Warren Gatland feeling the pain after Lions see series slip from their hands

Head coach picks out a few calls that went against his side in third Test

Lions head coach Warren Gatland: ‘There were some key moments and it was always going to be the bounce of the ball and really tight contests.’ Photograph: Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

Lions head coach Warren Gatland: ‘There were some key moments and it was always going to be the bounce of the ball and really tight contests.’ Photograph: Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

 

This one hurt. There was no shame in losing, and the Lions had died with their boots on, but in completing the southern hemisphere cycle as a head coach, Warren Gatland had signed off with a defeat which will gnaw at him all the way home to Hamilton in New Zealand and for some time to come.

It might almost have been easier to take had the Springboks won more commandingly, and even deservedly, but after a game of even more fine margins than normal, clearly the latter were swirling around in Gatland’s head.

“I’m disappointed obviously but I’m really proud of the effort the boys put in today. We went out there to be positive and play some rugby. We missed one or two chances and they kinda get a lucky bounce and score a try against the run of play, and a couple of 50/50 calls probably didn’t go our way.

“But it was a proper Test match, it was tough and physical and that’s what you want with a Lions series. It’s not going to be easy travelling away from home to play the world champions and they were really tight contests. We’re disappointed but it could have gone any way. Congratulations to South Africa.”

It didn’t help his mood that Gatland had been an assistant coach on the last Lions odyssey to South Africa in 2009 when Morné Steyn kicked the decisive penalty goal in the second Test to seal the series.

“It’s a bit of deja vu, isn’t it?” he said with a wry grin after history repeated itself, to a degree, but this was also his cue for what seemed like his many grievances, albeit one expressed without rancour.

Referee Mathieu Raynal was an assured and even calming presence on this third Test, which was an achievement in itself, but certainly most of the marginal decisions went against the Lions. Presumably Rassie Erasmus won’t be releasing an hour-long video this week.

“The penalty count was against us 15-12 and at this level, it’s so, so important,” Gatland added. “Your aim is to keep your penalties under 10 in international rugby and if you can do that, it makes a significant difference.

“We had a penalty our way and then the high shot from Finn Russell goes the other way; sort of big moments,” said Gatland of the important reversed penalty against Russell early in the second half after Cheslin Kolbe slipped into the tackle.

Then another sprung to Gatland’s mind in the first half.

“A two-on-one with Liam Williams and Josh Adams, he should have given the pass probably. You get one or two chances at this level and you’ve got to make the most of them because you’ve got to be clinical when they come around.”

That gnawing feeling wouldn’t go away.

“When you’re playing against the world champions, you know it’s going to be really tight contests with the bounce of a ball or a call or something. We have been held up over the line and then we get penalised at a scrum which is a little bit unlucky when you’re five metres out from their line.

“So from that point of view, there were some key moments and it was always going to be the bounce of the ball and really tight contests. The boys gave it 100 per cent and from a coaching point of view, you can’t ask for more than that.

“At half-time, we spoke about starting really well after half-time. We had a good first half and that was probably the most disappointing part of the game – that 10 minutes after half-time where we just got pinned a little bit in our own half and it took us a while to start generating momentum.”

For the vast majority of this matchday 23, this will be their last time in a Lions jersey, and for Gatland too, it may mark his final game with this unique brand and concept which has played such a big part of his life.

“It’s something that’s I’ll reflect on,” he said when asked if he might be involved again. “I’m incredibly proud of my involvement and I’ve been very, very fortunate.

“I’m very passionate about the Lions. I fly back to New Zealand tomorrow and start thinking about my role with the Chiefs.

“A long flight and then 14 days isolation in a hotel – that’s the least of what I’m looking forward to doing.

“It’s going to be tough having been in isolation already for the last eight weeks.

“So there’s another challenging couple of weeks ahead.

“And I think that time on my own will be a good chance to think what the next chapter of my life is going to be.

“I’m not someone who plans too far ahead, I’m a great believer in what will be will be.

“Other things will be on the horizon on the future, and other opportunities. What they will be I’m not sure. I haven’t got any long-term plans, so it’s just a bit of wait and see.

“The things about Lions tours is that they’re so intensive, not just for the players but for the staff and everything.

“Everyone needs a little bit of a break to refresh and to clear the minds and start thinking about what happens next.”

You wouldn’t envy him in his 14-day period of isolation, or the UK-based players who will have to do so in Jersey. At least the Irish players will be dropped off en route and can isolate in their homes. It’s been a losing end to a tough old gig.

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