Warren Gatland won the battle of wits in the First Test


As the dust settles on the Lions’ impressive victory in their First Test against South Africa, the focus is turning to their next meeting in Cape Town on July 31.

Having masterminded a storming comeback on Saturday – 12-3 down at the break, the Lions roared back to win 22-17 thanks to a battling try from Luke Cowan-Dickie and lethal kicking from Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell – Warren Gatland is now one win away from another historic series triumph.

To settle things in the Second Test, he will have to outsmart South African counterpart Jacques Nienaber once more.

Here’s how the two coaches compared at the weekend.

Team selection 

Of Gatland’s surprise selections only Ali Price was an unqualified success. Stuart Hogg spilt a couple of high balls and Jack Conan did not dominate from No 8, but both fared well overall. 

Luke Cowan-Dickie missed three lineouts while Elliot Daly never seemed to recover from a rib-crunching tackle by Lukhanyo Am. 

Much of the Springbok selection debate focused on props Ox Nche and Trevor Nyakane ahead of supposedly superior scrummagers Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe. 

The starters, however, were magnificent and gave the Springboks dominance in the scrum. Kwagga Smith at No 8 started well but faded badly in the second half 

Gatland 0-1 Nienaber

Use of Replacements

If your front row is dominant then why on earth would you replace them at half time? This is a question that Nienaber did not satisfactorily answer in the press conference. 

At that point in the match all 50-50 calls were going South Africa’s way at the scrum. With a new front-row unit, any subconscious bias in the mind of the referee disappeared and slowly the Lions turned the tables, helped by the introduction of their own bomb squad of Mako Vunipola, Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler. Owen Farrell and Conor Murray also helped the Lions control the game in the final quarter. 

Gatland 1-1 Nienaber

Tactical Adjustments 

There was no grand speech from Gatland or Alun Wyn Jone at half time. Instead the message was very much focused on the detail and especially on cutting out the ill-discipline. 

This message was received loud and clear by the Lions. Having conceded nine penalties in the first half, they only conceded one after the break. 

They also adjusted their kicking game, looking less for territory and focusing more on making their box kicks contestable. Both Price and Murray were on point here. 

As Gatland had alluded to in the build-up, the Springboks rarely deviated from the plan that won them the World Cup. They were reluctant to spread the ball and their wings Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi only touched it five times between them.

Gatland 2-1 Nienaber

Jacques Nienaber faces the press after the match

Credit: PA


The key decision in the match came just after half time when the Lions were trailing 12-3 and had a kickable penalty to bring them back to within a score. Jones, however, opted for the corner. 

Luke Cowan-Dickie hit his jumper in Courtney Lawes and then showed up at the back of a picture-perfect maul to give the Lions the ideal start to the half. 

Jones’ decision was informed by a message from Gatland at half time. “We said when we do get a chance to out them under pressure by kicking into the 22, let’s look at doing that,” Gatland said. 

South Africa, by contrast, rarely chanced their arm. In the 64th minute and trailing 19-17, the Springboks opted to kick to go from a penalty from 40m out on the angle rather than emulate the Lions in going for the corner. 

Gatland 3-1 Nienaber

Mind games

The target of the tit-for-tat exchanges between Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks director of rugby, and Warren Gatland were not really each other, but the officials. 

Both wanted to get in the minds of the referee and, in Gatland’s case, the South African television match official Marius Jonker. 

We will never know for sure whether the implications of home-town bias had an effect, but we do know that the Lions benefited from some very tight calls. 

Damian de Allende and Willie Le Roux both had tries disallowed while Hamish Watson was incredibly fortunate to escape punishment for a possible spear tackle on Le Roux. Gatland also had the last laugh about the Springboks’ “dented ego” despite losing 17-13 to South Africa A.

Gatland 4-1 Nienaber