Maro Itoje charges into a tackle
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The conversations among Springbok supporters brunching in the glorious winter sunshine between Camps Bay to Green Point on Sunday no doubt reflected the half-time fears of millions of Lions supporters watching the game back at home on Saturday night.
“It is just like watching a rerun of the World Cup final in that first half,” was the killer comment. With the half-time score at 12-3 and the Springboks dominating the collisions and edging the scrum battle, it was easy to draw comparisons with England’s humiliating defeat in Yokohama in November 2019.
And yet in the place where it mattered most, inside the Lions changing room, the contrast in the mood could not have been starker. There was no sense of panic, no shouting, no ripping up of game plans.
Yes, the Lions had been guilty of handing momentum to the Springboks with their lack of discipline and been caught several times in the midfield trying to move the ball when the backline was not set properly.
But calmer analysis showed there were key differences with 2019. The Lions scrum had creaked but then steadied. Their line-out was rock solid. And, for all the ferocity of the Springboks’ defensive line-speed, the Lions also drew confidence from the fact that in the white heat moments, they had not been opened up.
“Often when you’re in that situation you have two choices – either continue what you’re doing and just watch the scoreboard get away from you, or put up your sleeves and try and turn it around,” said Maro Itoje, the Lions lock who was absolutely central to the tourists’ glorious second-half revival. “We tried to do the latter and fortunately for us it was successful.
“In the first half we came out with a decent intensity but not probably the intensity we needed to. But most importantly, or to our detriment, we were giving away a lot of silly penalties, we weren’t really being as disciplined as we needed to be. And the second half we just flipped it on its head, we came out with a higher intensity and we kept our discipline a lot more and as a result we were able to put more pressure on them.”
If Itoje’s words shed light on the ability of the Lions players to stay in the moment and tweak their game plan to turn the contest on its head, Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, was even calmer.
He could draw on his own experience as Wales head coach when his side narrowly lost to South Africa in the World Cup semi-finals and, with the extra firepower and attacking talent at his disposal on Saturday, he was not perturbed.
“It was about negating what strengths they have or trying to compete with those strengths – very strong set-piece and they kick an awful lot,” said Gatland.
Warren Gatland observes the warm-up ahead of kick off
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“They outkicked us a little bit [on Saturday] and one of the things with them, you try and make sure you don’t lose that kicking battle with South Africa.
“We saw in that first half where they kicked, we tried to shift the ball when we weren’t set and didn’t have enough depth and didn’t have the numbers to attack and they made a tackle and made a turnover and we conceded three points.
“That’s how they build their points, kicking, you play too many phases and they get a turnover at the breakdown and they kick three points and build the scoreboard.
“So your game management has to be really good during those periods because you’re not allowing them any soft ins or soft threes [points], and wait until you get that chance where you put them under that bit of pressure at the breakdown or the kick’s gone a bit too far and you get some go-forward… then you can shift the ball and be a bit more attacking-minded.
“So it’s just the players learning and understanding the situations. Second-half, I thought our management was excellent and our discipline was great.”
Itoje, for all the elation of the victory, knows that the Springboks will come even harder at them on Saturday. But the England lock insists there is another level to come from the Lions too. A student of the game, he is aware of the response of Australia in 2001 when the Lions won the opening Test in Brisbane, only to lose the next two Tests.
“There’s so much growth in this team,” added Itoje. “Game by game we’re getting better, we’re learning lessons so I think there is more to come from us but the onus is on us to look at what we’ve done.
“Obviously this was a great win but I’m a man who likes to look at history and see how other tours have unfolded. Looking at the 2001 Tests in Australia, they won the first Test quite convincingly and then went on to lose the next two. We’re happy but we know that we need to be better next week, stronger. The Springboks, we know they are coming.”
Gatland: South Africa will be ‘incredibly desperate’
By Daniel Schofield in Cape Town
Lions coach Warren Gatland heaped the pressure on an “incredibly desperate” South Africa side as he told his own squad to embrace the expectation of sealing a series victory on Saturday.
The Lions dominated the second half, overcoming a nine-point deficit in the 22-17 victory at the Cape Town Stadium. On Sunday night, the Lions coaches met to discuss whether the side needs freshening up before Gatland announces the team for the the second Test on Tuesday as the Lions look to seal their first series victory since 1997.
“(The victory) changes massively; you know you are here no matter what till the last week; probably relieves a bit of pressure but the expectation is still the same and the pressure reverts a little bit to South Africa because they are going to be incredibly desperate,” Gatland said.
“You’ve got to embrace that expectation. I said to the players beforehand, I get incredibly excited about these big games, finals and Test series, because I love seeing the desire of the top players; how much they want to win these big matches. There is expectation and we should embrace that expectation and expect ourselves to improve from the first Test. Hopefully, we will have won the series by next week.”
South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber has refused to blame the defeat on their Covid-19 outbreak that resulted in 14 players, including captain Siya Kolisi, testing positive. Since winning the World Cup in 2019, the Springboks have played just one Test match – against Georgia – coming into this series.
Asked if he believed South Africa will be in better shape within six days, Gatland seemed doubtful that they could match the Lions’ conditioning levels. “It’s quite hard in a week,” Gatland said. “To get conditioned from a running issue, you’ve got to be doing some extras and top-ups. We’ve been doing that throughout the whole tour. Guys have been up at 7am doing the RSH, which is the altitude bike sessions in groups. We’ve kept all the stats on that and presented that to the players on Thursday in terms of the improvement we’ve had from Jersey to where we are now. We’ve had a massive improvement in those scores.
“I explained to the guys that I was trying to put them in a state of fatigue. I wasn’t allowing much rest time. I was trying to stress them in terms of their decision-making and skills under pressure so when we came to Test weeks, we were hopefully a lot calmer and had got used to the pressure that would happen in an international match. During the Test week, you have some hard training sessions but it’s quite hard to top up from a conditioning point of view.”
Fly-half Dan Biggar is undergoing his Head Injury Assessment return-to-play protocols after sustaining a concussion and will not be able to train until Thursday while prop Wyn Jones is nursing a shoulder injury that ruled him out of the first Test. With so much at stake, Gatland insists he will not be afraid to change a winning formula.
“It’s really about letting things settle, and then going back and having another look at the game,” Gatland said. “Do we need to introduce a few people just to change things up a bit. I said that the selection was really tough. A lot of players put their hands up. Even the players in that ‘A’ game – that was a close contest which we could have won. A combination of a lot of the players in that game could have easily been in the side yesterday. We’ve got a meeting tonight as coaches. I don’t know if we’ll select the team; we’ll probably just talk about that.”
Even if the personnel change, Gatland expects more of the same from South Africa, almost daring them to change the set-piece orientated template that won them a World Cup. “If they bring a different type of gameplan we haven’t prepared for then they might catch us by surprise,” Gatland said. “We’ve been really happy with our set piece and they haven’t got anything out of it. That’s what they’ve relied on. They relied on that in the World Cup. To score a maul try against them was, I thought, a really telling moment for us.
“It is going to be pretty much the same – whether or not SA are a bit more expansive and try to play a little more rugby – that will be debatable. It is hard for them because they have a model that has been successful for them through a World Cup, they have had a lot of games – we will just wait and see.”