Sparks fly at Lions training session as reserves show frustration

Sparks fly at Lions training session as Warren Gatland admits tensions boiled with reserves taking out their frustration on the starting XV ahead of the first Springboks Test on Saturday

  • Tensions boiled over during a ferocious Lions training session on Tuesday 
  • Warren Gatland has named his starting XV to face South Africa on Saturday 
  • The reserves took out their frustration on the chosen starters in training 
  • Lions head coach Gatland was pleased with the way the omitted players reacted 

The Lions are primed to meet fire with fire when they face South Africa on Saturday, after tensions boiled over during a ferocious training session on Tuesday afternoon.

When Warren Gatland informed his British and Irish squad who had made the cut for the first Test against the Springboks, the response of the men who missed out was exactly what he had hoped for. They unleashed their frustration in a full-contact confrontation with the chosen XV and sparks flew.

There have been some concerns that the Lions might struggle to handle the physical intensity of the world champions, after largely one-sided tour games in the build-up to the internationals. But any such fears were allayed by events at the visitors’ training base in Hermanus two days ago.

Tensions boiled over in Lions training after Warren Gatland named his team for the first Test

‘Some of the training sessions have probably been tougher than some of the games,’ said Gatland, after confirming his line-up to take on the Boks. 

‘We had a bit of “bone on bone” yesterday. It was a pretty tough day with a bit of niggle, as you’d expect. The pleasing thing was that the guys who missed out just threw everything at it.’

Past Lions tours have featured notoriously explosive sessions as so many high-quality players are competing for places in the Test team and tempers can erupt. It was the same again this time.

‘There was a bit of stomping —standing on someone’s leg and stomping,’ said Gatland, when asked to clarify what he meant by ‘niggle’. ‘The guy just had to take a few stomps and get his leg out of the way because he was slowing the ball down. I thought it was brilliant. There were a couple of pushes and shoves. Guys were not backing down.

The reserves unleashed their frustration in a full-contact confrontation with the chosen XV

‘You get that in Test match rugby. There was nothing in terms of punches thrown. You just saw guys not being prepared to take a backwards step. It just shows what it means. You have guys who are disappointed and want to show their disappointment by making sure that they don’t go backwards. That sometimes flares up into a bit of niggle.’

Gatland was the Lions’ forwards coach on the last tour of South Africa 12 years ago, when the tourists responded to defeat in the series opener by going toe-to-toe with the Boks in the epic and savage second Test in Pretoria.

He doesn’t expect the sort of foul play in this series which scarred the previous one here, but does expect aggression and intimidation — and is confident that his team will stand their ground, with a legitimate show of force.

‘The stuff that went on in 2009, that would be picked up pretty quickly (now),’ he said. ‘You saw that second Test and Schalk Burger admitted that he should have been sent off for that eye-gouging incident and he sort of lost his head and was too fired-up.

Lions coach Gatland said he was pleased with the way the omitted players reacted in training

‘You have to take it to the edge, but keep control as well. There is a lot at stake for both sides and the last thing that we want from a Lions perspective is a Test match decided by a yellow card or someone being sent off.

‘But also, the message is we don’t take a backwards step. In 2009, there were a lot of guys running in, pushing and shoving — those sorts of things. We addressed that as a squad and said that we wouldn’t take any more of it. That is why there was probably that niggle in 2009.’

The game has changed and become cleaner, but Gatland knows that South Africa will still seek to pound the Lions into submission. He is optimistic that they won’t manage to do so, adding: ‘It’s part of the way that they have dominated other teams in the world. You have got to just keep coming at them and make sure you don’t take a backwards step.

‘I know the respect we gained from a Welsh perspective, from the South Africa team, in the way that we just never went away and kept fronting up. We brought that physicality and earned that respect. You have to earn their respect, and if you do, it goes a long way to helping get performances and winning matches.’

Gatland confirmed the selection surprises which had been forecast, with Jack Conan, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ali Price and Duhan van der Merwe forcing their way into the Lions XV at the expense of more established candidates.

He then expressed a degree of surprise about the decision by his Springbok counterpart, Jacques Nienaber, to back captain Siya Kolisi and No 10 Handre Pollard who have had limited training time after a Covid outbreak forced them to isolate.

Gatland expressed his surprise about the Springboks’ decision to back captain Siya Kolisi, who has had limited training time after an enforced Covid isolation

‘They are picking players who they consider fit, who haven’t had a lot of rugby,’ he said. ‘Pollard is one of them. He was coming off the bench for Montpellier (at the end of last season) and has been laid up for a while. Kolisi has been out for a while, Lood de Jager too.

‘They’ve had 46-47 players in the squad and a few laid up with Covid. They had other options, but they’ve gone back to players who have been there, done it and played well at the World Cup. That’s understandable, but some of them could quite possibly be under-done.’

That’s no longer an issue for the Lions. They have reached a volcanic state of readiness.

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