British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland says Saturday’s win over the Reds reminded him of old school tours before the game turned professional.
Gatland was talking about the intensity and physicality on show at the Suncorp Stadium as The Lions withstood a Queensland onslaught to triumph 22-12 in game four of their 10-match tour.
The man charged with leading The Lions to a first series success since 1997 played against Britain and Ireland’s elite for Waikato in his native New Zealand back in 1993, scoring a try as the hosts humbled their illustrious counterparts 38-10 in the penultimate game of that tour.
He saw similarities between the way the Reds approached the Brisbane battle and the feelings he and his colleagues had before taking on The Lions 20 years ago and he believes the attitude of the hosts will ultimately benefit his side as they step up their preparations for the Test series.
“What I enjoyed about Saturday was that it was kind of like old tours when teams went on tour for a long time and played provincial teams who just threw everything at them for the first 20 or 30 minutes, with The Lions having to soak up a bit of pressure,” said Gatland.
“That is what it reminded me of. That was what was brilliant about the game, what all of us have missed about old, traditional touring teams going away and having to face a barrage for that first period of matches.
“We knew going into the game, with the amount of travel we’ve had and what we’ve been doing on the field, that physically our players weren’t as fresh and were a bit flat. So for us to come under that pressure without being so fresh in the legs, I was pleased with how we came out of that.
“Maybe lesser players or a lesser team wouldn’t have been able to cope with the intensity and pressure of that first 20 minutes. We were able to soak that up.
“I’m very, very happy. Saturday night was exactly what we wanted. We would have liked a couple more lead-in games, and for the first two games to be a bit tougher than they were, but that’s what happens on tour – you’re not dealing with tough teams all the time, so we’ll have to see what Tuesday night is like.”
The Lions had to fight for every inch during Saturday's win over the Reds in Brisbane
Whatever sort of fight a Combined New South Wales Queensland Country outfit put up in the next fixture in Newcastle this week, Gatland intends to use the fixture to gain a greater understanding of who he should place his faith in for the three clashes with the Qantas Wallabies later this month and early next.
The first of those crucial encounters is now less a fortnight away and Gatland admits that he and his coaching staff now need to focus on finalising their chosen combinations and ensuring his Test team get some time together before they return to Brisbane.
“Not at all,” was Gatland’s response when asked if he knew his Test team already.
“In an ideal world, with an international side you wouldn't have experimented as much as we did on Saturday.
“We've given everyone that guarantee they're going to get a start in the first three games. We put a new side out against a side which – even though they were missing some players – has played 16 games of Super Rugby, and those players need credit for winning.
“We need to start thinking about the Waratahs and putting a side together with more potential combinations ahead of the first Test.
“Our original thought was to look at Tuesday then back players up, but that hasn’t been possible at the moment.”
Two players who stood out for most on Saturday were backline stars Ben Youngs and George North, with Gatland acknowledging that both made a big impact in a hugely challenging arena.
Youngs’ scored The Lions’ solitary try in the 34th minute after capitalising on a Reds error at the back of a five-metre scrum, while North was a constant threat whenever he got his hands on the ball, regardless of what area of the pitch he was in.
“There's a subtlety Ben brings to the game. In the Wales versus England game he was the player who caused Wales the most problems around the fringes. He played really well that day.
“He's also a different type of player to Mike Phillips and Conor Murray. I thought he did really well.
“He's confident in his own ability, takes the line on and offers a different threat to the other two. It's nice to have two-three players in certain positions who are putting their hands up.
“George has a few things to work on in his game but his ball carrying and his physical presence is causing the opposition a few problems.
“I’m pleased with the way he’s started the tour – he’s had a big impact.
“The backline that was out there, it was just babies out there playing. They were really, really young and for them to come through at 20, 21, 22-years-old with not a huge amount of international experience, I thought they did brilliantly well. I was really proud of that performance.”