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Gatland defends Lions after late loss

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 13/06/2017 Daniel Gilhooly
Warren Gatland. © Rex Images Warren Gatland.

Warren Gatland had hoped all the key lessons about playing New Zealand teams had been absorbed in a forgettable first week.

He's miffed not all of them were heeded in the 23-22 setback against the Highlanders in a Dunedin thriller.

Coach Gatland wasn't getting carried away with the criticism of his team but his comments suggest those players who dropped their standards over the closing stages in blowing a nine-point lead will have done their Test selection hopes a dis-service.

He will unveil what he calls a near-Test strength side on Thursday for this weekend's clash with a quality Maori All Blacks side in Rotorua.

Gatland wouldn't bite at suggestions that most of the players involved in the suffocating 12-3 defeat of the Crusaders will have their nose in front of the Dunedin group.

"The big lesson is that New Zealand sides keep playing for 80 minutes," Gatland said, harking back to the last-gasp nature of their other tour loss, to the Blues a week ago.

"With New Zealand teams, the message is to stay alive in every moment.

"If you switch off for a fraction of a second, they take advantage of you. We've just been caught on one or two occasions."

Gatland denied there is a gulf in quality developing between two distinct Lions teams, believing the team to face the Highlanders endured a more taxing build-up than the Crusaders conquerors.

He said the two games were also like chalk and cheese, with the nature of the slippery arm-wrestle in Christchurch a world apart from a hard, fast surface under the Dunedin roof.

He expects the Christchurch conditions to prevail for the rest of the tour.

Gatland rattled off a number of decisions made by Australian referee Angus Gardner which were contentious, particularly some late scrum interpretations.

However, he also didn't want his critique of the 12-7 penalty count to be seen as an excuse.

"If the Crusaders felt they were on the wrong side of a few decisions, we felt a little bit the same way tonight," he said.

"But that's rugby"

Gatland said accuracy let the tourists down, especially when it came to handling the Highlanders' trademark attacking kicking game.

"Some of our guys who are excellent in the air didn't retain possession. That stressed us a little bit.

"They seemed to have more success from their kicking strategy than we did."

The Kiwi coach gave a short, and telling, answer when asked if his bench players had provided sufficient impact over the crucial final quarter.

"We made the changes that we wanted to make," he replied.

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