Owen Farrell’s last-gasp penalty sunk 14-man New Zealand in Wellington, with the Lions levelling the three-Test series at one win apiece.
Sonny Bill Williams’s red card hamstrung the hosts, but the Lions still only just finished the job thanks to tries from Taulupe Faletau and Conor Murray.
The New Zealand Herald caricatured Gatland as a clown last week, topping what the Lions boss had dubbed a “targeted campaign” against him.
And now the tourists’ head coach has revealed that flak helped the Lions build a siege mentality that proved crucial to their second Test triumph.
“There’s no doubt the last couple of weeks in terms of criticism and personal attacks has been a little tough to take,” said Gatland.
“That’s not so much for myself, but for family members and things.
“But ironically, Kiwis are probably the fairest people and the Kiwi public have shown me a lot of support.
“So whoever has been doing that, they have no idea how much that’s galvanised us as a group.
“The amount of support from Kiwis, ex-All Blacks contacting me to say that they think the personal stuff was over the top, it’s been a lot.
“There’s a huge proportion of Lions fans and Kiwis wanting us to do well because they think some of it has been unfair.
“It’s not working because it’s actually been great for us. So whoever’s been doing that, please continue.
“Certain factions have tried to divide us, but they haven’t managed it.
“We’ve just kept pushing each other, and urging each other on.
“You don’t get that special kind of bond and celebration of a win unless you’re a group of guys proud of what they’ve done.”
The Lions’ first win in New Zealand since 1993 sets up a winner-takes-all clash at Eden Park next weekend.
Gatland believes the Lions will be hugely boosted by their gritty showing in the tight-five, that atoned for a lacklustre pack effort in the 30-15 first Test defeat.
The Lions boss warned, however, that New Zealand will hit back with intense ferocity next weekend – citing the All Blacks’ response to their 40-29 loss to Ireland in Chicago on November 5 last year.
The All Blacks pitched up in Dublin two weeks after their Chicago loss and bludgeoned Ireland into submission 21-9 – and Gatland expects a similarly fearsome riposte from Steve Hansen’s men on Saturday.
“We take a huge amount of confidence that we stepped up physically,” said Gatland.
“But the red card is significant. It’s a significant loss of a key person for the All Blacks and we’re aware of that.
“And we know in the past historically what New Zealand teams are like when they lose.
“There’s no better example than Dublin after Chicago.
“We know we’re in for an almighty battle, but we’ve got belief and confidence.
“We’ve kept the All Blacks try-less, I don’t know the last time that happened; they haven’t really stressed us that much in attack.
“Hopefully there’s one hell of a Test match next week.”
Head coach Hansen said immediately after the match that the All Blacks would not contest centre Williams’s red card, for a head-high shoulder barge on Anthony Watson.
Williams subsequently received a four-week ban, and Hansen confirmed New Zealand would create no argument with that.
“If the ref says it’s a red card you don’t have anything to say,” said Hansen.
“It was one of those ones that could have been a yellow or a red (card), but the referee chose it to be a red, and you’ve got to live with it. Sonny didn’t use his arms, so he put himself at risk. Unfortunately he connected with young Anthony’s head, and put him at risk, and you don’t want that. So off you go.”
Williams was the first All Blacks player to be sent off in a Test match since Colin Meads against Scotland 50 years ago, only the third All Black of all-time and first in New Zealand, and the home side were eventually floored by a 77th-minute Farrell penalty.
It was New Zealand’s first home defeat since South Africa beat them in 2009, and their first against the Lions for 24 years.
Despite their one-man advantage, though, the Lions were almost made to pay for poor discipline, with All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett kicking seven penalties from 10 attempts, but second-half tries by No 8 Faletau and scrum-half Murray – plus 14 points from Farrell – saw them home.
Lions prop Mako Vunipola was sin-binned for a poor challenge on Barrett during the third quarter, and at one stage, the Lions conceded five kickable penalties during a 14-minute spell.
New Zealand’s 46-Test unbeaten record on home soil was eventually ended by the Lions amid wild scenes of celebration from their travelling fans.
New Zealand: Dagg, Naholo, Liernert-Brown, Williams, R Ioane, B. Barrett, A Smith, Moody, Taylor, Franks, Retallick, Whitelock, Kaino, Cane, Read.
Replacements: Harris, Crockett, Faumuina, S Barrett, A Savea, Perenara, Cruden, Lauampe.
British & Irish Lions: Williams, Watson, J Davies, Farrell, Daly, Sexton, Murray, Vunipola, George, Furlong, Itoje, Jones, Warburton, O’Brien, Faletau.
Replacements: Owens, McGrath, Sinckler, Lawes, Stander, Webb, Te’o, Nowell.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).