WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) British and Irish Lions rugby coach Warren Gatland came under heavy pressure ahead of the second test against New Zealand after admitting he deliberately didn’t use some bench players during Tuesday’s 31-31 draw with the Wellington-based Hurricanes.
The Lions led 23-7 at halftime and 31-17 midway through the second half before fading badly and conceding two late tries which allowed the Super Rugby champions to snatch a draw.
Gatland was asked at a news conference after the match why he had not made more use of his bench to replace players clearly tiring near the end of a physical match. He admitted the Lions’ coaching staff had decided beforehand that they would not use six replacements who were late additions to the Lions’ squad – except in the case of injuries.
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Gatland had been criticized in Britain for adding six players from the Wales and Scotland teams which were touring Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific to bring his squad up to a total of 46 players. His intention was to ensure he had two full squads and that members of his test side would not be required to act as replacements in midweek matches.
Critics at home complained Gatland’s decision to call on players who were close by – ahead of others in Britain who had narrowly missed selection in the initial tour part – had ”devalued” the Lions’ jersey.
Heeding those criticisms, Gatland named all six newcomers on the bench on Tuesday but decided with his assistants not to give them game time unless injuries occurred.
”Those players were called out as cover,” Gatland said. ”I know there was a lot being made of that … to protect as many of the test 23 as we could.
”If we didn’t have those players there tonight then we might have had players on the bench on Saturday (for the second test) who might have been exposed. So much was made about devaluing the jersey and those things so we made a decision to try to get through game with as many in the starting 15 as we could.”
Gatland said the decision was made among all of the Lions’ coaching staff and recognized public reservations about the players’ selection.
”You may have been a little bit more positive about bringing those players on fresh but so much was made of that,” he said. ”I understand people’s views. We made a collective decision that we’d make them injury replacements or as HIA (Head Injury Assessment) replacements.”
Gatland’s decision has drawn strong criticism from British media, piling new pressure on the New Zealand-born coach days out from the pivotal second test.
Former Lions flyhalf Stuart Barnes accused Gatland of weakness.
”His backtracking claiming a collective decision process based on overwhelming public opinion and media headlines reads as a sign of serious weakness,” Barnes said. ”I find it almost inconceivable that Gatland, such a tough and bloody-minded coach, has backtracked.”