Rob Howley launched a passionate defence of Lions head coach Warren Gatland on the eve of the decisive third Test against the All Blacks by labelling the New Zealand media coverage of him “an absolute disgrace”.
Gatland has been repeatedly targeted by the New Zealand Herald during the British and Irish Lions tour, with the negative coverage reaching a peak when they mocked him up as a clown on their front page in the wake of the first Test.
The head coach admitted that the campaign against him, which he labelled personal, had made the tour his most difficult yet, although stressed that it was particularly harder for his family to deal with. But that did not stop attack coach Howley jumping to the defence of Gatland ahead of this Saturday’s third Test against the All Blacks.
After initially playing down the squad’s knowledge of the criticism, Howley admitted that he has become aware of it in recent days, although he does not spend time reading the local newspapers during the tour.
“You guys are probably aware of it much more than I and after having conversations last night, I’m a little bit more aware of it now.
“I’m sure your conversations with Warren Gatland and the way Warren Gatland’s been treated, absolutely, it’s been a disgrace, hasn’t it? It’s an absolute disgrace.
“We all love sport and rugby. You can be critical of technical or tactical elements of the Lions or New Zealand but when that becomes personal criticism I think we all step over the mark and that’s happened over the last four weeks of the tour.”
British and Irish Lions squad vs All Blacks – third Test
Gatland had his selection decisions questioned early in the tour, with one media outlet labelling his failure to play Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell together in the very first match of the tour a “shambles”, yet it was the personal attacks that appeared to upset Gatland and, in particular, his family.
Howley was able to compare it to similar episodes he has experienced in the past when stepping up to replace Gatland with Wales, although he was keen to play that down and instead wanted to discuss the way that Gatland has been treated by his own country, having been born and raised on these shores.
“Not to the extent it has occurred with Warren Gatland,” Howley said of his own experiences. “It’s not nice in terms of your family. I’ve had some element of that when I’ve stepped up as head coach but it’s not for me to comment on that.
“What we’re commenting on is the way Warren Gatland has been treated by the New Zealand media, his own media really. He’s a Kiwi. You have to applaud what Warren Gatland’s achieved as a Kiwi in the northern hemisphere – and I’ve no doubt what he’ll achieve when he comes back to New Zealand as well. He’s probably one of the best coaches in world rugby at this moment in time.”
His high praise of Gatland did not stop there. Howley has learned his trade under the Kiwi, and not just as his assistant coach. He worked under him when still playing rugby with Wasps, with Gatland taking the Premiership outfit to the Heineken Cup final in 2004 where Howley scored the match-winning try.
Gatland went on to take Howley under his wing with Wales, before joining Gatland as part of Sir Ian McGeechan’s coaching team for the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa in a role that he continues in to this day. It led Howley to put Gatland up on a pedestal with McGeechan, regardless of what happens in Saturday’s series decider, and he tipped the Lions coach to be a guaranteed All Blacks coach of the future, should he want the role.
“I’ve got no doubt he will be,” said Howley. “I think his achievements as a coach, whether it’s in Connacht, Ireland and Wales, and when you look at the success and what he’s won… I’ve learned hugely from Warren Gatland. He’s been unbelievable.
“I learned more as a player when I was coached by Warren Gatland at the age of 31 than I had by any other coach, and I’ve been very fortunate to be coached by a lot of coaches. Warren Gatland taught me a hell of a lot as a player at the age of 31 and 32, and you never forget that as a player – that learning and the knowledge.
“He understands the games, he understands players, and I think that’s the biggest asset that he’s got. He understands what players are, because whenever he makes a decision, he always remembers when he was a player, and I think his time behind Sean Fitzpatrick on the bench served him pretty well in terms of his thought process and what he’s able now to talk to players about.”