While Saturday’s 22-17 victory over South Africa puts the tourists in the box seat to win the series, any notion of complacency will not be entertained.
The win in Cape Town was a long time coming - the Lions had to wait until the 61st minute to get their noses in front - and Maro Itoje expects the Springboks to come back harder and stronger in the second Test.
Itoje was one of the stand-out performers in red and a worthy recipient of the man of the match award. A keen student of the game’s history, he knows that previous Lions teams have thrown away a first Test advantage and is acutely aware that Saturday’s win will count for nought if they don’t back it up by securing the series.
“In the first half we didn’t start with the intensity and we were probably a little too frantic,” said Itoje. “I think there is so much more in this team. Game on game, we’re getting better, we’re learning lessons.
“Saturday was a great win but I’m a man who likes to look at history to see how other tours have unfolded. Looking at the 2001 series in Australia, they [the Lions] won the first Tests quite convincingly then went on to lose the next two.”
The lessons of 20 years ago will likely be highlighted this week as the tourists chase a victory this Saturday which would clinch a first series win in South Africa since 1997.
The message from Gatland and Itoje is that the Lions will have to be better for the second installment in Cape Town. Both men expressed concern about the first-half performance and Itoje knows the Lions benefitted significantly from their superior fitness, understandable given the Springboks’ lack of gametime since winning the World Cup in 2019.
“The first half we came out with a decent intensity but not probably not the intensity we needed,” said the lock forward. “But most importantly, and to our detriment, we were giving away a lot of silly penalties. We weren’t being as disciplined as we needed to be.
“In the second half we flipped it on its head. We came out with a higher intensity and we kept our discipline a lot more and as a result we were able to put a little bit more pressure on them.
“We just had to trust ourselves a bit more. Trust ourselves, trust our systems and increase the intensity. At half-time we were obviously 12-3 down and often when you are in that kind of situation you have two choices; either you continue doing what you’re doing and watch the scoreboard get away from you or you roll up your sleeves and try to turn it around. We tried to do the latter and, fortunately for us, it was successful.
“Our conditioners have done a great job. We’ve worked pretty hard here in South Africa behind the scenes. We back ourselves to at least play for the full 80 so I don’t think anything was too much of a surprise but we just had to show a bit more faith in our ability than we did in the first half.”
If it was the classic game of two halves, the match also underlined once again the importance of good discipline. The Lions were guilty in the opening 40 and Handre Pollard punished them, kicking four penalties to open up a nine-point advantage. But it was the Boks who let things slip after the break as the Lions came out firing, with Ali Price’s early box kick putting the hosts under immediate pressure.
Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try from a lineout driving maul ignited the fightback and Dan Biggar added to his first half penalty with 11 second-half points off the tee. Owen Farrell, on as a replacement, kicked a 79th-minute penalty to add some gloss.
For all the Lions’ second-half dominance, the Boks were never out of it. Faf de Klerk plundered a try shortly after Cowan-Dickie’s but South Africa also had scores disallowed by the television match official either side of the scrum-half’s effort.
They were big calls by Marius Jonker, the local TMO, and Jacques Nienaber, the home coach, was gracious in defeat, refusing to apportion blame.
The Lions had been angry with the appointment of a South African as TMO but it was his intervention that ruled out tries by Willie le Roux and Damian de Allende. Key moments.
South Africa’s gameplan revolved around kicking for territory and forcing the Lions into conceding penalties. It worked well at first but they will surely need to be more adventurous when they return to Cape Town this weekend. Itoje certainly expects it to be tougher.
“South Africa are a very proud rugby nation. From what I know about them, they’re big on analysis,” he said. “I think they’re going to analyse that game a lot and they are going to pick out trends, pick out ways in which they can improve.
“I think they’re going to come with a higher intensity. They’re going to come harder at the scrum, they’re going to come harder at the lineout, they’re going to come harder with their kicking game - that’s probably where they got the most change out of us on Saturday so they’ll probably look to attack that.
“We need to be better in all three of those areas. We need to be cleaner, we need to be more efficient, especially with our kicking game and in our breakdown, where we need to be a lot better.”