Warren Gatland Column: Half-time message and special Test win

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Warren Gatland

The British & Irish Lions came from behind to defeat reigning world champions South Africa 22-17 in the opening Test of the Castle Lager Lions Series in Cape Town.

Head coach Warren Gatland gives his thoughts on the tourists’ stunning second-half fightback, the standout performers and the response he expects from the Springboks in his first-person column:

THE HALF-TIME MESSAGE

“Our message to the players at half-time was that we were still in the arm wrestle. If Dan Biggar kicked that penalty in the first half it would have been 12-6 but we were down 12-3.

“We just said that we had given away a few soft penalties, allowed them opportunities, let’s keep our patience, stay in the arm wrestle and we will get chances – don’t try and force things.

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Lions stage second-half comeback to win first Test

“I thought as the second half went on we got stronger and stronger and we got ourselves back into the game but it was really tough, tight Test match and it could have gone either way.

“Thankfully we’ve come from behind and finished really strongly and I thought the last few minutes we were excellent. We just started to get some dominance in our forward carries.

Gatland's Lions celebrate

“Obviously we scored the try from the maul – which was pretty important – and the scrum stabilised and we got a bit of dominance there. I just thought we started to take control.

“Once we started to take them through some phases, particularly when we got on the front foot, they started to concede penalties and they conceded a number of penalties in that second half.

“That was our main message and if we didn’t get any front foot ball then it was just about our game management, sometimes we went to the air and got a few knock ons from them.

“Those were big moments for us but then we put ourselves under pressure a few times by getting the ball back and shifting a couple of poor passes that put us under pressure.”

THERE’S A LOT MORE TO COME

“We were really happy with the way we defended, we didn’t think South Africa created a lot of attacking opportunities and in that last passage we were making some big tackles.

“They will be hurt from this because they are an incredibly proud nation and world champions and next week is going to be even bigger and tougher, I would expect nothing less.

“From our point of view, you win that first one and you know no matter what happens you go to the last weekend of the series and that keeps everyone engaged a really interested.

“The message to the players after the game was that it’s not just about the 23. This is an incredibly tight group of players and the non-23 did a brilliant job this week.

The British Irish Lions

“They helped the Test 23 prepare and the victory was as much about them and the whole squad than just the guys that took to the field. We still feel like there’s a lot more in us.

“I just thought from a conditioning side we look like we’re getting stronger and stronger and we were able to keep the intensity and the pace going for the whole 80 minutes.

“Courtney Lawes in particular was brilliant. I thought his lineout was good, there were some great carries and footwork, and Maro Itoje has also worked incredibly hard, they all put in a really big shift.

“Then I thought the bench was great for us. I thought the impact from our bench was probably more significant than it was for the Springboks and the energy was great.”

CONAN GROWING IN SELF-BELIEF

“Jack Conan did what he does do well and the reason we picked him, he doesn’t make mistakes. He’s incredibly accurate, he takes those kick offs, shows good footwork and go-forward.

“He does a lot of the unspectacular stuff that you need in a forward pack to get the balance right. You have guys who carry more and we’re really please with his performance.

“He’s continued to improve and improve in this environment. He’s like a sponge in gaining knowledge, he asks really good questions and takes on information well.

Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry and Jack Conan celebrate after the game

“We’re really pleased with him and his development. I know the first game he played he was incredibly nervous about the first hit out and he does get nervy before a game.

“But this week he seemed a lot calmer and a lot more assured and that’s given him more confidence and self-belief and that has been reflected in his performances.

“Any Lions Test victory is special. It’s been a challenging Tour but we’ve worked hard and having been down points, fighting our way back into the game was the most pleasing thing.

“We just continued to grow into the game and to beat the world champions first up in their own backyard is really special but I expect South Africa will be a lot stronger in the next two matches.”

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