The Lions huffing and puffing their way past the Provincial Barbarians on Saturday did little to shake off the ominous pall that has set over the tourists ahead of their daunting trip to New Zealand. The absurdly packed schedule at the end of an exhausting season exacerbates what promises to be an extremely difficult tour, and the indifferent start in Whangarei ahead of the incipient onslaught from the Super Rugby sides offered little encouragement.
And the Lions face opponents beyond the rugby pitch.
Speaking ahead of the tour, Paul O'Connell told of the challenge of a partisan media:
I remember being down in New Zealand in 2005 and there was an editor from a paper speaking on one of the rugby shows and he was saying he felt it was just as much his job to get at us as it was a New Zealand player’s job. And this is the editor of a newspaper! So that’s what you’re going into.
Gatland has borne the brunt of that in the last couple of days, and has snapped already at criticism of his style of play, better known as Warrenball.
Warrenball (n.) denotes a style of play in the sport of rugby, with emphasis on a monstrous number 12 boshing through the middle of the field to gain ground, with little width put on the ball and variation in play. It doesn't earn the right to go wide as much as it pleads the fifth.
The Kiwi media have jumped on it, and Gats seems to have become exasperated at defending it. He dropped a couple of f-bombs under his breath today as he continued to have to defend it:
I kind of look and go, ‘Was is it when we were successful at Wasps or when I was coaching Waikato in the Air New Zealand Cup?’ I don’t know, when did a certain style change?
Look, a few years ago Brian Smith coined the phrase ‘Warrenball’ and I don’t know whether that was because he was jealous of how much success we had.
We had a group of players who came through Wales at the time who ended up being pretty big physical players.
The modern game of rugby is about getting across the gainline, trying to get front-foot ball and playing to space if that is possible.
Once this was finished, Gatland was overheard muttering under his breath:
Fuck I don't know why I have to fucking keep defending myself.
Assistant coach Rob Howley also dismissed the Warrenball tag, and instead promises "rugby chaos":
I don't know what Warrenball means, I haven't got a clue.
That's all I can say having been part of the Lions for what is now my third tour. I'm not too sure what Warrenball means.
We're still working on our foundations, on some principles of the way we want to play.
Having a framework where the players have the ability to play what's in front of them. Rugby is a game about speed of thought.
The players have really enjoyed the sessions we've been holding that we call rugby chaos, 15 against 15.
It's not solely the Kiwi media that have been critical of Gatland's style of play. Ahead of the tour, Shane Horgan fretted that Gatland would be the Lions "weakest link":
My worry is that this summer we could see two different philosophies: a group of players stretching themselves in the provincial games, and then the Test team reverting to type with a variation of Warrenball and the hope that Owen Farrell converts his kicks while Beauden Barrett misses.
If they go for the latter approach, they will lose. If they stick with the former, they may lose too but they will at least have given themsleves a chance. I'm not sure Gatland has the playbook and the tactical flexibility for this challenge.
In fact, I would be more confident if any of the other three home nation coaches were in charge.
So I ask myself: is Gatland the weakest link on the tour?
Gatland can start shutting people up tomorrow, from 8.35am Irish time.