The two Kiwi coaches have indulged in some low-level sledging all tour but the mood changed when Gatland was depicted as a clown by a local paper
All tour, like two ageing prize fighters, Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland have kept each other at arm’s length, offering the odd verbal jab that, that has been seized upon by a sizeable media contingent befitting of rugby event that fires the imagination every four years.
Earlier in the week, after the All Blacks had convincingly beaten the Lions in Auckland, 30-15, Hansen had taken the unusual step of phoning the local radio station, Radio Sport NZ, to witheringly dismiss Warren Gatland’s inference that Jerome Kaino had intentionally set out to target Conor Murray blindly coming through the ruck. He dismissed Gatland’s assertions as ‘desperate’, before adding: “It’s just really, really disappointing to hear him say that, and take the gloss off not only the Test match but from his own team’s performance as well. As a New Zealander, I would expect him to know the New Zealand psyche. It’s about playing hard and fair.”
It led to the New Zealand Herald depicting Warren Gatland as a morose clown, something Gatland had himself been questioned about it after the Hurricanes game. He pertained not to know anything about it – he said recently that the Gatland household refrains from buying papers – but while the Hamilton-born coach is seen as a thick-skinned character, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to think that behind closed doors, the Kiwi took an affront to the front page.
Ambling into the Hotel Intercontinental, just yards from Wellington’s picturesque waterfront, many would have expected Hansen to continue the spiky diatribe, but after wading through a series of questions, the war of words between the coaches was inevitably raised, specifically the Herald’s depiction of Warren Gatland as a figure of fun.
The cartoon, which had been used before to lampoon Gatland and Australian coach Michael Cheika before, had clearly crossed the ‘Test coaches unwritten code’, as Steve Hansen launched into an impassioned defence of his fellow coach. “I think it’s really disappointing. It’s one thing to have a bit of banter but I have a lot respect for him and the Lions. They are a good team, so to come out and do that, you’re ridiculing someone who doesn’t deserve it. Sometimes people don’t agree with what we do, but that’s okay, you’re entitled to your opinion. It’s the media that ramp it up because it sells newspapers. Who am I to say stop it, but I do look at it and think that’s not actually how it went.”
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With the pressure mounting on Gatland in a must-win Test, it was perhaps unsurprising that Steve Hansen could afford to take a moral stand at his coaches depiction but coming from the World Cup-winning coach of the best side on the planet, he knew it would permeate pretty quickly over to his opposing number. “Listen, I’m looking forward to having a beer with him and a chuckle to chat about life. We have a lot of common interests. He likes to race horses and so do I, he coaches Wales and I’ve been through that experience myself.”
With nine days left of the Series, and fatigue setting in for the most hardened of tourists, it promises to be a fractious end to a tour, and when the times comes, you would wish to be a fly-on-the-wall when the two coaches crack open a craft beer and end six weeks of barbs and brickbats with a little bonhomie. Here’s hoping…