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Warren Gatland Lions Q&A: The half-time team talk that inspired comeback and where this ranks in my Lions victories

The British and Irish Lions turned the tables on South Africa with a stirring second-half comeback to win the first Test.

Warren Gatland’s side now just need one more victory to secure a series win over the world champion Springboks.

Here’s everything the Lions coach said after the opening victory in Cape Town:

Read more: The unseen Lions v South Africa moments inside empty stadium amid special scenes of unity

Question: What was the message at half-time?

Warren Gatland: “The message at half-time was that we were still in the arm wrestle.

“If Dan Biggar had kicked that penalty, we’d have been down 12-6. Instead, we were down 12-3. We’d given away a few soft penalties which gave them opportunities.

“Let’s keep our patience, let’s stay in the arm wrestle. We knew we’d get chances and we didn’t need to try and force things.

“I thought we got stronger as the game went on. We got ourselves back into the game. It was a really tight, tough Test match. Bounce of the ball could have gone anyway.

“Thankfully, we’ve come from behind and finished strongly. I thought the last few minutes we were excellent.”

Did you feel in control in that second half?

WG: “I thought we got some dominance in our forward carries.

“Obviously, the try from the maul was pretty important. The scrum stabilised. We got a bit of dominance there.

“Once we got through phases, particularly on the front-foot, they conceded a lot of penalties. That was the message. If we didn’t get front-foot ball, it was about game management.

“Sometimes we went to the air and, in that second half, we got some balls come back on our side. Those were big moments for us.

“But we put ourselves under pressure at times by getting the ball back and shifting some poor passes. We need to tidy that area up as well.”

What response are you expecting from the ‘Boks in the second Test?

WG: “Both teams will look at it as a bounce of the ball and it could have gone either way. Couple of calls and it could have affected the result.

“We were really happy with the way we defended. We felt they didn’t create too many try-scoring opportunities. That last passage of play we were coming off the line, making big tackles and they weren’t going anywhere.

“They’ll be hurt from this because they’re an incredibly proud nation and world champions. Next week will be even bigger and tougher I would expect.

“From our point of view you win that first one and you know that no matter what happens, you’re going to the last weekend of the series. That keeps everyone engaged and really interested in it.

“It wasn’t just about the 23, this is an incredibly tight group of players. The non 23 did a brilliant job this week in helping that Test 23 prepare. The victory was as much about them and the whole squad as the guys who took the field.”

You said you felt you’d dented the Springboks’ ego when you played South Africa A – what have you done to their ego this time?

WG: “I made that comment in terms of hoping that they would just come harder at us in those areas. I didn’t really want them to vary the game too much.

“It wasn’t so much about denting their ego, it was about us getting confidence from certain aspects of the game. I thought our line-out was excellent today and the scrum looked like it was under a little bit of pressure at the start of the game.

“We eased into it and ended up with a couple of scrum penalties too. They’re going to keep working hard as a group and will continue to improve in those areas.

“For us, we feel like there’s an awful lot more in us too. From a conditioning point of view it looks like we’re getting stronger and stronger and are able to keep the intensity and the pace going for the whole 80 minutes.

“That’s a really pleasing aspect of how hard we’ve worked over the last six weeks or so.”

How did you view the performances of Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje?

WG: “I thought Courtney’s line-out stuff was good. Great carries and footwork. Maro’s had one turnover from one big carry where he’s probably gone in too high but he’s worked incredibly hard.

“As players, they all put in a really big shift. The bench I thought was great for us. The impact of our bench was probably more significant than theirs.

“That was pleasing and then the energy of the staff and players in the stands, encouraging our boys on turnovers or anything that was positive. That was immense as well.”

With all their Covid-19 issues, were South Africa coming into this game underdone?

WG: “They’ve had their own challenges with players not taking a full part in training. They’ve only had a couple of games together.

“A little like us, you’ve got limited preparation. Playing twice a week, it’s quite hard preparing for internationals.

“They came out of the blocks strongly and I expect they’ll be a lot stronger in the next two matches.

“They’ll be pleased with the way they started but probably not so happy with their second-half performance. They’ll go back like us and work on things and look to improve for next week.”

Did you feel some of the decisions helped sway the match towards the Lions?

WG: “No.”

What exactly was the half-time message?

WG: “Just at half-time, we give the guys some time. We don’t give them messages straight away. They re-hydrate and gather their thoughts.

“The forwards and backs will meet as units. Steve Tandy will then deliver something from defence, Gregor will talk about attack, then I finish off with some points.

“The message from me was we’re still in this arm wrestle even though we’re down. Just keep our composure. We’d get some opportunities in the second-half.

“If we had easy three points, take them. If it was a bit wider out, put it in the corner and squeeze them that way. Also spoke about some of the soft penalties and making sure our discipline was better in the second-half which it was.

“Just being a bit more accurate with our kicking game and getting more of the scraps there. That turned for us in the second-half.”

Going to the corner was a decision discussed at half-time?

WG: “Yeah. We kind of felt that they never really got into our 22 and put us under pressure.

“And we felt that, with a couple of those penalties, we wanted to get into their 22 and really look to keep them down there and to pressurise them and to try and get some points from that.

“We mauled exceptionally well, particularly in that second half we got a couple of penalties and scored a try. It’s just about getting that balance right between when you take your three points and even though it’s three points it does relieve a lot of pressure on them.

“And that’s a decision the players make at the time, and the captain makes that. Dan Biggar in the first half has missed what for him would be considered a reasonably easy penalty to close the gap to 12-6 and then we’ve had a long shot with Elliot Daly.

“So there was just a little bit of a change of message at half-time about when we do get a chance to out them under pressure by kicking into the 22 let’s look at doing that.”

How did you rate the performance of Jack Conan in the biggest test of his career?

WG: “Jack did what he does well, and the reason we picked him, he doesn’t make mistakes. He’s incredibly accurate, he takes those kick-offs, he’s got some good footwork, he’s got us some go-forward and does a lot of the unspectacular stuff that you need in a forward pack to get the balance right.

“You’ve got guys who carry a bit more and stuff, so we’re really pleased with his performance, and it was incredibly solid.

“He’s continued to improve in this environment. He’s like a sponge in terms of gaining knowledge. He asks really good questions, he takes on information well and we’re really pleased with his development.

“I remember the first game he played, he was incredibly nervous about the first hit-out and he’s one of those players who does get pretty nervy before a game but this week he seemed a lot calmer and a lot more assured, and I think that’s given him a lot of confidence and self-belief in his own performances.”

Fourth Test win as Lions coach – where does it rank for you?

WG: “It’s definitely up there. Any Lions Test win is special.

“For us, it’s been a challenge. We’ve worked hard and, for me, having been down points and been a little bit of under pressure, keeping our composure and fighting our way back was the most pleasing thing.

“Just how strong we continued to grow into the game. To beat the world champions in their own back yard is really, really special.”

What did you make of the pitch – it looked like it was cutting up?

WG: “I think the way the pitch is, it’s quite slippery in terms of players holding their feet.

“Even though it was a lovely day, it starts to get quite dewy around 6pm or 7pm.

“It’s not the easiest to scrummage on. Players have to hold their feet and get their feet under them.

“It’s like anywhere in the southern hemisphere in the winter time. You get nice days but the pitches tend to get slippery in the evening time.”

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