ROB HOWLEY has branded New Zealand media criticism of British and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland as “an absolute disgrace.”
Lions assistant Howley also said he has “got no doubt” that New Zealander Gatland is a future All Blacks head coach ahead of Saturday’s Test series decider.
Gatland was portrayed as a cartoon clown in the New Zealand Herald newspaper between the first and second Tests, but he will have the last laugh if the Lions win at Eden Park.
The Lions have not won a Test series against New Zealand since 1971, while the All Blacks last suffered successive home defeats 19 years ago.
“The way Warren Gatland’s been treated, absolutely, it has been a disgrace, hasn’t it? It’s an absolute disgrace,” Howley said.
“We all love sport and rugby. You can be critical of technical or tactical elements of the Lions or New Zealand, but when that becomes personal criticism I think it is stepping over the mark, and that has happened over the last four weeks of the tour.
“We are certainly aware of the New Zealand media and how they’ve portrayed certain personnel over the last couple of weeks. It’s disgraceful, isn’t it?
“It’s not nice in terms of your family. I’ve had some element of that when I’ve stepped up as head coach (of Wales), but it’s not for me to comment on that.
“What we are commenting on is the way Warren Gatland has been treated by the New Zealand media, his own media, really. He’s a Kiwi.
“You have to applaud what Warren Gatland has achieved as a Kiwi in the northern hemisphere – and I’ve no doubt what he will achieve when he comes back to New Zealand as well.
“He is probably one of the best coaches in world rugby at this moment in time.
“Even over the last six or seven weeks, he has been relaxed and chilled. Obviously, there’s been moments away from us, when he’s had a conversation with Trudi (Gatland’s wife) and the family, but the one thing is that his perception to the players has never changed.
“He has always been in control, he’s always known what he has wanted. Hopefully, we will see the benefits of that on Saturday.”
Howley said he views Gatland, whose contract as Wales boss expires after the 2019 World Cup, in the same light as four-time Lions head coach Sir Ian McGeechan.
Asked if he thought Gatland would be All Blacks head coach at some point, Howley added: “Yes, I have got no doubt he will be.
“I have learnt hugely from Warren Gatland. He has been unbelievable. I learnt more as a player (at Wasps) when I was coached by Warren Gatland at the age of 31 than by any other coach.
“He understands the games, he understands players, and I think that is the biggest asset that he’s got.
“He understands what players are, because whenever he makes a decision, he always remembers when he was a player, and I think his time behind Sean Fitzpatrick on the (All Blacks) bench served him pretty well in terms of his thought process and what he is able now to talk to players about.”
Gatland will emulate Welshman Carwyn James as only the second Lions head coach to mastermind a series triumph in New Zealand if the Lions can follow up last weekend’s victory in Wellington with another success.
It would represent a remarkable achievement – one of the greatest in British sporting history – and come just 12 years after the Lions suffered a series whitewash in New Zealand, conceding an aggregate of 107 points.
“The players’ work-rate and ethic has been fantastic, and we have got to the point now where we are saying ‘wow, we are in a good place and looking to challenge the best side in world rugby,’” Howley said.
“We want to play rugby in the right areas on Saturday, we want to play ball in hand. That has been the same message and the same mindset and intent from the day we got together in Cardiff back in May.
“Hopefully, that will continue. But in saying that, if it’s a 3-0 win, happy days!”
Prince William has written a personal good luck message to Gatland.
The Lions have displayed the letter in their team room ahead of their Eden Park showdown with the All Blacks as the messages of support have flooded in.
Tour manager John Spencer has revealed that the only Lions squad to win a Test series in New Zealand, the 1971 tourists, are desperate for the class of 2017 to eclipse their legacy.
Spencer was part of that victorious 1971 group and admitted he has received a glut of text messages telling the current squad to rewrite the history books. “So many people have been wishing us good luck and we’ve even had a letter from Prince William,” said Spencer.
“It was just saying that the country is behind us and that everybody is watching.
“It has been put up in the team room. It was addressed to Warren from the Prince.”
Heroes of the 1971 squad, such as Gareth Edwards, Barry John, David Duckham, JPR Williams and Willie John McBride, have all been in direct contact with Spencer to urge Gatland’s men to complete an against-the-odds series win this weekend.
“We’ve had messages from all the home unions, and many of the 1971 squad have been texting and just basically saying ‘get this monkey off our back’,” said Spencer.