He may well bristle at the suggestion of a one dimensional ‘Warren Ball’ approach but he deserves much of the criticism.
The rest must go to Rob Howley, the unimaginative ‘backline skills’ coach whose paws were all over the Lions’ performance in Auckland.
I wrote a number of weeks ago that the Lions had a real shot at winning the series in New Zealand providing Gatland selected a play maker, Owen Farrell at 12.
My reasoning for that centred around the fact that you can’t beat the All Blacks by only scoring six penalties. Nor can you hope to defend the midfield for 80 minutes without line breaks and off-loads splitting the game open.
As is now clear, the Lions cannot even do that against Auckland.
Yet Gatland has so far persisted with a highly defensive set up at 12 and 13. In the first tour match, he selected Ben Te’o and Jamie Joseph. Against the Blues he started with the Irish combination of Henshaw and Payne.
Even when Sexton struggled with pressure from the opposing defence against the Provincial Barbarians and struggled to find his rhythm, Gatland responded by replacing him rather than sending on Farrell at 12 in support.
Farrell has played at 12 for England extensively now and proven a perfect foil for George Ford, a player far less accomplished than Sexton at this stage.
Compounding all of those selection decisions have been the conservative, up and under tactics employed by the backline in general.
All signs now point towards a Te’o and Davies combination for the first Test.
This safety first approach by the Lions coaching set up, seems designed to limit damage rather than do any damage. It is no better than the old school dinosaurs in the English rugby media complaining about the Lions turning down ‘three points’ during live commentary.
You will not beat the All Blacks by strangling them or kicking penalties. You will only lose by less.
Gatland’s now infamous response to the ‘Warren Ball’ questions at his recent Lions’ media conference was both surprising and revealing.
Not only did he chose to take the bait, he took it and then floundered with his explanation and defence.
First he denied that ‘Warren Ball’ was his style before seemingly admitting that he played directly because of the personnel available to Wales over the past ten years. Then he rounded it all off by talking about getting over the gain line and moving the ball to ‘space’.
For all the irritation and indignation wrapped up in Gatland’s spirited but ill-advised self-defence, he seemed to merely confirm that yes, he does like to play the game with a big 12 who gets over the gain line and doesn’t distribute allot.
That may be all well and good if you have a Nonu or Sonny-Bill at your disposal. But Jamie Roberts is not Nonu. Henshaw is not Sonny Bill Williams. Nor is Te’o for that matter.
As much as Eddie Jones irritates most of us at one point or another, his comment that it’s tough to beat New Zealand with big gain line runners alone was spot on.
Gatland is approaching the All Blacks as if they are South Africa or Australia. When was the last time a Kiwi side was bludgeoned to death in the midfield? How often do New Zealand score less than 20 points or get beaten by a side that scores only one or two tries?
The Welsh side coached by Gatland at the 2015 Rugby World Cup couldn’t even break a 13-man Wallaby defence. Why? Because Gatland and Howley hadn’t coached a Plan B and their players battered away directly without distributing and spreading the undermanned opposition.
Why have Gatland and Howley not learnt lessons from recent experiences? Continuing to dine out on the Welsh success of 5-10 years ago is foolish in the extreme. They may as well call Jamie Roberts in Tonga right now and employ his as a backline consultant.
The positive coming out of the Auckland game was that the Lions pack seems ready to at least get parity with the All Blacks. In fact the Lions will probably better the All Blacks up front, especially if Kieran Read is under done and Dane Coles is unable to recover from concussion.
But we always knew the Lions would compete in the forwards. And unless Gatland changes tack quickly, Kiwis will be saying they always knew the Lions’ backs would be no match.
The old saying that forwards decide who wins a game and backs by how much may just be flipped on its head during this series.