Warren Gatland last night urged the British & Irish Lions not to shy away from the fact they are one game from a Test series win in South Africa but to embrace the expectation.
The Lions will take a 1-0 lead into this Saturday’s second Test following their come-from-behind 22-17 victory in the opening game at Cape Town Stadium at the weekend and a win five days from now would wrap up the three-Test series with a game to spare. It would deliver a first Lions series win since 1997 and Gatland’s men would become only the fifth side in 13 tours to South Africa to claim victory for the famous touring side over the Springboks.
For the head coach that is an achievement he believes his players should buy into rather than ignore as they prepare for the second Test armed with the knowledge their better conditioning, discipline and game management in the second half turned around a 12-3 half-time deficit on Saturday night.
“Oh you’ve got to embrace that expectation,” Gatland said yesterday. “I said to the players beforehand, I get incredibly excited about these big games, finals and Test series, because I love seeing the desire of the top players; how much they want to win these big matches.
“I saw that in Maro Itoje last night. I thought his performance was outstanding. During the tour, he has been great in the lineout and the set-piece, but he’s been okay – there’s been nothing outstanding about his performances. But he just went up another level yesterday. I saw Courtney (Lawes) and other players just relish those big games and big moments.
"Sometimes, that is more important than your rugby skill. It’s about that ability to get yourself in the right state emotionally and it’s about how much you want it and what it means to you, to go to another level of competing.
‘It will be about that this week. Test match rugby is about that. There is expectation and we should embrace that expectation and expect ourselves to improve from the first Test. Hopefully, we will have won the series by next week.”
The Lions enjoyed a day off yesterday at their biosecure hotel resort a 90-minute drive along the coast from Cape Town before more structured recovery today after which Gatland was relishing this week’s training sessions with a buoyant squad following their victory over the world champions.
“It changes massively; you know you are here no matter what till the last week (of the series). It probably relieves a bit of pressure but the expectation is still the same and the pressure reverts a little bit to South Africa because they are going to be incredibly desperate.
“We saw that in 2013 when we had won the First Test and saw the amount that Australia put into that Second Test (which the Wallabies won) and not just from a physical point of view but from an emotional point of view. I didn’t feel like they could get to the same level for the Third Test and that proved to be the case.
“It is going to be pretty much the same, whether or not South Africa are a bit more expansive and try to play a little more rugby, that will be debatable. It is hard for them because they have a model that has been successful for them through a World Cup, they have had a lot of games. We will just wait and see.
“I would love to win the Test series this week and take the pressure off but with South Africa you know it’s going to be another tight contest.”