Warren Gatland has insisted the British & Irish Lions will not be intimidated by any bully-boy tactics from South Africa in Saturday’s first Test, all the while provoking a Springbok backlash by claiming their egos have already been dented.
The tourists’ head coach also revealed how he has put his squad through a gruelling “bone-on-bone” training session – which saw one player stamping on another – to ensure they are battle-hardened. Gatland believes some South African players will be “underdone” after they were forced to isolate amid a Covid outbreak.
Referencing the brutal 2009 tour of South Africa – the second Test in Pretoria consigned six players to hospital while Schalk Burger was subsequently banned for eye-gouging – Gatland conceded the Springboks’ strong-arm tactics had an effect on the Lions 12 years ago. But he has specifically addressed his players about the need to stand their ground.
“You have to take it to the edge but you also have to keep your control as well,” said Gatland. “There is a lot at stake for both sides and we have to make sure we bring that physicality, but a controlled physicality. The message is making sure we don’t take a backwards step. In 2009 there were a lot of guys running in, pushing and shoving – we addressed that as a squad and said that we wouldn’t take any more of it.
“That is why there was probably that niggle in 2009 and it is part of the way that they have dominated other teams in the world,” the New Zealander added. You have got to just keep coming at them and make sure you don’t take a backwards step.”
Gatland has been delighted by the level of intensity in training. He named his starting XV on Wednesday, with Alun Wyn Jones returning as captain, and explained how those who have missed out have turned the heat up on the 23 selected.
“Some of the training sessions have had real physicality and have probably been tougher than some of the games we’ve played,” said Gatland. “We had a bit of bone-on-bone yesterday. It was a pretty tough day with a little bit of niggle which you’d expect. The pleasing thing was that the guys who missed out just threw everything at it.
“Guys were not backing down. You get that in Test match rugby. You have guys who are going to be disappointed and they want to show that [and] make sure they don’t go backwards. That sometimes flares up into a couple of pushes and shoves and a bit of niggle.”
Asked to expand, Gatland said: “There was a bit of stomping. Standing on someone’s leg and stomping. The guy just had to take a few stomps and get his leg out of the way because he was slowing the ball down. I thought it was brilliant.”
Gatland also said that last week’s narrow defeat by South Africa A, which featured nine of the Springboks’ starters for this Saturday, demonstrated the Lions can cope with their opponents’ firepower. “We were very happy with our lineout, maul defence and in a couple of scrums towards the end we felt we really dominated,” added Gatland. “Whether they come with different variations, I don’t think so. I think they’ll come with a harder approach. It’s one aspect where I think we dented their ego, as they didn’t have the dominance in the areas they would have liked.
‘If something isn’t working for them – if their scrum isn’t as dominant as they thought it would be, or if their lineout isn’t dominant – some other teams would go to different variations,” Gatland continued. “South Africans tend to work harder on it – work harder on their scrummaging and on their mauling. They see that as such an important facet of the game.”
Favouring form over reputation and eyeing a fast start, Gatland has picked Ali Price at scrum-half, Luke Cowan-Dickie at hooker, Tom Curry at openside flanker and Jack Conan at No 8 with nine of the XV winning their first Lions caps. Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe also start while the eye-catching omissions include Conor Murray – who was named tour captain when Jones was initially struck down by injury – and the England captain Owen Farrell. They both provide cover from the bench.
Gatland believes it would tarnish the sport if South Africa’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, continues to act as a water-carrier during matches. Erasmus, who guided the Springboks to the World Cup in 2019 before handing over to his assistant, Jacques Nienaber, was able to go on to the pitch during the match and pass messages directly to his players by adopting the role. “World Rugby regulations say a coach or a manager can’t be in the technical area on the side of the pitch,” said Gatland. “I suppose they argue he’s not the head coach, he’s the director of rugby. I’m not too worried about it, it’s just I’m not sure it’s the greatest look for the game but that’s their decision and I’ll just live with that.”