Warren Gatland has revealed he was “hurt” by Ireland star Sean O’Brien’s criticism of the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand.
Flanker O’Brien, a pivotal Lions figure during a pulsating drawn three-Test series against the All Blacks earlier this year, claimed in a podcast interview last month that the squad had been over-trained during Test match preparations.
O’Brien believes the Lions could have won the series 3-0, and he also aimed verbal fire at Lions assistant coach Rob Howley, who had responsibility for their attacking game, saying he struggled to get his message across and that Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell “drove everything” in attack during second Test week.
Gatland reacted to O’Brien for the first time on Monday and said: “I was disappointed. I have to be honest – It took a bit of the gloss off the Lions tour.
“I went,’ Phew!’ If he wanted to say something, then there is a different forum rather than being critical. No one has ever in the history of the game taken on a tour of that magnitude or difficulty.
“Did we learn as coaches from that experience? Would we have done some things differently? Of course we would. That’s part of coaching, part of the experience. If he was going to make some comments, then he could have done so in a different way.
“You watch how hard the coaches and the back-room staff worked on that tour and then to have someone come out and make a comment like that … it really, really did hurt.”
The head coach revealed he subsequently rang O’Brien to express his disappointment, adding that the player texted him saying he had been taken out of context. “I texted to say he could call me at any time, but I’ve not heard back from him,” Gatland added.
“The disappointing thing, I thought Sean’s comments were disrespectful to New Zealand, saying that we should have comfortably won the series 3-0. I don’t know what planet he is on, but I was on a different tour to him if he thought we should have won comfortably.
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“You take 41 players on tour and you are not going to keep everyone happy. There are going to be players disappointed, feeling they haven’t had a chance or an opportunity. I understand that. That’s the nature of professional sport.
“There is no doubt Sean O’Brien had a fantastic tour. He played exceptionally well. There is no doubt about his contribution on the playing field. He was excellent.
“In the changing room, as a voice, from a leadership point of view, he contributed extremely well. It’s only fair to acknowledge that. He was outstanding in the way that he did play and contribute.”
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Asked about O’Brien’s remarks on Howley, Gatland said: “You want to empower your most experienced players to take ownership, to take responsibility. When you coach a young side, you give them a lot of direction, a lot of information.
“The more experience they get, the more you pull back and allow them to take ownership. They are the guys playing the game on the field. Ironically, I see that as a compliment.
“That’s what good coaching is about, giving players the decision-making responsibility. You want them to take control of moves, tactics, calls and moves. It was disappointing highlighting one person.”