Pundits discuss who impressed in first Test triumph

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Maro Itoje impressed the pundits

Four-time British and Irish Lions head coach Sir Ian McGeechan and two-time captain Sam Warburton were among those praising the tourists after they rallied to beat South Africa in the first Test.

South Africa were 12-3 up at half-time thanks to four Handré Pollard penalties, with Dan Biggar kicking one of his own to make sure the Lions were on the board at the interval.

However, an immense second-half comeback saw the Lions overcome the nine-point deficit to prevail 22-17 and put Warren Gatland’s men one win away from claiming their first series win in South Africa for 24 years.

KICKING GAME AND TACTICAL SWITCH KEY

Having not played at their best in the opening 40 minutes, Sky Sports pundit McGeechan pointed to a change in tactics as a key reason for the turnaround.

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“From a scrappy first half when the Lions didn’t have control, looking not sure tactically, to start the second half with a kick and chase, and Alun Wyn’s decisions to go for the lineout drive – that provided a completely different psychology in the half,” he said.

“The Lions tactically look really comfortable and structurally well in their own half, and they played possession and gameplay well in the second half.

“You could see within the ten minutes where South Africa gave five penalties away that they looked like they couldn’t raise their game to match what the Lions were doing in control.”

Gatland's Lions celebrate

“The belief has just shot through the roof,” said McGeechan’s Sky Sports colleague and 2013 and 2017 skipper Warburton. “The Lions transformed their kicking game in the second half.

“Ali Price continued to box kick well, Van de Merwe performed well. Conor Murray came on and Owen Farrell did well. The kicking game was so much better in the second half and that was the biggest difference.

Warren Gatland column

“I do think the one moment in the match which was pivotal was when Alun Wyn Jones chose to kick to the corner and not go for the three points. We look back at that now and that’s a massive call.”

Three-time tourist Ronan O’Gara, who donned the famous red jersey the last time the Lions visited South Africa in 2009, added: “I think they’ll be incredibly pleased with the second 40 minutes.

“I think they were smart and excellent for 40 minutes and that will give them huge confidence to go from 12-3 down and turn it around and win. I think they’re in the driving seat now.”

ITOJE TAKES THE PLAUDITS

One player who received particular praise for his performance was player of the match Maro Itoje, who was a permanent nuisance for the Springboks throughout.

Speaking on talkSPORT, 2017 Lions tourist James Haskell agreed with the choice of second row Itoje, 26, as man of the match and was incredibly impressed with his former teammate’s display.

Haskell said: “Maro Itoje has to get my man of the match. So many turnovers, and physical around the field. He sort of took a couple of backwards steps to start with and just came alive after that.

“He really showed what an incredible player he is, and he has the work rate of an engine. At the end of the game he was on his back. When you have a player like him in the side it’s not about what he says, you look over at the side and think if Maro’s still doing it, I better still be doing it.

Tadhg Beirne, Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones celebrate after the game

“One key moment for me was when Maro Itoje ran into [Eben] Etzebeth and got absolutely battered. I thought that wasn’t a good sign, but that seemed to wake him. It was like he thought maybe this was going to be an easy game and just got kicked into gear. He was brilliant.”

Itoje’s Saracens teammate, prop Mako Vunipola, was also lauded for his performance off the bench by Sky Sport’s Maggie Alphonsi.

“Mako Vunipola was brilliant. We talked at the start of the show about him having to play in the scrum. He comes on and he absolutely owns it in the scrum against [Frans] Malherbe who was going to be a strong player to scrummage against,” she said.

“He was brilliant. He made some impact in the defence. He ran onto the ball, he made the passes. I just think that the Lions defence was really influential.”

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