and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland began the mind games early ahead
of next year's tour of New Zealand by accusing the world champions' fans
of being arrogant.
The 53-year-old New Zealander - who is renowned for being a master
at psychological warfare - said the fans berating of Australian
flyhalf Quade Cooper in a Rugby Championship match last
month was embarrassing.
"As a Kiwi, I was embarrassed," said Gatland, who made the remarks
shortly after he told reporters he didn't want his words twisted and
published accordingly as he would then stop talking to the media.
"There was still a large portion of the crowd booing (Australia’s) Quade Cooper. Get over it."
Cooper has never been forgiven by the All Blacks fans for pushing
their icon Richie McCaw in a match six years ago and he exacerbated his
image as a villain when he caught the same player with his knee in
Gatland, who guided the Lions to a 2-1 series win over Australia in
2013, also took a dim view of the New Zealand newspaper that put a made
up photo of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika adorned with a clown's nose
and the headline 'Send in the clowns' on the morning of the match.
Both Cheika and captain Stephen Moore lambasted the paper for a lack of respect, a view widely held globally.
"You can be proud but you've still got to show humility and respect," he said.
"In the past New Zealanders have prided ourselves on that and been humble about the success of the rugby team.
"It was the first time that I've sat there and thought, 'We’re better than this'.
"I don’t think the All Blacks are doing that."
Gatland, who has stood down from his role as head coach of Wales
while he prepares for the Lions tour, is bidding to become just the
second coach, after Welshman Carwyn James in 1971, to steer the Lions to
a series win over the All Blacks.
The former top class hooker, who never won a cap for the All Blacks
as he played second fiddle to the legendary Sean Fitzpatrick, says the
world champions have raised their game even since beating Australia in
last year's World Cup final.
However, the former Wasps and Ireland handler says he has taken heart
from the way Wales performed in a three Test series earlier this year
in New Zealand.
"From a Welsh perspective, we have shown that we can compete for 60 minutes and look OK," said Gatland.
"We have often commented if we get four or five injuries in Wales we start to struggle a little in terms of the back-up.
"The beauty and the great thing about the Lions is the depth that you have got to choose from.
"That’s what’s exciting about it, being able to pick not just a XV,
but a 23 and a good back-up as well to cope with injuries but also
hopefully have the armoury on the pitch and the bench to compete with
Gatland, who could also choose another Kiwi as skipper in England's
captain Dylan Hartley, will hope his squad stays fit and healthy as they
face a demanding tour on all fronts.
The three-Test series against the All Blacks will be the culmination
of a 10-fixture tour that includes five games against Super Rugby
opposition and a clash with the Maoris.
Adding to his problems is a fixture pile-up domestically.
The Lions' first match in New Zealand takes place early in June, just
a week after the English Premiership and Celtic League finals.
With many potential squad members set to be involved in those
matches, the Lions coach will have reduced preparation time with key
players prior to the Tests.
Warren Gatland (Getty Images)