British and Irish Lions: Warren Gatland accuses New Zealand sides of deliberately blocking his players

Gatland has said the tactic is being subtly deployed against his side

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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland has accused teams in New Zealand of deliberately blocking after growing frustrated with the number of times his wide players have been obstructed during the Lions' tour.

Such a tactic appeared to reach a peak in the victory over the Maori All Blacks in which referee Jaco Peyper repeatedly warned the Maori captain, Ash Dixon, about defenders impeding the chasing Lions players, which ultimately led to the home side being penalised in the second half. 

Having called on his own players to produce a better performance when competing for the ball aerially, Gatland was left annoyed by the tactics being deployed against his side, though both Anthony Watson and Leigh Halfpenny were effective in securing high kicks or disrupting Maori possession.

“The frustrating thing for us is the amount of blocking that’s going on,” Gatland said in Hamilton on Sunday, ahead of the final warm-up match with the Chiefs before the first Test next Saturday. “The off-the-ball stuff, it makes it difficult to complete attacking opportunities and situations because there is so much happening off the ball in terms of holding players or subtly holding players. We’ve raised it with the ref already.

“When you go back and look at the tapes and look at all the stuff off the ball, where someone’s run a line or stopped someone getting through, some of it is very subtle. That’s made it difficult. It’s part of the game in New Zealand, all New Zealand teams at the moment are doing it.

“A few years ago people weren’t quite so subtle. They’re very, very subtle now.

“We’ll keep raising it. Because it was picked up on a couple of occasions last night they stopped doing it as much. That made it a lot easier for us to get up in the air and to compete.”

The Lions’ lack of tries on the tour has handed their critics – especially in the New Zealand media – plenty of ammunition to target them with during the first three weeks of the tour. However, the Lions showed definitive signs on Saturday that they have enough fire power, especially within the pack, to threaten the All Blacks.

The back line is also finally beginning to take shape, not least because Gatland confirmed Owen Farrell will be fit for the first Test on Saturday. With the Saracens fly-half due to partner scrum-half Conor Murray, it looks as though fans will not see the 10-12 partnership between Farrell and Johnny Sexton - at least until the Irishman comes off the replacements’ bench.

Gatland has accused New Zealand of blocking (Getty)

But the back-three remains a mystery, not least because of George North’s poor form out in New Zealand. While Anthony Watson looks to have cemented his place in the side on the right wing, and Halfpenny a certainty to start at full-back providing he overcomes a head knock suffered in a shoulder charge on Saturday, the left wing spot is up for grabs.

North has not shown anything close to his devastating form of 2013 so far on this tour, and while Gatland has been happy with his performances going forwards so far, he did admit some concern with the wing in defence, not least because it was his mistake in Rotorua that allowed Maori No 8 Liam Messam to score the opening try.

“One of the things with George is it’s a target for all our wingers to try and get 15 touches of the ball because it tends to make a difference,” added Gatland.

George North has struggled to recreate his form of 2013 (Getty Images)

“I think he has done alright going forward. I’d like to see him get his hands on the ball a bit more and use some of that footwork and power that he has going forward. We are going to have some quite lengthy debates in terms of finalising that back three.”

The Welsh wing’s ability to compete for the ball in the air has also come under close scrutiny on this tour, with North struggling somewhat to win possession off high kicks in the wins over the Crusaders and the Maori. While Gatland has no concerns about that, he does want North to prove that he is able to win the ball in the same areas that Watson and Halfpenny showed on Saturday.

“Its' important that he does get in the air and compete. The trouble is he didn't have the opportunity to get in the air. We know what potential he has, but he hasn't quite filled that at the moment and he is the sort of guy that can get a loose ball or break and can score from 60m. That's the potential he has.”