Sparks fly over Lions training session with reserves taking their frustration out on the starting XV
The Lions are set to meet fire with fire when they face South Africa on Saturday, after tensions spilled over during a fierce training session on Tuesday afternoon.
When Warren Gatland informed his British and Irish squads who had made the cut for the first Test against the Springboks, the reaction from the men who missed it was exactly what he had hoped for. They unleashed their frustration in a full-contact showdown with the chosen XV and sparks flew.
There were some concerns that the Lions might struggle to cope with the physical intensity of the world champions, after largely one-sided touring matches leading up to the internationals. But those fears were allayed by the events at the visitors’ training camp in Hermanus two days ago.
Tensions mounted during Lions training after Warren Gatland designated his team for the first test
“Some workouts were probably tougher than some games,” Gatland said after confirming his lineup for the Boks.
“We had a bit of bone on bone yesterday. It was a pretty rough day with a bit of misery, as you’d expect. The nice thing was that the guys who missed it just threw everything on everything.’
Past Lions tours have had notoriously explosive sessions as so many high-quality players compete for places on the test team and tempers can explode. It was the same again this time.
“There was a bit of stomping — standing on someone’s leg and stomping,” Gatland said, when asked to clarify what he meant by “niggle.” “The guy just had to take a few punches and get his leg out of the way because he slowed the ball. I thought it was brilliant. There were a few pushes and pulls. The boys didn’t flinch.
The reserves unleashed their frustration in a full-contact showdown with the chosen XV X
‘That’s what you get in Test Match Rugby. There was nothing thrown in terms of punches. You just saw that guys weren’t willing to take a step back. It just shows what it means. You have guys who are disappointed and want to show their disappointment by making sure they don’t back down. That sometimes flares up in a little whining.’
Gatland was the forward coach of the Lions on their final tour of South Africa 12 years ago, when the tourists responded to defeat in the series opener by taking on the Boks in the epic and ferocious second Test in Pretoria.
He doesn’t expect the kind of foul play in this series that marked the previous one here, but does expect aggression and intimidation – and is confident that his team will hold up, with a legitimate display of strength.
“The things that happened in 2009 would (now) be picked up pretty quickly,” he said. “You saw that second test and Schalk Burger admitted that he should have been sent away for that dazzling incident and he kind of lost his head and was too excited.
Lions coach Gatland said he was happy with the way the left-out players reacted to training
‘You have to go to the extreme, but also keep control. There is a lot at stake for both sides and the last thing we want from a Lions perspective is a test match being decided by a yellow card or someone being sent off.
‘But the message is also that we are not taking a step back. In 2009, there were a lot of guys running in there, pushing and pulling – that sort of thing. We spoke to that as a team and said we wouldn’t take any more of it. That’s probably why there was that minus in 2009.’
The game has changed and gotten cleaner, but Gatland knows South Africa will still try to force the Lions into submission. He’s optimistic they won’t, adding: “It’s part of the way they’ve dominated other teams in the world. You just have to keep coming at them and make sure you don’t step back.
“I know the respect we’ve received from a Welsh perspective, from the South African team, in the way we just never left and kept leading the way. We brought that physicality and earned that respect. You have to earn their respect, and if you do that, it helps a lot in making appearances and winning matches.”
Gatland confirmed the predicted selection surprises, with Jack Conan, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ali Price and Duhan van der Merwe pushing their way into the Lions XV at the expense of more established candidates.
He then expressed some surprise at the decision of his Springbok counterpart, Jacques Nienaber, to support Captain Siya Kolisi and No. 10 Handre Pollard, who have had limited training time after a Covid outbreak forced them to isolate.
Gatland expressed surprise at the Springboks’ decision to support captain Siya Kolisi, who has had limited training time following forced Covid isolation
“They choose players they see fit, who haven’t had much rugby yet,” he said. Pollard is one of them. He came off the bench for Montpellier (at the end of last season) and has been out for a while. Kolisi has been out for a while, so has Lead the Hunter.
“They’ve had 46-47 players in the roster and a few have broken up with Covid. They had other options, but they went back to players who have been there, done it and played well in the World Cup. That’s understandable, but some of them may well be underexposed.’
That is no longer a problem for the Lions. They have reached a volcanic state of alert.