WARREN GATLAND says his Lions players will need to be ready for a furious South African backlash when the two sides meet again in round two of this summer’s three match Test series next Saturday, but he is confident that the tourists have the capacity to take their game to the next level in response to that inevitable onslaught.
The Springboks will be desperate to make amends when the two teams return to Cape Town Stadium next weekend because falling 2-0 down in the series would be viewed as a national disaster by the hosts.
“Both teams will look at it and say it was the bounce of the ball and it could have gone any way,” said Gatland. “With a couple of referee calls as well, if they had been different that might have affected the result.
“They will be hurting from this because they are an incredibly proud nation and world champions, so next week is going to be even bigger and tougher, I would expect.
“We feel like there is a lot more in us, too,” he added. “From a conditioning side, we looked like we are just getting stronger and stronger, and able to keep the pace and intensity going for the whole 80 minutes, so that’s a really pleasing aspect of how we’ve worked over the last six weeks.”
Gatland also praised his players for the way they responded to a disappointing first a half in which they were outplayed in almost every facet of the game, to produce a much more disciplined performance after the break in which they attacked with real authority, defended rigorously and generally made the right tactical calls.
“The message at half-time was that we are still in the arm-wrestle,” he said. “If Dan Biggar had kicked that penalty just before the break it would have been 12-6. Instead, it was 12-3 but we knew we had given away quite a few soft penalties to allow them opportunities.
“So, we knew we just had to keep our patience because we would get chances. The key was not to panic – and as the second half went on, I thought we got stronger and stronger to get back into the game.
“We started to get some dominance in our forward carries, our try from the maul at the start of the second half was pretty important, and the scrum stabilised and then we started to get a bit of dominance there, too.
“Once we started to take them through some phases they conceded penalties, and if we didn’t get front-foot ball then it was about our game management and going to the air and we started to get a couple of balls back on our side, so they were big moments for us.
“We were also quite pleased with the way we defended, we don’t think they created a lot of attacking opportunities, and in that passage of play at the end we were coming off our line and making big tackles and they weren’t going anywhere.
“I thought the bench was great for us. I thought the impact of our bench was probably more significant than their bench was.
“From our point of view, you win that first one and you know that whatever happens you are going to that last game of the series, so that keeps everyone engaged and really interested in it.
“Any Lions Test victory is special. To beat the world champions first up in their own backyard is very, very special. For me, having been down points and been under a little bit of pressure, keeping our composure and fighting our way back into the game – that was the most pleasing thing. Just how strong we continued to grow in the game.”
The wily New Zealander also claimed that his remarks earlier this week about the Lions having dented the Springboks’ ego during their defeat to South Africa ‘A’ last week had achieved the desired effect.
“That comment was around hoping that they would just come harder at us in those areas because I didn’t really want them to vary their game too much,” he smiled.
“It wasn’t so much about us denting their ego but us getting confidence from certain aspects of the game, and I thought our line-out was excellent today and the scrum looked like it was under a bit of pressure at the start of the game but we eased into it and we ended up winning a couple of penalties.”
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Meanwhile, South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber said the result was a consequence of the Lions winning the aerial battle after the break and the Springboks losing their discipline, but insisted that the situation is salvageable.
“The kicking game was won by us in the first half and we got the rewards, but the second half was a different story,” he surmised. “They won that battle and it gave them territory advantage in broken field play and we had to scramble, and could not cope.”
“We were nine points up, so things were working for us – we were playing in the right areas. Our half-time talk was to step up at the breakdown and then our discipline fell away. We started to make mistakes, especially at maul time. We did not make the step-up needed when required.
“We can certainly salvage this. A proper review is needed, but we can sort it out, no doubt. It worked in the first half, and I believe what happened in the second half is fixable.”
Nienaber also stated that he had no issue with two Such African tries being disallowed by Television Match Official Marius Jonker.
“I completely trust the officials, that is their jobs, they are the professionals in that field,” he said. “They are in a better position and have many angles to look at. Sometimes these calls go against you, as we found out today. In the second half we had three try scoring opportunities, twice we were called back. Those are the small margins in this game.”