Gatland will welcome 'Warrenball' critics, says All Blacks great Kirwan


Auckland (AFP)

All Blacks great John Kirwan has dismissed claims that British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland is one-dimensional, saying his former team-mate brings an "X-factor" to the touring squad.

Gatland's critics say his teams play "Warrenball", using big centres who burst into opposition territory and draw in defenders to create space for the backs.

But Kirwan, who played in the All Blacks with Gatland in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said such comments underestimated the Lions mentor's ability.

He said Gatland's record spoke for itself -- he led the Lions to victory over Australia in 2013, has won three Six Nations titles with Wales and enjoyed success at club level in Britain and New Zealand.

"You don't take the Lions to Australia and win, you don't win what Warren's won being one-dimensional," Kirwan told AFP.

"He'll be smiling behind closed doors going 'If you want to take me as one-dimensional, good luck'. Those of us that follow him certainly don't see him that way."

Kirwan, who scored 35 tries in 63 Test matches for the All Blacks, said having a Kiwi coach familiar with New Zealand rugby was a huge plus for the Lions.

"We've got an X-factor in the Lions with Warren Gatland... we've got a lot of respect for him," he said.

"We think he'll galvanise the side... up until the first Test I don't think he'll show all his cards. I think we'll see a big scrummaging, mauling, kicking game from the Lions.

"It's also important that they be physical, to make sure they can compete against New Zealand sides."

Kirwan said New Zealand's injury toll and their tendency to start Test series slowly were concerns.

"We've got guys who are coming back very close to the cut-off for the Test matches... if we're off our game by five percent that's going to be a huge challenge," he said.

"It's game on. Traditionally we're a little rusty in the first Test, so we've got to sort that out quickly. The Lions will have been together a lot longer."

- 'Pinnacle of sportsmanship' -

Kirwan still expects a New Zealand series win, although he said the Lions could push the world champions harder than many pundits are predicting.

"My All Black heart, the black blood that runs though my veins says 3-0," he said.

"My analytic brain says this is a very good Lions side, it's going to be close, possibly 2-1 to us.

"It's going to be a great series. I know the All Blacks are excited about it because they know it's a real test. It's got everything you need."

Kirwan played in the All Blacks' 2-1 series win in 1993 and said Lions tours, which come to New Zealand only once every 12 years, generate excitement comparable to the World Cup.

"We have our traditional foes, Australia and South Africa, but the British and Irish Lions is something special," he said.

"The best of the best from the northern hemisphere. It's big."

Up to 30,000 travelling Lions fans are in New Zealand for the tour and Kirwan said they create a unique atmosphere as they follow the team from venue to venue across the country.

"They're great, great supporters. They love to sing, they love to have a couple of beers, it's all very jovial.

"For me, it's the pinnacle of great sportsmanship. I think that's what we love about it the most in New Zealand."