British & Irish Lions
Gatland relishing Lions' self-belief
June 19, 2009
Warren Gatland is hoping to catch South Africa cold in Durban on Saturday © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions head in to Saturday's first Test with South Africa with their winning streak on tour intact, but coach Warren Gatland has no illusions about the challenge awaiting his forwards.
Gatland is sure that Lions can play a smart game in Durban, keeping the ball alive and using their potentially potent backline to the full. There will be a great deal of focus on the breakdown and on the half-backs, Welsh duo Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones, with Gatland hoping that the Lions can dictate the pace of proceedings.
"If we get involved in a set-piece and a real physical one-on-one confrontation game, then that's something the South Africans are very good at and will enjoy," said Lions forwards coach Warren Gatland. "We've got to hopefully move their pack around a bit, try and play through lots of phases and ask some questions of their front five.
"For us, we can take a lot of confidence out of France's performance (and victory) against the All Blacks last week. Traditionally, it's normally the first Test when you have an opportunity to catch the home team a little bit underdone. We've got six games under our belt now, and a lot of training sessions, and we've got to go into this first Test with some confidence and some self-belief.
"We need to impose our game on them as much as possible. The South Africans are very proud about their rugby heritage and tradition, and they will be reminded about what happened in 1997. They definitely won't want a repeat of that."
Despite his Kiwi roots Gatland has quickly come to understand the importance of the Lions concept to players from the home unions, urging the players to take their chance at immortality in the red of the Lions.
"I've been incredibly privileged to be a part of this tour," added Gatland. "Paul O'Connell summed it up on day one. He's a proud Munsterman and a proud Irishman, but the pinnacle of his career is putting that Lions jersey on. As you count down towards the end of the tour, you've got to keep reminding yourself what a privilege it is and how lucky you are to be here. Let's not waste that opportunity and let the moment pass us by. We've got a chance to create something pretty special."
Gatland's sentiments were echoed by Springbok skipper John Smit, who is one of a number of players to have turned down overseas contracts in order to try and right the wrongs of their lost Test series against the Lions in 1997.
Smit led South Africa to World Cup glory in 2007, but has played up the once-in-a-lifetime nature of a Lions Test series.
"The 2007 World Cup was phenomenal and a lot of the guys will have another crack or two at the World Cup, but we won't have another chance at the Lions," said Smit. "The team has been buzzing for the last two weeks because of the importance of what is coming. There is so much at stake and we won't have another chance.
"The rarity of the occasion means the hype has been much bigger than any other Test match and that is saying something because there have been some huge matches over the last 12 years. A Lions tour is unique, it is the last link with the old school. What makes this series so important is that it is part of more than 100 years of history.
"Players who won the World Cup have stayed in South Africa to play against the Lions. What we have in the next couple of weeks will not come around again. There is pressure on us, but not in a negative sense. It is wonderful to have pressure like this because it shows how meaningful this series is."