British & Irish Lions Tour to Australia 2013
Gatland wary of Wallabies' word games
ESPN Staff
September 6, 2012
Australian Rugby Chairman and CEO John O'Neill addresses guests during the 'Built By Rugby, Forged in Union' season campaign launch discusssing the direction and future of Australian Rugby at the Museum of Contemporary Art on April 23, 2008 in Sydney, Australia.
Australian Rugby Union boss John O'Neill is a key figure on the international rugby stage © Getty Images

British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland is expecting a full scale assault both on and off the field when his side tackle the Wallabies next year - but his claims have been laughed off by Australian Rugby Union (ARU) boss John O'Neill.

Gatland, whose side will face the Wallabies in a three-Test series in the climax of their 10-game tour, is ready for a war of words and has launched pre-emptive strike by suggesting O'Neill, the ARU's managing director and chief executive, influenced New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence during last year's Rugby World Cup.

In the wake of Australia's shock loss to Ireland in the pool stages, Gatland has suggested that O'Neill's criticism of Lawrence's performance contributed to the Wallabies' subsequent quarter-final victory over South Africa.

Lawrence, who admitted to mistakes during the game with Ireland, was widely criticised for his handling of the latter clash due to a perceived bias towards Australia at the breakdown with Gatland believing that O'Neill's complaints were pivotal in proceedings.

"They are masters at it and possibly the best one was John O'Neill, as a master of influence in certain things," Gatland said. "I don't see any better example than how the (World Cup) quarter-final between South Africa and Australia was influenced. It was a master stroke.

"I'm not 100% sure, but I think that after Ireland beat Australia in that pool game, certain complaints were made about the referee (Lawrence), subtly and tactfully, and I think that had an impact on the quarter-final.

"We've got to be aware about what sort of things are going to be done on and off the field. I'm not decrying it - what he (O'Neill) did was absolutely outstanding for his nation."

Gatland is no stranger to such headline-grabbing outbursts himself notably lighting the fuse ahead of Wales' Six Nations clash with England last year by goading hooker Dylan Hartley with the suggestion he was a coward.

"I've got a huge amount of respect for what John O'Neill has done in terms of leading Australian sport - he's a master at what he does," added Gatland. "We've just got to be aware of what sort of things might be happening behind the scenes to put us off."

O'Neill has since rejected any suggestion that he influenced the result of a game and that he only made "inquiries about interpretations at the breakdown" following the Wallabies' defeat to Ireland.

"It's quite flattering for Warren to give us credit for influencing referees but the reality is we all know referees are beyond reproach," O'Neill told Australia's Daily Telegraph. "I would say we were a bit taken aback that Bryce Lawrence was given so many Wallabies games but ultimately, he did an outstanding job in the game against the Springboks."

The Lions' last visit to Australia in 2001 was also witness to such off-field jousting, with O'Neill behind an attempt to counter the 'sea of red' generated by thousands of fans supporting the tourists by handing out gold scarves and hats to Australia fans and Gatland is expecting more of the same.

"We're aware of the things off the field - giving out hats, jerseys and t-shirts, there's going to be an orchestrated campaign in Australia to build them up and potentially make things difficult for us," Gatland said.

O'Neill added further fuel to the flames by suggesting there may be a few surprises in store for the Lions. "The forthcoming Lions tour wouldn't be the same with a few theatrical distractions and the odd ambush. That's the nature of these Lions tours," O'Neill joked.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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