On the eve of his first Test as a coach to the British & Irish Lions, Warren Gatland has given his verdict on the battles ahead and his views of the Springboks.
“A Lions Test in South Africa definitely rates up there as one of the biggest occasions in my coaching career. When you see so many supporters out here you realise it is a huge occasion,” said Gatland.
“But we are here as a group, players, management and medical team, to win a series. I’ve said all along I’ve been incredibly privileged to be a part of this tour.
“When we first joined up it was the first time I’d actually got a buzz that reminded me of how I felt as a player with the All Blacks. There is so much about the history and traditions of the Lions.
“There’s a lot of pressure on us, a lot of people wanting us to do well. We’ve got the best players to chose from, players that are incredibly motivated to perform well when they put on their jersey.
“Paul O’Connell summed it up on day one – he’s a proud Munsterman, a proud Irishman and at the pinnacle of his career, yet he is putting a Lions jersey on tomorrow and that is the pinnacle for him.”
Here are Gatland’s thoughts on the game.
THE SPRINGBOKS AS FAVOURITES
The Springboks are the best team in the world at the moment. They are the world champions, they were undefeated in their Autumn Series and they are a very settled side. They have a lot of experience, a team with a huge number of caps. From that point of view you’ve got to talk yourself up a bit and go into the game with a huge amount of confidence.
MOBILITY THE KEY FOR THE LIONS
If we get involved in a set piece battle, a real physical one-on-one confrontation, I think that is something the South African’s would enjoy. They are very good at that. So we’ve gone for mobility. We’ve got to move their pack around, try and play through lots of phases and ask some questions of their tight five. That’s very much the plan we are going into the game with.
IMPORTANCE OF THE REFEREE
We are just looking for clarity and consistency from the referees in their interpretation of the breakdown. In each game we’ve found there has been a difference in interpretation and during the games we’ve had to adapt depending on the ways the referee has controlled that particular area.
I know that during the ELVs in Super 14 there was less respect for the breakdown because the sanction was only a free kick. Now it’s a full on penalty which could result in three points. We are just hoping that the ref is going to be really strong in that area and to get a bit of space and let both teams play some pretty positive rugby.
We me Bryce Lawrence on Thursday night and I think he wants both teams to be very positive at the breakdown – he wants a contest there. If that doesn’t happen then he will have to take things into his own hands. He has put the pressure back on us to try and play as positively as we can and we are more than happy with that interpretation.
ARE THE SPRINGBOKS UNDERCOOKED?
There is always that unknown quantity in terms of the first game of any series. We can take a lot of confidence out of France’s performance last week against the All Blacks. Traditionally it’s normally the first Test in which you do get an opportunity to catch the home team a little underdone. I know they are talking about being prepared, being ready for it and not being underdone. But we’ve got six games under our belt now and a lot of training sessions. So we’ve got to go into this first Test with some confidence and self-belief. We’re expecting them to really come out and be very physical from the start. I think the South Africans’ are very proud of their rugby heritage and tradition and they will be reminded of what happened in 1997. They definitely won’t want a repeat of that.
THE OPENING EXCHANGES
It’s a little bit of wait and see, but we’ve really got to go out there and impose our game on them as much as possible. Our scrums been very good and dominant in the games that we have played and we’ve got to use that. We’ve got a line-out that can deliver us good ball and, in terms of the mobility of the forward pack, we think we can get around the park. We’ve got some players in our backline that can get us across the advantage line. There’s a nice mix and there are a lot of players who should go into the game with a lot of confidence.
CONFIDENCE IN THE LIONS CAMP
It is our job as coaches to give the players that confidence through the way we prepare, train and perform. We’re six wins from six games at the moment and now we are really looking forward to the first Test in front of a big crowd. Seeing all the supporters arriving has been quite overwhelming really. Ian McGeechan said to me yesterday that now he knows what it’s like for me living in Wales. It gives the guys a lot of belief and confidence knowing that there is a huge amount of support for us.
THE THREAT OF HEINRICH BRUSSOW
Brussow played really well against us for the Cheetahs. He is a player we’re going to have to get off the ball and clear away from the breakdown. That is his strength. He’s not a real ball carrying threat. He’s not a big physical defender, but he tackles around the legs and gets on the ball really well. We’ve worked hard this week to try to eliminate that threat because if we can do a good job in that area its going to get us some quality ball, some ball on the front foot.
I don’t think there are any weaknesses in the South African team. They’ve got some fantastic players. Ruan Pienaar is a world class player, one the best No10s in the world, but he hasn’t played a lot of rugby. If Adi Jacobs has a slight weakness it is his defence. But if you look at his try scoring record, and the number of times he gets across that white line, he’s a fantastic attacking player. He is very quick and has two of the best wingers in world rugby outside him. Frans Steyn is a big kicking threat and we’ve got to be aware of his threat in terms of drop goals. There’s not a huge amount of weaknesses in their backline – just a huge amount of speed, a lot of experience and a lot of attacking opportunities.