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'We were bold': The Gatland ruling on agonising Lions series loss

By Liam Heagney

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Warren Gatland cut a magnanimous figure at his final 2021 Lions media conference, congratulating the Springboks for their Test series victory and complimenting the attitude of his own players in a Cape Town decider that went down to the wire and was only decided by a 79th-minute penalty from Morne Steyn, the series clincher when they team previous clashed in the 2009 series. 


The match exploded into life with a 57th-minute converted try from Cheslin Kolbe which nudged the Springboks 13-10 ahead and the exchanges were was nerve-wracking from there until the finish, a 75th-minute Finn Russell penalty drawing the Lions level at 16-all and leaving them set for a repeat of the 2017 series draw with the All Blacks until Steyn’s late strike proved decisive. 

“I’m disappointed but really proud of the effort the boys put in today,” enthused Gatland at his virtual post-game Lions media briefing from Cape Town Stadium. “I thought we were bold. We went out there to be positive, to play some rugby, missed one or two chances and they kind of got a lucky bounce and scored a try against the run of play and a couple of 50/50 calls probably didn’t go our way. 

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“But it was a proper Test match, it was tough, it was physical. That is what you expect and that is what you want with the Lions series. It’s not going to be easy going away, travelling away from home playing the world champions. It was a really tight contest. As I said, it could have gone either way and congratulations to South Africa.

“It was a bit of deja vu,” he added in reference to Steyn being the series clincher just as he was in 2009 when Gatland was an assistant to the Ian McGeechan-coached Lions. “The penalty count was against us, 15-12, and at this level, it is so, so important. Your aim is to keep your penalties under ten in international rugby and if you can do that it makes a significant difference. 

“We had a penalty our way and then the high shot from Finn Russell goes the other way and big moments, a two-on-one with Liam Williams and Josh Adams and he should have given the pass probably. You get one or two chances at this level and you have got to make the most of it because you have to be clinical when they come around.  


“When you are playing against South Africa and they are the world champions, you know it is going to be a really tight contest. It’s going to be a bounce of a ball or a call or something and we have been held up over the line and then we get penalised in the scrum which was a little bit unlucky when you are five metres out from their line. 

“From that point of view, there were some key moments but it was always going to be a bounce of the ball, it was always going to be tight. The boys gave it 100 per cent and from a coaching perspective, you can’t ask for more than that. We spoke at half-time about starting really well after half-time.

“We had a good first half and that was probably the most disappointing part of the game was that first ten minutes after half-time where we just got pinned in our half and it took us a while to start generating some more momentum. 

“At the highest level you get one or two chances and a mistake is really costly and even though the players have given everything they will probably look back individually and go there was an error there and they have given a penalty away that is a big moment in the game and that is kind of what you are working towards at the highest level, to eliminate some of those sorts of things,” continued Gatland who has now won, drawn and lost a Test series during his three tours in charge of the Lions.


“But as I said, I can’t complain about our attitude and the way that we approached it. We went to stress them as much as we could and we probably turned down a couple of three point opportunities to go to the corner to try and build a bit of lead that then put them under a bit of pressure just to force them to not potentially keep going to the air and open up the game a bit.”

Gatland admitted his thoughts late in the game drifted back to Japan in 2019 when Wales took on the Springboks in the World Cup semi-final. “It was a tough series and it was exciting and those are the things that you want to be involved in. 

“At 16-all I was thinking it reminded me a little bit of the World Cup semi-final, you think you have got to stay in this and someone is going to get an opportunity towards the end of the game and unfortunately we were the ones penalised and conceded three points.

“You have to be very clear in terms of that, play a bit of territory and wait for a chance because you are going to get a moment in those last few minutes when the game is so tight.”     


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