AUCKLAND (Reuters) - Warren Gatland is hoping his squad have secured the future of the British and Irish Lions and earned a little bit of respect for the way they have played the game on their tour of New Zealand.
The tour reaches its climax when Lions play the last of their 10 matches at Eden Park on Saturday, taking on the world champion All Blacks in a mouthwatering third test to decide who wins the series.
Just one other Lions team, Carwyn James’ 1971 side, have won a series in New Zealand and Gatland lobbied for a tour itinerary including matches against all five of the country’s Super Rugby sides so they would be battled hardened for the tests.
“This has been by far the hardest tour we have been on as coaches in terms of the hours we put in,” Gatland told reporters ahead of the series decider.
“Hopefully we get the result on Saturday and it’ll all be worth it.”
The itinerary was described by former Lions and All Blacks coach Graham Henry as ‘suicidal’ but it did work to an extent.
The Lions have gradually grown into the tour and losses to the Auckland Blues and Otago Highlanders as well as a draw against the Wellington Hurricanes have proved learning experiences.
Gatland admitted the Lions had been exposed to a faster pace of game in New Zealand and at times struggled with the speed and skill execution of local players, but thought those lessons could only improve the game back in Europe.
“I‘m sure when these guys go back to a club game in the UK and Ireland they’ll notice that it’s a hell of a lot slower there than it has been here,” he said.
“We have to take that back with us and transfer that knowledge and what we have learned for next season.”
Despite fears they would play the limited, physical game dubbed ‘Warrenball’ by Gatland’s critics, the Lions have shown in both tests that they have the capability to unleash their dangerous backline to stretch the All Blacks.
“I think we’ve played some good rugby,” Gatland added.
”People expected us to come here and kick the leather off it, drive every single lineout and try and scrummage people to death.
”We haven’t done that. We’ve played a good brand of rugby and people have been surprised.
“I’d like to think we’ll leave here with some respect for the way we have played (and) ... having earned the respect of the New Zealand public and secured the future of the Lions.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney