Although plenty were disappointed by the British and Irish Lions’ 17-13 loss at the hands of South Africa ‘A’ on Wednesday night, Warren Gatland was quick to make it known his players are ‘bullish’ after the defeat.
Having gone relatively unchallenged so far this summer, the Lions went toe-to-toe with a South Africa ‘A’ side that had plenty of experience in its ranks. More than anything, it took Gatland's men too long to adjust to the higher intensity of competition before reducing the deficit to just four points.
The Lions could not score the vital try that would have meant a positive result, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort as carry after carry was repelled by those in bottle green less than five metres out. Defending well for long periods too, Gatland was more than happy with his team's performance.
“It was a physical game,” Gatland said. “We will be pretty pumped for next week (the start of the Test series) and we have to start well. We know what is coming and I thought they [South Africa] will have some pretty sore bodies today.
“We went in there working on some things, we showed our maul defence, we scrummaged exceptionally well. I thought some of our pick and go stuff they probably weren’t expecting and that gave us an opportunity to work on those sort of things.
"From an attacking perspective, we probably weren’t as clinical as we will be but there were opportunities out there that we left behind. It will give us some things to work on for this weekend and next week.
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“I thought we looked really strong in that second half. We looked fit and that is a real positive for us and the guys were pretty bullish in the changing rooms afterwards thinking we can win this series.”
With Covid-19 having affected the Springboks preparations for the Castle Lager Test Series, Rassie Erasmus was in some ways forced to play an experienced side in the ‘A’ game. Having had their second match against Georgia cancelled, South Africa will instead come up against the Blue Bulls on Friday night.
Having offered the Lions the opportunity to play the South Africa ‘A’ on Saturday instead of the Stormers, Gatland has since rejected that offer, leading to the South African accusing Gatland of ‘running scared.' The New Zealander was quick to reiterate his team is playing the United Rugby Championship side.
“As far as we are concerned, we are gearing up for the Stormers,” Gatland said. “It is a great opportunity for those Stormers players to have the chance to play against the Lions, to get that once in a lifetime chance.
“I would hate to see that taken away from them and he has pretty much put his top side against us last night, which is good, we have had a good look at them, and I don’t see it as our role to prepare them for the Test series.”
As for the war of words between the two coaches, Gatland is once more scathing in his remarks about Erasmus and his role during last nights game.
“I think he was just trying to wind us up by saying we were scared,” Gatland said. “Last night, he was the water boy, but the thing is when you are the water boy running onto the pitch, you have got to make sure you are carrying water.
“I didn’t understand what his role was. You don’t run onto the pitch giving messages and stuff if you are the water boy without carrying water so my advice is to make sure he is carrying water the next time he does that.”
For the encounter against the Stormers, there have been wholesale changes to the starting team. After being in isolation in his hotel for the last week, Stuart Hogg is in at full-back to captain the side. The Scotland international said “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy" when asked about being picked up as a close contact of a Covid-19 positive.
Meanwhile, having accompanied his partner over Zoom for the birth of their first child, Josh Adams returns to the backline as Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Duhan van der Merwe and Ali Price all start.
Marcus Smith will be making his Lions debut to round off a fairly spectacular few weeks for the 22-year-old after winning a Premiership title and making consecutive England appearances at Twickenham.
Rory Sutherland, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tadhg Furlong combine in the front-row, Adam Beard and Jonny Hill are in the second row, as Tadhg Beirne, Hamish Watson and Jack Conan make up the back-row.
On the bench, there is a more than welcome return for Alun Wyn Jones. After dislocating his shoulder three weekends ago, he has now been deemed fit enough to return to international rugby, with the 35-year-old in need of game time in order to be in contention for the first Test.
“We feel that if he is going to put himself into contention, he needs 20 minutes,” Gatland said. “We have had that conversation with him, and I know he has travelled and arrived today, but if he is in contention for next week.
“That is why we wanted him to have that and then for a few other players, they have been doubling up a bit, so they get an opportunity to rest and freshen up.”