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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 16 October, 2018

A great day for Gatland as he finally gets elusive victory over All Blacks

The Lions boss said criticism of his team has actually helped galvanise them.

Murray Kinsella reports from Wellington

YOU COULDN’T BEGRUDGE Warren Gatland a couple of smug grins in his post-match press conference after some of the personal abuse he’s taken in New Zealand.

“I’m a happy clown this week,” said the Lions boss with a knowing smile immediately after his side’s historic 24-21 win over the All Blacks in a wet Wellington, the tourists’ first victory on Kiwi soil since 1993.

New Zealand v British and Irish Lions - Second Test - Westpac Stadium Gatland after his side's victory. Source: David Davies

Gatland has been trying to beat his native land for years with Wales and he’s come up empty-handed every single time, 10 of them in total and on an aggregate scoreline of 344-140.

Now he’s done it at the second time of asking with the Lions and it’s a win that he would have craved personally. He is professional enough to place the touring party above his own individual gain, but it was a landmark moment for the 53-year-old.

Depicted as a clown once again earlier in the week, Gatland emerged with pride and saw his big coaching calls come good to level the series and provide us with a fascinating decider in Auckland next weekend.

The Lions are here for series success, of course, but already Gatland has overachieved in the eyes of the many who had predicted a 3-0 whitewash for the All Blacks.

There was no mistaking the fact that Gatland enjoyed the win all the more for the fact that the criticism has been plentiful in recent times. In fact, the Lions boss said his detractors in the Kiwi media have actually aided the Lions’ cause.

“The last couple of weeks in terms of the criticism and personal attacks has been a little bit tough to take, not so much for myself, more for family members,” said Gatland at Westpac Stadium as the dust began to settle after an absorbing Test match.

“Ironically, the Kiwi public are probably the fairest people you will ever come across.

“They have no idea how much it has galvanised us a group in terms of the good luck messages we have received from Kiwis, people shaking your hands and saying well done, ex-All Blacks contacting us saying ‘I hope you do well’ and that some of the personal stuff in the press has been over the top.

A view of the final score Gatland would have liked the look of this. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“There is a huge proportion of Lions fans and Kiwis wanting us to do well and saying the criticism has been unfair.

“So ironically, it’s actually been a huge positive – so whoever’s been doing it, keep doing it because it’s not working and it’s actually worked for us.”

The divisive calls Gatland made in his team selection this week all bore fruit.

Alun Wyn Jones was backed in the second row despite a clear lack of form and the experienced Welshman justified Gatland’s faith with a huge performance in contact, producing several momentum-shifting hits.

Ben Te’o's exclusion had been heavily questioned too, but the decision by Gatland to go with Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell as his 10-12 axis bore delightful fruit, the pair of them linking intelligently and adding real creativity to the Lions’ attack.

Tour captain Sam Warburton’s return was impressive too, after Peter O’Mahony’s dropping was met with anger in some quarters.

Warburton hammered into tackles, contributed a handful of meaty carries and generally linked well with Sean O’Brien. He might have been concerned that he couldn’t help turn the discipline issue around sooner in the second half, but again Gatland was vindicated.

“Contentious by you guys [the media]!” said Gatland when asked if he felt that sense of vindication. “Isn’t it kind of funny that hindsight is a great thing?

“I thought our second rows were good and then Maro [Itoje] has given away a couple of stupid penalties, which can be costly. Courtney Lawes has come on and given us good impact.

New Zealand Rugby All Blacks Lions Gatland makes his way through the crowd in Wellington. Source: Mark Baker

“I thought the 10-12 combination caused them lots of problems. There’s no doubt that without Sonny Bill [Williams] there, it made it easier for them to cause problems and we went out of the back a little bit and broke behind them and created some difficulties.

“Then that short pass [from Sexton] to Jamie George when they were a little bit confused was a good decision. I thought that 10-12 combination went pretty well.”

The aforementioned Lawes did make a fine impact on the game, while Jack McGrath now has a strong claim to start at loosehead after steadying the ship following Mako Vunipola’s inevitable yellow card.

Kyle Sinckler was involved in the decisive moment of the game, but it was notable that Gatland did not send on Ken Owens, CJ Stander, Rhys Webb or Te’o from the bench, while Jack Nowell only had a short stint on the pitch.

Coaches are always quick to go to their bench when the game appears to be slipping beyond them, but Gatland backed his starters to eventually find the composure that had eluded them after Sonny Bill Williams’ red card, and again they delivered.

All in all, a very good night for Gatland and he sees the Lions continuing to grow.

“Certain factions have tried to divide us, but they haven’t been successful in doing that,” he said. “It’s been an incredibly united group of players. Everyone has been pushing each other on. You saw that in the celebrations in the changing room afterwards.

“You don’t get that unless you’ve got a group of guys that are proud of what has been achieved, not just the 23 but everyone in the squad.”

Source: The42 Rugby Show/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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