The Lions defeated the Sharks 54-7 in Johannesburg on Wednesday night but the match was given the green light less than two hours before kick-off as Gatland was forced to scramble a team together after eight players went into isolation following two positive tests for Covid-19.
Duhan van der Merwe and Josh Adams scored hat-tricks in a convincing win as the Lions prevailed in trying circumstances.
Amid a farcical situation on the bench, Finn Russell was the only recognised option to cover all seven backline spots as part of an unheard of seven-one split.
One Lions player has tested positive along with a member of the management team. The problems in the South Africa camp are worse, with the Springboks forced to cancel their match against Georgia on Friday due to Covid outbreaks in both squads.
Nevertheless, Gatland believes the tour can continue.
“I honestly believe that we will have a Test series,” said the Lions coach. “We spoke beforehand and our medics said, the likelihood of being in South Africa is that we’ll probably get a case or two and it’s how we deal with it.
“The players have been incredibly vigilant. South Africa are probably in a worse situation than us [in terms of Covid] but hopefully we’ve got some time in the next couple of weeks to get everyone right and get a good Test series and make sure we’re safe and secure in our bubbles.”
The first Test is scheduled for July 24 in Cape Town, with two more matches against the world champion Springboks to follow in Johannesburg on the next two Saturdays.
Gatland is unsure how the Covid cases came into the Lions camp but thinks it may have been from staff in the team hotel.
“We’ve been incredibly vigilant in terms of what we’ve been doing as a group,” he said. “We’ve been in this bubble for the last four weeks so we're not sure where it’s come from.
“I think the challenging thing was that when we first came into the hotel there were a number of hotel staff who had tested positive and had to be removed, so whether it’s come from that or not…. but I know all our tests had been negative up until today.
“We knew there was going to be certain challenges but we’re hopeful we can get things back on track and this Test series can go ahead.”
The Sharks match was delayed for an hour while the Lions squad was re-tested and Gatland was forced into changing four of his starting XV and four of his replacements, with the backs bearing the brunt of the Covid-related issues.
“It’s been quite surreal and a real challenge considering the staff and players were in our rooms until 6pm,” said the coach.
“We didn’t get the results back until 5.30pm and then had to make a few changes. But I’m incredibly proud of the performance and of the players and how they adjusted, and how the staff worked so hard today.
“More than the performance or the result, I’m really proud of the togetherness of the group and how much they want to go out there and perform and play and wear this jersey.”
Ben Calveley, the Lions managing director, has ruled out the possibility of finishing the tour in the UK
“All the games are important, but the Test series is paramount,” he said. “We’re here in South Africa and our intention is to get the games over the line in South Africa.”
The Lions’ match against the Bulls on Saturday has been postponed because of Covid in the latter’s squad and Calveley said he was still trying to find alternative opponents.
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