Warren Gatland delighted with win but expects strong Springboks backlash

‘They’ll be hurt from this because they’re an incredibly proud nation,’ says head coach

Warren Gatland took pleasure from a "really special" second half performance from the British & Irish Lions’ in their first Test against South Africa. Video: British and Irish Lions

 

Warren Gatland admitted after the British & Irish Lions’ win in the first Test over South Africa that the result could have gone either way, but took understandable satisfaction from knowing that whatever else, at a bare minimum his squad have ensured this Test series will go the distance.

The Lions head coach also pointed to the way his team defended throughout and particularly in the last phase of the match.

“We didn’t think that they created a lot of attacking opportunities and in that last passage of play, we were coming off the line and making big tackles and they weren’t going anywhere.

“They’ll be hurt from this because they’re an incredibly proud nation and world champions. Next week will be even bigger and tougher I would expect.

“From our point of view you win that first one and you know that no matter what happens, you’re going to the last weekend of the series. That keeps everyone engaged and really interested in it.

It wasn’t just about the 23, this is an incredibly tight group of players. The non-23 did a brilliant job this week in helping that Test 23 prepare. The victory was as much about them and the whole squad as the guys who took the field.”

Courtney Lawes goes past Pieter-Steph du Toit during the first Test in Cape Town. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Courtney Lawes goes past Pieter-Steph du Toit during the first Test in Cape Town. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Trailing 12-3 at the interval, Gatland conveyed the impression that the away dressingroom was quite calm.

The British & Irish Lions

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“We normally give the guys some time. We don’t go in with messages straight away. They rehydrate, take some fluids on, give them a bit of time to gather their thoughts and then the forwards and backs will meet as units.

“Then Steve Tandy will deliver something from defence and Gregor [Townsend/] will talk about attack stuff and I will finish with some points.

“The message for me was, ‘Look, we are still in this arm-wrestle even though we are down, just keep our composure. We will get some opportunities in the second half and when we do get some opportunities we spoke about, if we got an easy three points, let’s take the three points. If it was a bit wider or a little bit longer or a little bit closer to the touchline to put them into the corner and squeeze them that way’.”

So the decision to go to the corner for the crucial Luke Cowan-Dickie try at the start of the second-half had been discussed during the interval.

Asked if the decisions by the officials had leaned towards the Lions, Gatland merely said: “No.”

He was altogether more effusive, naturally, about the performances of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes.

“I thought both of them were outstanding. I thought Courtney Lawes carried exceptionally well, he was strong. The big thing was when we started to get some ball on the front foot. It just stopped a little bit of their line speed, we were able to play through some phases and we got some reward from that.

“I thought Maro was immense as well. Both of them had outstanding games and that was key for us really. I thought we made some good decisions about when to bring replacements on and they all had a big impact coming off the bench too. But definitely Courtney and Maro’s impact was significant.”

Jack Conan may have had a less flashy game, not getting too much ball in the wider channels, but he was the team’s leading carrier with a dozen carries for 45 metres, and still hasn’t missed a tackle in a Lions jersey.

“Jack did what he does do well, and the reason we picked him, he doesn’t make mistakes,” said Gatland. “He’s incredibly accurate, he takes those kick-offs, he’s got some good footwork, he’s got us some go-forward and does a lot of the unspectacular stuff that you need in a forward pack to get the balance right.

“You’ve got guys who carry a bit more and stuff, so we’re really pleased with his performance, and it was incredibly solid.

“He’s continued to improve and improve in this environment. He’s like a sponge in terms of gaining knowledge. He asks really good questions, he takes on information well and we’re really pleased with his development.

“I remember the first game he played he was incredibly nervous about the first hit-out and he’s one of those players who does get pretty nervy before a game but this week he seemed a lot calmer and a lot more assured, and I think that’s given him a lot of confidence and self-belief in his own performances.”

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