Warren Gatland: Training ground 'niggle' shows Lions won't take a backward step

'It is about being on the edge but making sure that they are controlled with that'
Warren Gatland: Training ground 'niggle' shows Lions won't take a backward step

Tadhg Beirne and head coach Warren Gatland. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Warren Gatland has urged his British & Irish Lions not to take a step back against the Springboks in Saturday’s first Test and if the niggle his players have shown in training is any guide, the head coach will not be disappointed.

The New Zealander, who was an assistant coach to Ian McGeechan on the 2009 tour to South Africa, said that summer’s tourists had drawn a line in the sand after a fiery second Test at Loftus Versfeld and said ‘enough is enough’ but he wanted his 2021 Lions to not give an inch from the off.

Gatland oversaw a “pretty tasty training session” on Tuesday and now the former Wales head coach wants that controlled aggression transferred to Cape Town Stadium against a South African side whose success has often been built on their ability to physically intimidate opponents.

“There will probably be a bit of pushing and shoving. You get that,” Gatland said yesterday. “But the stuff that went on in 2009 with the TMOs and reviews — they will be picked up pretty quickly.

“You saw that second Test and Schalk Burger admitted that he should have been sent off for that eye-gouging incident and he sort of lost his head and was too fired up. You have to take it to the edge, but you also have to keep your control as well. 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. A yellow card or sent off. It is about being on the edge but making sure that they are controlled with that.

“But also, the message is making sure we don’t take a backwards step and 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. We have had some pretty tough encounters, a number of games that we won with Wales and the close game in the (2019) World Cup semi-final, which was an arm wrestle.

“I know the respect that we gained from a Welsh perspective from the South African team in the way that we just never went away and kept front up, brought that physicality and earn that respect and that is the biggest thing that you have to do. You have to earn their respect, and if you do that, it goes a long way to helping get results, performances and winning matches.”

Gatland described some of what he had witnessed in Tuesday’s training session as a “bit of stomping”.

Asked to define what he meant he said: “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.

“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.

“They were going to show that they are here to train well and made it difficult for the starting XV. 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.”

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