Warren Gatland promised the Lions will not take a backwards step in the first Test against South Africa after the head coach brought back rucking for a no-holds barred training session.
Gatland, who also suggested a number of the hosts' players "could be underdone" after suffering from Covid, believes the Lions have already “dented the ego” of the Springboks after gaining dominance at the set piece battle during the 17-13 defeat by South Africa ‘A’ last week. In the 2009 series, when Gatland was an assistant coach, South Africa’s “niggle” got under the Lions’ skin. This time they are fully prepared to meet the ‘Bok bully boys’ head on when they meet at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“The message is making sure we don't take a backwards step,” Gatland said. “We don't allow them, like in 2009 there were a lot of guys running in and pushing a shoving – those sorts of bits and pieces – 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. You have got to just keep coming at them and make sure you don't take a backwards step.”
To get his team ready for that challenge, Gatland held a “bone-on-bone” training session on Tuesday afternoon. Tension was understandably running high following the announcement of the starting XV to the squad which resulted in a few cases of “stomping” which Gatland defines as “standing on someone’s leg and stomping.” This old-school rucking is exactly what Gatland wanted to see.
“The guy just had to take a few stomps and get his leg out of the way because he was slowing the ball down,” Gatland said. “I thought it was brilliant. There were a couple of pushes and shoves. Guys were not backing down. You get that in Test match rugby. There was nothing in terms of punches thrown. You just saw guys not being prepared to take a backwards step and that’s exactly what you expect because it just shows what it means, not just to the players who are starting but for the guys who are not involved.”
The crucial caveat is that the Lions do not overstep the mark. The last series in New Zealand hinged on Sonny Bill Williams’ red card in the second Test and as much as Gatland wants the Lions to match the Springboks’ aggression, it has be harnessed.
“You have to take it to the edge, but you also have to keep your control as well,” Gatland, who will meet the match officiating team on Thursday, said. “There is a lot at stake for both sides and we have to make sure we bring that physicality - but a controlled physicality. The last thing that we want from a Lions perspective is a Test match decided on someone making a really poor decision - going in with a shoulder, a tackle too high.”
While the Lions enter the match in peak physical condition, South Africa’s matchday squad contains seven players who tested positive for Covid-19, including captain Siya Kolisi who only ended his ten-day isolation on Monday. If there are any Springboks struggling for fitness then Gatland hopes his team’s high-tempo style will expose them.
“I just know that we’ll try and keep as much tempo in the game as we can, I feel like our conditioning is good and if they’ve got two or three players who are going to struggle, that may be the case,” Gatland said. “They’ve had 46-47 players in the squad, a few laid up with Covid, they had other options but they’ve gone back to players who have been there, done it and played well for them at the World Cup. That’s understandable but some of them could quite possibly be underdone.”
Fitness apart, there promises to be few surprises from South Africa, who are set to reprise the sledgehammer tactics that won them the 2019 World Cup. Match them up front, however, and Gatland believes they will have nowhere to turn. “I would presume it’s hard for them to go away from something that’s been incredibly successful for them,” Gatland said. “They will be working harder this week to try to get some dominance in that area and we’ve got to make sure we continue to apply that pressure and don’t allow them to get that dominance. Then we’ll see what other parts of the game they can go to because if they don’t get that dominance, they’ll have to play slightly differently.”
How Warren Gatland is keeping the Lions squad united
By Gavin Mairs
Just hours after one of the most brutal training sessions of the tour, Tadhg Beirne was making chocolate cookies for the squad in the kitchen of the team hotel near Hermanus.
Jamie George and Elliot Daly were running their mobile coffee shop, while Prav Mathema, the Lions’ head of medical, was offering to do haircuts for anyone who wanted a trim. Warren Gatland, looking on point for Wednesday's team announcement, was among the 14 who took him up on the offer.
It was too wet for golf at the resort but the players enjoyed their day off, chilling at the pool and spa and doing recovery work in the sauna, steam room or even hot pod that had been ordered specially for the tour by Kyle Sinckler.
Yes, living with the Lions was the epitome of calmness.
The contrast with the start of the week could not have been more stark.
Gatland and his coaching team had endured their own mental torment by going through what he had described as the toughest selection yet of his three tours in charge.
Finding consensus was not easy, with selections influenced both by combinations and the game plan.
Gatland described the back three positions the “toughest call”. “Lots of other positions, as well – I mean, any one of the three hookers could have started, they are all quality, there is a lot of depth in that position, and then getting the balance of our back row," he admitted.
“It was a long discussion and debate in selection and as coaches we all had different 23s. And any 23 I saw from the experts or the ex-rugby players in the media, they were all completely different as well. But I don’t see that as a negative, I see that as a real positive. It shows what strength in depth we have in the squad at the moment and the options we have in terms of selection.
"Some players that coaches would have had in their starting XV didn't make the 23 because you're looking at the combinations on the bench and the experience. I need to reiterate that it's not just the starting XV but the guys coming off the bench are going to have a significant impact and they need to have an impact coming off the bench for us.”
The week of the first Test is always the toughest of the tour, the moment when the divide between the Test 23 and the remainder of the squad is formally declared. On previous tours it has been the moment when any sense of split in the group is crystalized and the squad contaminated by the negative energy generated by those on the fringes going “off tour”.
Yet Gatland was able to tap into that sense of disappointment for the common good by ramping up the intensity and physicality of the training on Tuesday to ensure that the squad were in no danger of going into the first Test undercooked as they had been ahead of the first Test in 2009. It was a ferocious double-session.
“They were going to show that they are here to train well and make it difficult for the starting XV,” Gatland added. “You often get that it ramps up that intensity as you get closer to the Tests, particularly at the start of the week when you have a tough, physical session. You have guys who are going to be disappointed and they want to show their disappointment about making sure that they don’t go backwards. That sometimes flares up into a couple of pushes and shoves and a bit of niggle.”
The sense of togetherness appears to be remaining firmly intact, even if several players now know in their hearts that they are in all likelihood not going to feature again on this tour.
“I’m incredibly impressed with how tight these guys are,” Gatland added. “We’re just trying to make sure we get the balance right. We said to the non-23 on Friday night that if they wanted to have a few drinks then they were able to do that.
“Last night, with Wednesday being their day off, they went and had a couple of drinks and put a 12pm curfew on themselves. That’s good for them. It’s important for them to get together and have a bit of solidarity. It’s tough. It’s the end of such a long tour and the biggest challenge is keeping everyone focussed.
“I said to the guys not in the 23 that they’re only an injury away or a performance away from being involved.
“One of the reasons initially for keeping the squad numbers a little less than previous tours was because, even if you were under a bit more pressure with guys having to double up in the lead up matches, you were well aware that everyone was not too far away from the 23. Making sure they stay focussed.
“In the past, possibly when it comes to Test week, you probably get two or three whose tour is over and they probably haven’t had the same sort of focus. At the moment everyone’s on the same page and this group of guys have been absolutely brilliant.
“The message to the players was that it’s not about the 15 or the 23, it’s about the whole group. Going back to the UK and Ireland and saying they were part of a winning Lions Test series. Not everyone can be selected but everyone can be proud of that fact.”
And to do so that bond is going to have to remain unbreakable.