Warren Gatland will spend the next week preparing his British & Irish Lions for a bigger and tougher challenge from the wounded Springboks following the tourists’ 22-17 first-Test win on Saturday.
Gatland has now won Test matches as the Lions head coach on three different tours, winning the series 2-1 in Australia in 2013, drawing a series with the All Blacks in New Zealand four years ago and this win over world champions South Africa which takes a 1-0 lead into next Saturday’s second Test back at Cape Town Stadium.
The victory was built around a second-half comeback from 12-3 down at half-time through a maul try from Luke Cowan-Dickie, three penalties and a conversion from Dan Biggar and a killer blow two minutes from time with an Owen Farrell penalty.
South Africa’s only score after the interval was an unconverted try from Faf de Klerk yet the Lions boss knows this game was on a knife-edge for most of the 80 minutes with the Springboks having two second-half tries disallowed and Jacques Nienaber’s side will only get stronger on home soil as the three-Test series continues.
"From both teams, you look at it and think it was a bounce of a ball, it could have gone any way,” Gatland said on Saturday night. “A couple of calls and if they'd been different, they might have affected the result.
“We're really happy with the way we defended. We didn't think that they created a lot of attacking opportunities and in that last passage of play, we were coming off the line and making big tackles and they weren't going anywhere.
"They'll be hurt from this because they're a very proud nation and world champions. Next week is going to be even bigger and tougher, I would expect.” The Lions were far from fluent in the opening period, turning the ball over to the Springboks cheaply and conceding soft penalties that allowed Handré Pollard to toast his 50th Test cap by kicking four penalties to Biggar’s one to give the home side a nine-point lead at the break.
The Lions missed two penalties, one from Biggar and another a long-range kick from Elliot Daly but Gatland said he never felt his side were out of the contest.
"The message at half-time was that we were still in the arm wrestle. If Dan Biggar had kicked that penalty, 12-6. We were down 12-3 and had given away a few soft penalties to allow them opportunities.
"It was 'keep our patience, stay in the arm wrestle, we will get chances, don't try and force things'. As that second half went on, we got stronger and stronger and got ourselves back into the game.
"It was a really tough, tight Test match and the bounce of a ball, it could have gone any way. Thankfully, we've come from behind and finished really strongly. I thought we were excellent in the last few minutes."
"We started to get some dominance in our forward carries and obviously the try from the maul was pretty important. The scrum stabilised and we got some dominance there. Once we started to take them through some phases, particularly once we got on the front foot, it looked like they conceded a number of penalties in a row in the second half.
"That was kind of the message - if we didn't get any front-foot ball, it was just about our game management. Sometimes we went to the air and, in the second half, started to get a couple of balls that came back on our side or a couple of knock-ons from them.
"They were big moments for us but then we put ourselves under pressure a few times by getting the ball back and shifting a couple of poor passes that put us under pressure, so we just need to tidy that area up too."
Springboks head coach Nienaber, the former Munster defence coach, rued the momentum shift in the second-half in a game in which his side conceded 14 penalties to the Lions’ seven.
“The kicking game was won by us in the first half and we got the rewards, but the second half was a different story,” Nienaber said.
“They won that battle and it gave them territory, advantage in broken-field play and we had to scramble, and could not cope.
“We were nine points up (at half-time), so things were working for us – we were playing in the right areas. Our half-time talk was to step up at the breakdown and then our discipline fell away. We started to make mistakes, especially at maul time. We did not make the step-up needed when required.
“We can certainly salvage this. A proper review is needed, but we can sort it out, no doubt. It worked in the first half, and I believe what happened in the second half is fixable.”