Warren Gatland has revealed how some heated Lions training sessions have provided the tourists with the perfect preparation for their Test series opener against the Springboks this weekend.
The Lions coach described how, since naming his team for the first Test, sessions have been full of “niggle” – adding that should ensure that the Lions don’t go into Saturday’s clash cold.
You can see all the team news and reaction here.
During the last tour of South Africa, the Lions went into the 2009 Test series against the Springboks somewhat under-cooked – a point that Gatland, who was part of the coaching staff that year, has gone to great lengths to make during the current tour.
And he is adamant that the tourists will have taken every step to avoid being caught cold again.
“Some of the training sessions have had real physicality and have probably been tougher than some of the games we’ve played,” he said.
“We had a bit of bone on bone yesterday. It’s not something you do a huge amount but it was very much a defensive day with some attack.
“We focused on that as well as the aerial battle and what they’re going to throw at us.
“It was a pretty tough day with a little bit of niggle which you’d expect. The pleasing thing was that the guys who missed out just threw everything at it.
“That was exactly what I wanted. I know myself that if I wasn’t in the 15 or the 23 the message to everyone would be don’t give them anything and don’t take a backward step.
“They definitely did that. It was tough for us but exactly what we wanted. We got a huge amount out of it.”
When pushed on just how much niggle there was in training, he opened up on the extent to which the Lions stars were going at each other.
“Yeah there was a bit of stomping,” explained Gatland, before going on to define what he’d call stomping. “Standing on someone’s leg and stomping.
However, the Lions coach admitted that it was exactly the sort of full-blooded training he was looking for in a Test week.
“The guy just had to take a few stomps and get his leg out of the way because he was slowing the ball down,” he added.
“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 and that’s exactly what you expect because it just shows what it means, not just to the players who are starting but for the guys who are not involved.
“They were going to show that they are here to train well and made it difficult for the starting XV. You often get that it ramps up that intensity as you get closer to the Tests, particularly at the start of the week when you have a tough, physical session.
“You have guys who are going to be disappointed and they want to show their disappointment about making sure that they don’t go backwards. That sometimes flares up into a couple of pushes and shoves and a bit of niggle.”
That attitude of not taking a backwards step will undoubtedly be something the Lions carry into this Test series.
While Gatland admitted that the three Tests likely won’t reach the horrific levels of painstaking physicality of 12 years ago – especially with the part that TMOs now play in the game – he did add that the a “controlled physicality” would be the only way to gain the respect of the world champions and ultimately beat them.
“There will probably be a bit of pushing and shoving,” he said. “You get that.
“But the stuff that went on in 2009 with the TMOs and reviews – they will be picked up pretty quickly. 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.
“You have to take it to the edge, but you also have to keep your control as well. There is a lot at stake for both sides and we have to make sure we bring that physicality – but a controlled physicality.
“The last thing that we want from a Lions perspective is a Test match decided on someone making a really poor decision – going in with a shoulder, a tackle too high.
“It is about being on the edge but making sure that they are controlled with that. But also, the message is making sure we don’t take a backwards step and we don’t allow them, like in 2009 there were a lot of guys running in and pushing a shoving – those sorts of bits and pieces – 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 and it is 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.
“We have had some pretty tough encounters, a number of games that we won with Wales and the close game in the World Cup semi-final, which was an arm wrestle.
“I know the respect that we gained from a Welsh perspective from the South African team in the way that we just never went away and kept fronting up, brought that physicality and earn that respect and that is the biggest thing that you have to do.
“You have to earn their respect, and if you do that, it goes a long way to helping get results, performances and winning matches.”
For the latest rugby updates sent straight to your inbox, you can sign up to our ROAR or Welsh rugby newsletters.