Tensions boil over in ferocious Lions training before first South Africa Test

Flaring tempers are a natural part of any British and Irish Lions tour, and head coach Warren Gatland was pleased to see a physical reaction from the squad after naming his first Test team.

The stage is set for the opening segment of a three-Test series against South Africa after Gatland confirmed his line-up on Wednesday, with at least a dozen of Europe’s biggest rugby stars missing out.

The elite level of competition is evidenced by the names missing from Saturday’s team sheet in Cape Town, and those omitted made sure to let the fortunate few know how lucky they are.

The Lions waltzed to wins in five of their six warm-up fixtures this summer, and Gatland said the ‘niggle’ that erupted at their Hermanus headquarters was pleasing to see.

“Some of the training sessions have probably been tougher than some of the games,” he told reporters after announcing his squad for the first Test clash.

“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.”

Gatland, 57, may not have looked so kindly on said scraps had one resulted in injury, though the Lions will need to raise their intensity if they’re to tame the reigning world champions.

The tourists’ sole warm-up defeat came in the shape of a 17-13 loss to South Africa ‘A’ a little more than a week ago, with nine of the same XV set to start for the Springboks in Cape Town on Saturday.

Asked what he meant by “niggle,” Gatland clarified: “There was a bit of stomping —standing on someone’s leg and stomping.

“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.

“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.”

Captain Alun Wyn Jones is one of those counting his blessings to be a part of the first Test team considering it wasn’t long ago a dislocated shoulder appeared to have ended his tour.

The Wales lock is the sole survivor from the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour that lost their series 2-1 in South Africa, where matching the Springboks’ physicality was one of their shortcomings.

Gatland travelled as forwards coach under Sir Ian McGeechan 12 years ago, but he’ll hope his decisions will lead to a superior result now he’s in the head role.

As for the selection named by his opposite number, South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber, Gatland stirred the pot by hinting some names may be under-cooked for the first Test.

Boks captain Siya Kolisi and fly-half Handre Pollard start despite recent Covid-19 isolation periods, and Gatland suggested both picks could prove premature: “They are picking players who they consider fit, who haven’t had a lot of rugby.

“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.”

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