With victory on Saturday, the British & Irish Lions know they are in this Test series with South Africa for the long haul.
No matter how dearly they would like to close out the series victory in this weekend’s second Test, Warren Gatland expressed his confidence that whatever about the Springboks getting better, his Lions are also going to improve and do so from a winning position.
It is much the preferable place to be on a Monday between Test matches, with a win behind you and the knowledge that the other camp is the one with desperation hanging in the air, knowing that the players need to be rallied, improvements have to be made, and mistakes reconciled.
What gives Gatland his confidence is that he is sure his own side have further to go on their journey.
Their performance on Saturday night was far from perfect. In fact, it was so disjointed they trailed the world champions 12-3 at half-time, their inaccuracy at the breakdown and set-piece handing Handré Pollard the chance to kick over four penalties in row before the Lions retreated to their Cape Town Stadium dressing room to regroup.
That they did sufficiently well to turn the game around and swing momentum their way within five minutes of the restart is a testimony to Gatland’s power and those of his assistants, of which his former Wales ally, now with Leinster, Robin McBryde came in for particular praise.
Luke Cowan-Dickie’s driven maul try gave the former Waikato hooker particular pleasure but so too the four second-half penalties, three from Dan Biggar and another from Owen Farrell that overcame the concession of a Springbok try for Faf de Klerk and secured victory. Praise is also due to man of the match Maro Itoje, back-rowers Courtney Lawes and Jack Conan and pick of the backline Robbie Henshaw.
Now they have to do it all again while South Africa have the additional task of regaining the initiative.
Asked whether this Saturday was the Lions’ best chance of sealing the series given the scope for Springbok improvement and gathering momentum, Gatland said: “No, I don’t think so, we think there is another level in us, not sure where that (South African) momentum is going to come from.
“We have been excellent in our set-piece stuff; we know how strong they are there; defensively we got off the line and the biggest part of that for me was the last couple of minutes (after) we didn’t take the kick-off (following Farrell’s 78th-minute penalty).
“South Africa had the ball close to our 22 and I thought we looked comfortable without the ball and we came off the line making our tackles ‘til we forced that turnover. We haven’t conceded a driven lineout maul, we haven’t conceded a pick and go try; that gives us a lot of confidence.
Gatland said he will name his team on tomorrow with fly-half Biggar going through his return to play protocols following a failed Head Injury Assessment and unable to take contact until at least Thursday while it is hoped loosehead prop Wyn Jones, withdrawn before kick-off will have seen his shoulder infection cleared by a course of antibiotics.
Whomever he selects, the focus in training this week will be on improvement in a lot of areas.
“We gave away too many penalties in the first half and I think there was one in the second half. Our aerial game was much better in the second half. We only gave them four lineouts in the game. That was one of the things we worked on.
“Discipline was an important aspect of that. If you limit their set-piece opportunities then you are taking away a massive part of their game. That was pleasing. I was really pleased with our lineout and the way we defended. I thought the scrum got better as the game went on and we learned to deal with some of the weight coming through.
“I think Robin McBryde deserves a lot of credit that he has not received in terms of how the forwards have been going, how the lineout has been, how the maul has been going, how we have defended (in the maul), and the scrum has operated on this tour. So I thought the game management in the second half was really good.
“The message at half-time was we are in this arm wrestle. You know what’s coming. You stay in that arm wrestle. You’re going to be in a tight contest. You’ve got to take those opportunities when they present themselves and try and limit theirs."