Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland
WHILE AFFAIRS ON the pitch at Eden Park on Saturday promise to be thrilling, the build-up off the pitch has been entertaining and full of bite.
Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland have not been afraid to get stuck into each other and after the Lions head coach and All Blacks boss named their starting XVs for the weekend, they took the latest opportunity for some verbal sparring.
Refereeing has suddenly become a hot topic this week – surprise, surprise – with Gatland putting pressure on the match officials to clamp down on what he sees as the All Blacks’ illegal blocking of kick chasers off the ball.
Asked about Gatland’s suggestion today, Hansen said he wouldn’t be getting into making statements about what referee Jaco Peyper should be looking out for in the first Test and indirectly accused the Lions boss of bullying.
“If I talk to you about it, then I am applying pressure and that is comparable to bullying him [Peyper], so I don’t want to do that,” said Hansen. “I’ll just quietly talk to him on Friday.
“There is no point in trying to bully the referees publicly in the media. We will talk about it in private and he will get his interpretations across of what he wants and it will be up to us and go out and deliver that.”
Speaking specifically on the blocking issue, Hansen told Gatland to look at his own side.
“As long as you don’t change your direction of running, you’re entitled to run back and help your team-mate. But if you run five metres to get in front of someone, in that case Gats is quite right.
“It happens every week. If you look at the Samoa game, that happened to us. I’m sure if Warren was willing and able to look at his own team closely, they probably do it too.”
Over in QBE Stadium around an hour later, Gatland was asked about Hansen having another cut at him and, after a brief pause, that familiar mischievous grin broke across his face.
Last weekend, Gatland stated his belief that Hansen was only baiting him because the All Blacks are worried about the Lions, but today Gatland said he has had enough of the off-the-pitch chat.
Nonetheless, he did get another sly dig of his own in.
“If I’m getting up his nose that’s a nice position to be in,” said Gatland. “I’m not worried about Steve, he can say whatever he likes. I’m not worried about Steve at all.
“We’ve got ourselves to prepare, we know it’s going to be a tough encounter.
“Let’s let the rugby do the talking because there’s been enough trash talking already. Let’s get excited about what could be a fantastic Test series. A couple of sideline things have taken the focus away from that.
“The welcome and the hospitality here in New Zealand has been awesome. I’m getting a different message from our squad of players from sometimes what’s being reported in the media.”
And back over at the Heritage Hotel in downtown Auckland, Hansen was asked how his state of mind was ahead of the first Test.
Worried, as Gatland had suggested?
“Pretty cool, calm and excited,” said Hansen.
“Worry is a wasted emotion because if the thing you’re worrying about has happened, you need to fix it, so there’s no point worrying about it. And if it hasn’t happened, then get a plan so you don’t have to worry about it.
“But that’s good feedback from Warren. I appreciate it.”
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