with the amount of soft penalties given away. We just need to concentrate on ourselves.”
Final words were left to Steve Hansen who put the match-up succinctly. “They’ll come and they’ll come hard, and we’ll come and we’ll come hard and at the end of the game, we’ll see where we end up.”
A game of titanic proportions awaits. Actions, not words, will define tomorrow’s Test.