BRITISH and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has fanned the flames ahead of next summer’s tour of Australia by accusing his opponents of being masters of off-field chicanery.
Gatland, who was yesterday finally confirmed as Sir Ian McGeechan’s successor, warned that a Wallabies team who reached last year’s World Cup semi-finals would not be the only obstacle to a first series win since 1997.
The New Zealander, 48, cited an alleged intervention by Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O’Neill at the World Cup as an example of how the hosts might seek to influence referees in their favour.
“You’ve just got to handle it,” said Gatland. “They’re masters of it. John O’Neill is a master of influencing certain things. I don’t see any better example than how the [2011 World Cup] quarter-final between Australia and South Africa was influenced.
“I think – I’m not 100 per cent sure – but I think after Ireland beat Australia in their pool game, certain complaints were made about the referee, subtly or tactfully, and I think it had an impact on the quarter-final.
“You’ve got to be aware of what sort of things are going to be done on and off the field. I’m not decrying that, because I think what he did was absolutely outstanding for his nation. There’s going to be an orchestrated campaign in Australia to build them up and make it difficult for us.”
Wales coach Gatland, who will miss next year’s Six Nations campaign as he prepares for the three-Test tour, sympathised with but rejected claims the job should be the preserve of Britons or Irishmen.
Compatriot Graham Henry coached the Lions on their last trip to Australia in 2001, when they lost the series 2-1, but Gatland said his stints with Ireland and London Wasps had afforded him a “badge of honour”.
“I’m well aware of potential criticism that it should have been someone British or Irish, and I understand that. But I see myself as being a little bit different to that,” he added.
“Graham [Henry] had only been here a short period and then got appointed by the Lions; I’ve been coaching in the northern hemisphere for 23 years. I’ve lived and coached in Ireland, England and Wales. It’s given me great insight culturally. New Zealand still claim me as a coach but all my coaching has been in the northern hemisphere and I’ve learned a huge amount.”
Gatland, whose appointment was delayed while he recovered from two broken heels, said he hoped to have his backroom team, tipped to include his Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards and England forwards coach Graham Rowntree, in place before the autumn internationals.
Wales captain Sam Warburton is the early favourite for the armband, but Gatland insisted it was far too early to speculate on who would be in his squad of 34-35 players for the trip, which begins with a first ever tour match in Hong Kong against the Barbarians on 1 June.
LIONS ON TOUR
Sat Jun 1, Barabarians, Hong Kong
Wed Jun 5, Western Force, Perth
Sat Jun 8, Queensland Reds, Brisbane
Tue Jun 11, Combined Country, N’castle
Sat Jun 15, NSW Waratahs, Sydney
Tue Jun 18, Brumbies, Canberra
Sat Jun 22, Australia, Brisbane
Tue Jun 25, Melbourne Rebels, M’brne
Sat Jun 29, Australia, Melbourne
Sat Jul 6, Australia, Sydney
2009, South Africa, lost 2-1
2005, New Zealand, lost 3-0
2001, Australia, lost 2-1
1999, South Africa, won 2-1