Warren Gatland: ‘It was as close to a Test match as you’re going to get’

Lions coach believes tough game against South Africa A will stand to his side

Lions centre Bundee Aki  in action during the game against  South Africa A at Cape Town Stadium. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images

Lions centre Bundee Aki in action during the game against South Africa A at Cape Town Stadium. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images

 

Warren Gatland remained bullish after the first defeat of the British & Irish Lions tour, maintaining that the step up in intensity and physicality against the South African A side was exactly what they needed.

“It will be good for us building in the next 10 days towards that first Test. In fairness to South Africa they started well and they were very physical at the breakdown, and we came to terms with that.

“So I’m proud of the boys coming from 17-3 down, to come back and finish so strongly in the second half. I thought we finished over the top of them. But it just goes to show that these Test matches are going to be a real arm wrestle, and that’s what it was this evening. It was as close to a Test match as you’re going to get.”

While the Lions defeat was disappointing, judging by the reaction of their players and Gatland they seemed quite willing to take it on the chin, believing that this will have been more beneficial than running up another half-century or more in another pre-Test series romp.

Lions flanker Tom Curry is tackled by Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg of South Africa A. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Lions flanker Tom Curry is tackled by Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg of South Africa A. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

That said, Gatland added to the pre-Test mind games when observing: “We probably didn’t learn a huge amount from South Africa because they did a lot of the things that we expected.

“They kicked a lot, [there was] a lot of box-kicking, very aggressive and direct with their running, particularly in that first half, but what I was pleased about was our set-piece.

“I thought we scrummed outstandingly well, I thought we defended their mauls particularly well. There’s a few things we need to brush up on in terms of accuracy. We got over the line a couple of times and had a couple of tries disallowed, and we felt when we looked back on it we had a chargedown where they scored and we’ve allowed [Cheslin] Kolbe to have a little bit of space from a kick where we felt on reflection we probably should have box-kicked rather than kicking to the openside.

“Those are things we can fix up and make sure we don’t give them those chances and opportunities. We’ve done that in a few games, so there will be a lot of learning from that.”

Gatland also had no issues with Conor Murray and the team leaders opting for three successive tapped penalties on half-time rather than, say, a scrum when the home side were reduced to 13 players.

“I was happy with the players and decisions. I think the fact we decided to tap and go, we wanted to work on that element of the game and physicality to use from an attacking perspective.

“I thought we were pretty unlucky just before half-time that we didn’t get a try awarded. He’d given a try as his on-field decision and it was overturned by the TMO. If that had been awarded, it would have been 100 per cent the right decision. You’ve got to back the players to make the right calls and the right decisions. I thought he did a very good job during the week in terms of leading the side. I was very happy with how he did that and pretty happy with his performance also.”

Murray, who said he had no quibbles whatsoever with Alun Wyn Jones resuming as tour captain, also took a positive spin on the game.

“We needed a hit out against a strong side, the physicality was a different level tonight. We learned a lot of things,

“But we can be proud, we came back from 17-3 down and corrected things in the second half. It was really physical, we haven’t come up against that yet on this tour and the breakdown will be huge in this series.

“The loss doesn’t mean a lot, we can learn from the first half, that if we start slowly against this side we will lose.”

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