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Warren Gatland Lions Q&A: Alun Wyn Jones won’t walk back into this team, we have tough decisions to make

The Lions fell to their first defeat of the 2021 tour, losing 17-13 to a South Africa A side packed with Springboks stars in Cape Town.

It was a testing game, one which Warren Gatland will have been grateful for after a few easy hitouts in their opening matches.

Here’s what he had to say afterwards…

Read more:South Africa ‘A’ 17-13 Lions: Tourists pay the price for dismal opening quarter as Springboks land pre-Test blow

You wanted a challenge – do you feel you got what you needed?

WG: “Absolutely, it’s definitely one that we needed. We will take a lot out of tonight and it will be good for us building in the next 10 days for that first Test.

“In fairness to South Africa, they started well and were very physical at the breakdown. We came to terms with that, so I’m proud of the boys coming from 17-3 down to come back and finish so strongly in the second half. I thought we were finishing over the top of them.

“It just goes to show that these Test matches are going to be a real arm wrestle and that’s what it was this evening. It was as close to a Test match as you’re going to get.”

What do you feel you learned from both sides?

“We didn’t probably learn a huge amount about South Africa because they did a lot of the things we expected. They kicked a lot, a lot of box kicking, very aggressive and direct with their running, particularly in that first half.

“What I was pleased about was our set-piece. I thought we scrummed outstandingly well and defended their mauls particularly well. There’s a few things we need to brush up in terms of accuracy.

“We got over the line a couple of times, had a few tries disallowed, and we felt that when we looked back, we had a charge down where they scored and we’ve allowed Kolbe to have a little bit of space from a kick where we felt on reflection we probably should have box-kicked rather than kicking to the openside.

“Those are things we can fix up and make sure we don’t give them those chances and opportunities. We’ve done that in a few games, so there will be a lot of learning from that.”

Injury update on Wyn Jones and Liam Williams?

“Wyn had a bit of a stinger in the shoulder but he’s going to be fine.

“Liam will need to go through the HIA protocols over the next week to get his return to play.

“Apart from that, I think everyone else has come through pretty well.”

Will Alun Wyn Jones be returning as captain?

“I’ll just wait until he arrives tomorrow and we’ll sit down to have a conversation, talk about where we go from here. He has been taking a full part in training, he’ll have two or three days of isolation before he can start fully training with us, which will be next Monday.

“So we’ll integrate him back into the camp and I’ll sit down with him and Conor for a chat about where we go for the rest of the tour.”

With Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson on form, is it a formality for Alun Wyn Jones to start?

“No, it’s not. He hasn’t had any rugby for the last three weeks, even though he’s been taking a full part in training and stuff.

“It’s something that we won’t make a decision on… it’s going to be a conversation about what we do with the team, because I think in the game at the moment having guys coming off the bench is incredibly important – guys who can make a difference.

“I thought our bench was pretty good today, it gave us an impact and that will be incredibly important in the Test matches.
“That we have players who come off the bench, give you something, energy and also that experience and ability to be able to change the game.

“Those are things… there’s no guarantee that anyone will be selected. So, those discussions will take place after Saturday’s game.”

Did you feel the quarantine problems faced by South Africa showed in their fitness late on?

“Look, I don’t know. Even though they haven’t been training as a team they’ve been training individually, they’ve been able to do running and conditioning and stuff.

“A lot of their players have come from Japan and Europe, they’ve had a lot of rugby as well.
“I was pleased with how strong we looked in the second-half; they started to flag in the game and they’ll benefit from the game and they’ll have another hit out on the weekend.

“But, considering they were pretty much at full-strength and we got a good feeling for how it was, we needed that tough hit out and the players are pretty bullish in the changing-room, they’re pretty confident that we can handle whatever they throw at us going forward.

“We definitely will improve our work at the breakdown area, we need to start a bit better than we did today, but as we got into the game, coming from behind we looked pretty strong, we finished strong and even that second to last scrum – I thought we were unlucky not to get a penalty from that situation.

“I thought a few calls went against us but that happens in international rugby. I am not blaming the referee, but there were a couple of tight calls with a couple of tries disallowed. There were lots of positives for us and things that we can easily fix in terms of some of the things we gave them to get into the game.”

Are you keeping certain things back for the Tests?

“Yeah, there were some plays and things that we’ve been working on that we will work hard on next week. It is important that you want to keep a few things back.

“We’ve been doing that. That’s the exciting thing about that. The players are pretty positive about that performance and knowing that we can still improve a lot.

“I think it’s going to be an incredibly exciting Test series and one we can go into with a lot of confidence.”

Rassie Erasmus has admitted he still wants a Lions rematch on Saturday – do you want that?

“I’d hate to see the game against the Stormers lost from our perspective as those Stormers players get a once in a lifetime chance to play the Lions and for that to be taken away from them would be incredibly disappointing.

“I think the Bulls must be disappointed that they lost the game as well. We want to fulfil that fixture.

“I think we potentially got more from tonight than South Africa so I’m pretty comfortable with fulfilling that fixture and then being able to work over the next 10 days or so preparing for that Stormers match and then the first Test.”

How did you feel Conor Murray led the team tonight? There were some key decisions just before half-time?

“I was happy with the players and decisions. I think the fact we decided to tap and go, we wanted to work on that element of the game and physicality to use from an attacking perspective.

“I thought we were pretty unlucky just before half-time that we didn’t get a try awarded. He’d given a try as his on-field decision and it was overturned by the TMO. If that had been awarded, it would have been 100 per cent the right decision.

“You’ve got to back the players to make the right calls and the right decisions. I thought he did a very good job during the week in terms of leading the side. I was very happy with how he did that and pretty happy with his performance also.”

What did you make of Rassie Erasmus as a water boy?

“It was a little bit interesting! You won’t see me doing that.

“Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. A little bit strange, the director of South African rugby also being a water boy.”

Is the Test selection clearer or even more muddled after tonight?

“We’ve got so many choices. The guys have a runout on Saturday and it’s getting the balance between picking the right XV to start but having a really powerful bench to keep the momentum going and have an impact in that last 30 minutes or so.

“We haven’t really as a group of coaches sat down and started to talk about the Test team. We’ve tried to allow the players to go in there and have two or three games.

“We’ll start then trying to nail it down. There’s going to be some tight calls. We’ll start talking about that after this weekend’s performance.”

Is Tom Curry close to nailed down after his performance?

“Look, I thought he was great tonight but there’s no doubt Hamish Watson is having a good tour as well. That’s a tough call when we do sit down after the weekend’s match.

“There’s a lot of tough calls in the squad, whether it’s the back-three, getting the loose forward trio right, a lot of the front-rowers are putting their hands up. There’s going to be some tough decisions there too.

“We’re pretty lucky that we have those tough calls to make. It’s our job as coaches to make those decisions, the team can continue to improve and we can win a Test series. That’s the whole aim of everything.”

How tough has it been for Stuart Hogg and will we see him this weekend?

“He was on the pitch today, running and doing some fitness work. He’ll definitely get a hit out on Saturday.”

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