Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Lions coach Warren Gatland is clowning around

Lions coach Warren Gatland as captured by Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson.
Lions coach Warren Gatland as captured by Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson.

Warren Gatland broke a couple of legs during one of his visits home to New Zealand. Now he's pulling ours.

On one hand, there are terrific signs of life from the newly appointed Lions coach who has just taken a pop at New Zealanders who have taken a pop at the Aussies.

Gatland needs to be a strong and dominant leader if his Lions are to succeed and/or be competitive here next year. We all want a great series, not a hometown walkover. Gatland lacked a certian combativeness when he was here with Wales this year. He may need to indulge in mind games next time.

That Wales' Kiwi coach is willing to have a go at the New Zealand crowds and media is great, even if it is to satisfy his British media mates.

His targets are those who continue to boo Quade Cooper, and the Herald for the now-famous Michael Cheika clown cartoon.

Rugby needs to be more outspoken. But you also have to guffaw in this case.

"One of the things I was proud of as a Kiwi was showing humility. The All Blacks try to do that but there's a proportion of New Zealanders that have a little bit of arrogance and not humility," Gatland reckoned.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While Gatland sees humble All Blacks, opponents down the years have seen what has been referred to as the "unsmiling giants". I'm not so sure that teams around the world viewed characters like Sean Fitzpatrick - a terrific bloke when you meet him - as overly humble on the field.

And Wallaby great Phil Kearns' attacks on our top players, for failing to acknowledge opponents' efforts, paint a different picture to Gatland's.

Look, this isn't a personal attack. But I know plenty of people who have dealt with the likes of Gary Whetton - a key figure in the game during Gatland's playing days - who would struggle with the humility description. There have been times when the leading All Blacks were completely up themselves, no matter what their public image was. Recent incidents involving top players reek of arrogance.

And the game itself has a sense of entitlement - one which is often satisfied by the public purse holders - which drives a lot of us and other sports crazy. Former All Black Gatland put his pop gun away when it came to the whole truth - the old players' mafia code is obviously well in place.

Beyond that, having the affable Gatland turn outspoken opponent will help build up anticipation of a great Lions tour. But really? Rugby? All Blacks? Humble? Come on Gatty. Pull the other one.

***

This column has regularly attacked rugby union as an old boys club which treats Pacific Islands rugby with something close to contempt. But the union mob are saints compared to league's treatment of smaller nations.

The Four Nations tournament in England scores highly on the cringe scale when you look past the terrific opening clash between New Zealand and the hosts.

Australia's massive win over Scotland brought the truth home. There is no such thing as Scottish league - they are a pretence. Scotland raked up Aussies like Lachlan Coote the way kids create pick-up teams in the playground. This tournament would have had far more credibility and excitement if the mighty Samoan centre BJ Leilua and co. were involved.

How on earth did a fake team called Scotland get a place, ahead of Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and even France. Scotland were rated as 250 - 1 outsiders, which is putting it nicely. It's hard to know what league is even trying to achieve by their inclusion. France has serious league history, and a Super League team.

The demise of PNG as a unique part of international league is one of the saddest things you will witness in world sport. Something special has been lost. PNG league needed nurturing, treasuring. Instead, blinkered corporatisation swept PNG off the map.

Old Kiwis will give you wonderfully exotic stories about visits there, as did the touring English press years ago having landed in Auckland fresh from Port Moresby. PNG is the only country where league is the national sport. The PNG people are absolutely mad for the game, as any NRL star who has been mobbed by their fans will tell you.

The major countries used to be regular visitors there, but this dried up decades ago.

Nowadays, league pretends to creep around the globe, while ignoring its own doorstep. Teams like Samoa and Tonga get some encouragement but it is scant. And the treatment of PNG in particular borders on racism, or certainly colonialism, when you see Scotland's Bravehearts created out of highland air.

The PNG Hunters are one of the better teams in the Queensland Super Cup, so league has at least given their players and fans something to aspire to and follow. But it is tokenism. And league in Europe was a far more honest business when teams called Great Britain - foolishly disbanded in 2008 - and France led the way.

***

The time is right for Steven Adams to play for New Zealand, now that his future is assured with a four year Oklahoma City contract. It should be game on - basketball is on an amazing roll, and the Tall Blacks will draw attention like never before.

Adams got it dead right, putting his career in America first rather than also dabbling with internationals. The rise of the $142m man to the top echelons of NBA basketball is a stunning story. And it's wonderful to read about the noble intentions Adams has for his millions, including creating New Zealand basketball camps.

Adams found mentors, worked hard, used his physical advantages, and escaped the wrong side of the tracks. His influence on New Zealand basketball will be immense, and could be a massive game changer for a sport with such unexplored potential. But I've got to add that the size of these professional sports contracts are sickening when you consider the state of the planet, the unequal distribution of resources.

- NZ Herald

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