The British & Irish Lions tasted defeat for the first time on the 2021 Tour as the tourists’ second-half fightback against a strong South Africa A team fell narrowly short in Cape Town.
Head coach Warren Gatland gives his thoughts on what he learnt from the unofficial ‘fourth Test’, the positives for the tourists and the return of Alun Wyn Jones in his first-person column:
PROUD OF SECOND-HALF FIGHTBACK
“That was definitely a game that we needed, I think we’ll take a lot from it and it will be good for us to build on in the next ten days ahead of the first Test match.
“In fairness to South Africa A, they started well and were very physical at the breakdown. We came to terms with that and I’m proud of the boys for coming back from 17-3 down.
Lions suffer first Tour defeat despite second-half fightback
“To come back and finish so strongly in the second half, I thought we were finishing on top of them, it just goes to show that these Test matches are going to be a real arm wrestle.
“That’s what it was this evening, it was a close to a Test match as you’re going to get. We didn’t learn a huge amount about South Africa because they did a lot of the things we expected.
“They kicked a lot, a lot of box-kicking, very aggressive and direct with their running particularly in that first half, but what I was pleased about was our set-piece.
“I thought we scrummaged outstandingly well, I thought we defended their mauls particularly well but there are also a few things we need to brush up on in terms of accuracy.
“We got over the line a couple of times and had a couple of tries disallowed, while we had a charge down from which they scored and allowed [Cheslin] Kolbe to have a little bit of space from a kick.
“On reflection we probably should have box-kicked that rather than kicking it to the open side so those are things that we can fix up and just make sure we don’t give them those chances.”
THE RETURN OF ALUN WYN JONES
“Alun Wyn Jones has been taking a full part in training with Wales, he’ll have two or three days of full isolation before he can start training with us – which will be next Monday.
“We’ll reintegrate him back into the camp and I’ll sit down with him and Conor [Murray] and have a chat about where we will go for the rest of the Tour.
Alun Wyn Jones returns to Lions Tour
“It’s not a formality that Alun Wyn will get back into the Test team. He hasn’t had any rugby in the last three weeks even though he’s been taking a full part in training with Wales.
“It’s something we won’t make a decision on yet and it’s going to be a conversation about what we do with the team because in the game at the moment, having guys come off the bench is incredibly important.
“Having guys who can come off and make a difference is incredibly important. I thought our bench was pretty good today and gave us an impact, that will be important in the Tests.
“We want to have players who come off the bench and can really give you something, bring you energy but also that experience and ability to be able to change a game.
“There’s no guarantees of anyone being selected so those discussions will take place after Saturday’s game. Considering South Africa A were pretty much at full strength, we got a good feeling for how it was and we needed that tough hit out.
“The players are pretty bullish in the changing rooms, pretty confident that we can handle whatever they throw at us going forward and we definitely will improve.
“We need to do a bit of work at the breakdown area, we need to start better than we did, but as we got into the game coming from behind I thought we looked strong, finished strong.”
POSITIVES AND EASY FIXES
“There were lots of positives for us and things that we can easily fix in terms of things that we gave them in the game. It’s important that you keep a few things back.
“We have been doing that so that’s the exciting thing and the players are pretty positive about that performance and knowing that we can still improve a lot.
“It’s going to be an extremely exciting Test series and one we can go into with a lot of confidence. I think we would have got a lot more out of tonight’s game than South Africa did.
“We’ve got so many choices when it comes to selection. We have another run out on Saturday [against the Stormers] and it’s making sure we get the balance between picking the right 15 to start and having a powerful bench to come on.
“We want to keep the momentum and have an impact in that last 30 minutes or so. We haven’t really as a group of coaches sat down to talk about the Test team.
“We tried to allow the players to go in there and have two or three games and then we’ll start trying to nail it down. There are going to be some tight calls and we’ll talk after this weekend.
“Tom Curry was great tonight but there’s also no doubt that Hamish Watson’s been having a great Tour as well, that’s going to be a tough selection call. There’s going to be a lot of tough calls.
“The back three, getting the loose forward trio right, a lot of the front rowers are putting their hands up and there’s some tough decisions there too so we’re pretty luck we have those tough calls to make and it’s our job to make the right decisions.”