Warren Gatland Column: Disappointed but proud after series defeat

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Warren Gatland

Morne Steyn came off the bench to consign The British & Irish Lions to a 2-1 series defeat, kicking the Springboks to a dramatic 19-16 victory in the deciding Test.

Head coach Warren Gatland gives his thoughts on the defeat to the reigning world champions in Cape Town and the Tour to South Africa as a whole in his first-person column:

PROUD OF THE EFFORT

“I’m disappointed but I’m really proud of the effort that the boys put in. I thought we were bold and we went out there to be positive and play some rugby.

“We missed one or two chances and they had a few lucky bounces and scored a try against the run of play and a couple of 50/50 calls probably didn’t go our way.

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“But it was a proper Test match, it was tough and it was physical and that’s what you want from a Lions series – it’s not going to be easy playing away from home against the world champions.

“It was a really tight contest and it could have gone either way but congratulations to South Africa. It was a bit of deja vu with Morne Steyn kicking the winning points.

The British & Irish Lions experienced a severe case of deja vu as Morne Steyn came off the bench to kick the Springboks to back-to-back series victories over the tourists. 12 years after Steyn landed the winning penalty for South Africa in the second Test of the 2009 series, the 37-year-old returned to haunt Warren Gatland’s men in Cape Town. A Ken Owens try and five points from the boot of replacement Finn Russell had put the Lions 10-6 ahead half-time, with Handre Pollard kicking two penalties for the hosts. But a Cheslin Kolbe try after the interval turned the tide back in the Springboks’ favour before Russell and Steyn traded penalties to leave the scores level with six minutes to go. And with the class of 2021 looking to emulate the Lions of 1974 and 1997, it was ultimately Steyn who delivered the decisive blow to break the tourists’ hearts once again. RUSSELL ARRIVAL CHANGES TEST The turning point in the second half of the second Test revolved around the aerial battle as the Springboks took advantage of a series of mistakes from the tourists under the high ball. Unsurprisingly, South Africa continued where they left off at Cape Town Stadium, launching the ball high repeatedly in the early stages and enjoying plenty of success once again. But after a couple of high balls went the way off the Green and Gold, the third handed the Lions a chance to take the lead after Jasper Wiese was adjudged to have been offside. Biggar’s effort was wide of the mark, however, in what proved to be almost his final act as the Welsh fly-half was soon forced off with an injury after making a tackle on Lukhanyo Am. His exit prompted the early introduction of Finn Russell for his Test debut for the tourists, having last run out in the famous red jersey in the first match against Cell C Sharks in July. While he had to watch on as Handre Pollard kicked the opening points on 11 minutes, it was not long before Russell responded from the tee after the Lions were awarded a scrum penalty. It was the perfect nerve-settler for the Racing 92 man and after what had been a promising start for the world champions, the Lions suddenly found themselves in business. THE SCOTTISH CONNECTION After scoring 39 tries across their first six games in 2021, the Lions had found their attack blunted by South Africa in the first two Tests - restricted to one driving maul score in the series opener. The numbers from the second Test defeat in particular would have made frustrating reading for attack coach Gregor Townsend, with the tourists gaining just 105 metres from 85 carries. That was largely down to the Springboks slowing down the game, disrupting the high-tempo game Gatland’s men had benefitted from in the second half of the first Test. In response, the Lions made four changes to their backline for the decider, bringing in the Tour’s top try scorer Josh Adams for his first Test cap to signal their intent in Cape Town. Gatland also opted for Ali Price at scrum-half and his Scottish teammate Russell on the bench, a decision that quickly paid dividends when Biggar had to take his leave earlier than expected. From the moment Russell entered the fray, the No.10 began pulling the strings with quick, flat passing as the tourists looked to keep the ball moving through the hands at speed. And the Lions took advantage of the shift in momentum on 19 minutes, with Russell kicking to the corner and launching a driving maul that ended in Owens crashing over for the game’s first try. Russell continued his dream start to his Lions’ Test career by slotting the conversion to make it 10-3 before putting Liam Williams into space for what could have been a second try had the Wales full-back spotted Adams on the wing. MOMENTUM SWINGS ONCE AGAIN The Springboks responded to the tourists flexing their muscles in the forward battle in the only way they know how, winning a scrum penalty of their own on 35 minutes. Pollard made no mistake from the tee to reduce the deficit to 10-6 at the break but only after the Lions came close to crossing the whitewash after flexing their muscles once again. Having already utilised the driving maul to great effect, they opted for the corner again and went through the phases near the Boks’ line before a penalty relieved the pressure on the hosts. The stats at the interval highlighted the Lions’ dominance in the first half, with the tourists making 57 runs, four clean breaks and 133 metres - more than they did in the whole of the second Test. But having been unable to capitalise on their chances to give themselves breathing room on the scoreboard, the men in red were put under pressure by South Africa after the restart. Injuries to Wyn Jones and Lood De Jager contributed to a stop-start beginning to the second half but while Pollard had two opportunities from the tee, he failed to convert either. Yet the Springboks were in the ascendancy and after a high ball was collected by Am, the centre found Willie le Roux who in turn unleashed Kolbe to race over for his first try of the series. After both of the first two Tests were won by the side trailing at half-time, history appeared to be repeating itself again as Pollard converted to put the hosts 13-10 ahead. STEYN RETURNS TO HAUNT LIONS With 20 minutes left on the clock and everything to play for, Gatland rolled the dice with the introduction of Lions Test debutants Sam Simmonds and Adam Beard. A whole new front row also arrived on the scene and after enjoying their first significant spell of possession in the second half, a Russell penalty levelled the scores at 13-13. Parity did not last long for the tourists as replacement Morne Steyn - the man who kicked the series-winning points in 2009 - landed a penalty with his second touch of the game. The Lions had a chance to equalise again moments later but instead repeated their brave call from the first half to go for the corner and instigate another driving maul. While Mako Vunipola got over the whitewash, the ball was held up by the Green and Gold shirts before the resulting scrum went in the Springboks’ favour to relieve the pressure. But a probing run from Robbie Henshaw and excellent support from the Lions earned another opportunity seconds later, with Russell levelling the scores up this time from the tee. However it was the Lions’ old nemesis Steyn who had the last say once again, stepping up to kick the winning points 12 years after delivering the knockout blow to win the 2009 series.

“The penalty count was against us 15-12 and at this level it’s so, so important. Your aim is to keep your penalties under 10 in international rugby as that makes a significant difference.

“You get one or two chances at this level and you’ve got to make the most of them, you’ve got to be clinical when they come around. Finn Russell was good when he came on

“We talked about moving the ball and the ball went through his hands a lot which was good. We shortened them up on a couple of occasions when we went to fourth or fifth phase.

“He just showed how quick he can get the ball through his hands and created some stuff. For someone who hasn’t played a lot of rugby, I thought he was excellent.”

YOU ONLY GET ONE OR TWO CHANCES

“When you’re playing against South Africa, the world champions, you know it’s going to be a really tight contest and it’s going to be down to a bounce of a ball or a call.

“We’ve been held up over the line and penalised at a scrum which was a bit unlucky when you’re five metres out from their line and from that point of view there was some key moments.

“But it was always going to be like that, it was always going to be tight. The boys gave it 100 percent and from a coaching point of view you can’t ask for more than that.

“We spoke at half-time about starting really well after half-time as we’d had a good first half and that’s probably the most disappointing part of the game, the ten minutes after half-time.

Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan and Alun Wyn Jones celebrate Ken Owens scoring their first try

“We just got pinned a little bit in our own half and it took us a while to start generating a bit more momentum. That’s rugby for you at the highest level, you get one or two chances.

“A mistake is really costly and even though the players have given everything, they’d probably look back individually and go ‘there was an error there’ or a penalty given away.

“That’s what you’re towards at the highest level, to eliminate some of those sorts of things but I can’t complain about our attitude or our approach – we went to the corner to build a lead.

“That would then put them under pressure and force them potentially to stop going to the air and open up the game a bit which then gives you chances if the game does loosen up.”

BRIGHT FUTURE FOR YOUNG LIONS

“It’s been a tough series but it’s been exciting. Those are the sort of things you want to be involved in and at 16-16 it reminded me of the World Cup semi final (Wales v South Africa).

“You had to stay in it and someone was going to get an opportunity towards the end of the game and unfortunately we’re the ones who have been penalised and conceded three points.

“You have to try and play territory and wait for a chance as you are going to get a moment in the last few minutes when it’s so tight and they were the team that got that.

“I’m incredibly proud of my involvement and have been very fortunate. I’m very passionate about the Lions. I hope the new players have learnt a lot from this Tour, not just from playing.

Siya Kolisi celebrates winning with teammates

“But also from the players around them in terms of the top players in the squad, their professionalism and the way that they train and all the extras that they do.

“I think they would have benefitted from that. I think Marcus Smith is going to be a superstar in the game, I think he is incredibly talented – he has an incredible amount of talent.

“There are other players who haven’t been involved but their experience from this will hold them in really good stead for their international teams and in four years’ time.”

“A really good example is Robbie Henshaw, who I thought was excellent. He probably learnt from the experience four years’ ago and then brought him on, improved him as a player.”

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