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Warren Gatland sees Lions’ draw against All Blacks as next best thing to success

The Guardian logo The Guardian 09/07/2017 Andy Bull in Auckland
British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland demonstrated the benefit of having a deep understanding of the cultures of both the Lions and All Blacks teams. © PA British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland demonstrated the benefit of having a deep understanding of the cultures of both the Lions and All Blacks teams.

Warren Gatland lost his red nose somewhere along the way on Saturday night, but he did have a couple of black bags under his eyes on Sunday morning. He said he was feeling fresh, but you would not have guessed it to look at him. It had been “a pretty quiet night,” he said, “quiet for me, anyway.”

The players finished up at around 4am. Gatland did not let on how much sleep he had managed to get. Everyone has their own home remedy for a hangover, a cold shower, a hot breakfast, or some vitamin tablets and a couple of aspirin. Gatland did not need any of these. He was a happy man, proud with what he and his team had achieved – and that satisfaction was a better morning-after cure than any you can buy over the counter or whistle up in the kitchen.

Watch: Fair result in the end (Sky Sports)

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The Lions did not beat the All Blacks, but they came a hell of a lot closer to it than any other team that has been here over the past eight years. The New Zealanders seemed to see the draw as little better than a loss. Steve Hansen, in a telling slip of the tongue, even referred to it that way – “I don’t think goal-kicking is the only reason we lost the series” – but Gatland, on the other hand, reckoned it only a little less than a victory. “In terms of coming to New Zealand and playing the best team in the world in their own backyard it’s a pretty good achievement,” he said, with characteristic understatement. It was even better than that makes it sound, and he knows it.

Gatland has taken a beating these past few weeks. From the Kiwi press, yes, but also from angry fans back home, English convinced that he has a Welsh bias, Irish who figured a similar thing, the Welsh themselves, certain that more of their own players should have been in the starting XV, and the Scots, furious that so few of their fine team had made the tour.

Everyone has got an opinion on what the Lions coach is doing wrong. No wonder Graham Henry said it was the hardest job in world rugby. Excuse Gatland his self-satisfaction then, even if he was pushing it when he said: “I think if anyone else was doing it we might not have drawn the series.”

Lions v All Blacks player ratings - Third Test (Read Sport)

Lions' Player Ratings vs All Blacks- Third Test: The Lions were faced with a task that looked impossible, beating New Zealand at a ground where they have won 38 games in a row. Their last defeat at Eden Park was in 1994 against South Africa and having been beaten last week in Wellington, New Zealand were looking for vengeance.The first try came after Jordie Barrett knocked down Beauden Barrett’s crossfield kick to Ngani Laumape – who finished in the corner. After an excellent piece of linkup play between Laumape and Lienert-Brown the ball came to Jordie Barrett who went over for try number two. However, penalties from Farrell kept the Lions in touch.The second half started perfectly for the Lions with an Elliot Daly penalty making the score 12-9. Farrell then tied the game up with another 3 points but Barrett restored the All Blacks lead with 3 of his own. In the 78th minute, Farrell knocked over a penalty to tie the game up and it looked like a draw was secure but Poite gave a penalty to New Zealand following the restart. Luckily for the Lions the decision was reversed to a scrum and the after a few plays the final whistle blew.A thrilling series, closer than most expected, was drawn to a close with an anticlimactic ending but it would’ve been harsh for either team to lose. With that let’s look at how the players rated. Lions' Player Ratings vs All Blacks- Third Test

Well, he was certainly uniquely qualified for the job. He is the only head coach around with a deep understanding of both these teams, their qualities and cultures. He knows from experience, for instance, how important it is for the Lions midweek team to believe they can play their way into the Test XV, something both Liam Williams and Elliot Daly did over the course of the tour. But more than that, it was Gatland’s understanding of New Zealand that really showed. Long before the tour Sir Ian McGeechan told the Lions board that “you can’t hope to beat the All Blacks unless you understand the people and their culture, their way of life and attitude to rugby”.

So, as the tour manager, John Spencer, explained on Sunday: “We set a Kiwi to catch a Kiwi.” Gatland’s Waikato roots are so deep that he has said that if you cut him, he would bleed the team colours of red, yellow and black. “If you have some understanding of the culture you’re going to it gives you a massive advantage,” he said. “In the past people have come to New Zealand and haven’t been quite prepared about culturally what you’re facing.” He mentioned the singing the squad had done. Which might sound a silly thing to bring up, until you see what the great old All Black Bryan Williams had to say about it last week.

“I was there were in the meeting house at Waitangi that day, when the Lions sang what we call waiata. Four songs, one from each of the home unions, and everyone did it perfectly. Sometimes you see a group of guys doing that, and a few look bored, a few are uninterested, a few aren’t trying. I was watching them closely, because I’m a student of these things, and the Lions were impeccable. Every one of them. And that’s when I thought: ‘God, this team is going to be bloody hard to beat.’” They didn’t do all that choir practice just because they like the sound of their own voices.

For Gatland, the telling moment was the victory over the Maori All Blacks. “We heard afterwards that it was hard on the Maoris because they have only been together for 10 days and they hadn’t had much preparation time so we had to feel sorry for them.” He used remarks like these, he explained, to build up his players’ confidence. “There are strengths in New Zealand as a nation, in terms of the isolation and being so far away, and how that galvanises them to have a go at anything,” Gatland said. “But there can be cracks at times as well.” He saw more in Steve Hansen’s suggestion that “the sun would still come up tomorrow and it wouldn’t be the end of the world” if the All Blacks lost.

“Those are comments that you don’t hear very often coming out of the New Zealand camp,” Gatland said. “You think: ‘we can build from that.’ We could create confidence and self-belief because we’d earned that respect from them.”

Then there were the tactical changes Hansen made. Gatland argued that “the thing about the All Blacks is that they are the masters in the past of being the ones who never worry about an opposition” but he noticed this time that “they picked a team to combat some of our strengths and they don’t normally do those types of things”.

When you are playing the All Blacks, Gatland said, the biggest challenge is “getting 15 players on the field believing they are good enough to win”. Now, it is his biggest achievement, too.

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