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British and Irish Lions: Fitness and depth will be decisive against South Africa - Warren Gatland

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Published in Rugby
Wednesday, 21 July 2021 12:04

British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland feels the fitness and depth of his squad will be decisive factors in the upcoming Test series against South Africa.

Gatland named his team on Wednesday, calling the selection the hardest he has been involved in as a Lions boss.

He believes competition in his squad is fiercer than in the Springboks' camp.

"I would like to think we have a little more depth than the South African squad has at the moment," he said.

Gatland and his four assistants were locked in a selection meeting on Sunday which lasted almost two hours, with the coaching team only initially agreeing on four players in the forwards and three in the backs.

"It's credit to the players - there is so much competition in the squad," he added.

"There are so many players that have made this selection really difficult for us. It makes it hard, but it's where you want it to be.

"In previous tours you would go into the [selection] meeting and there would be 19 or 20 players everyone would be on the same page with.

"But this has been completely different. If there are knocks and injuries, we have the depth in the squad to handle losing players."

'We are going to get stronger and stronger'

While Gatland has vowed not to try and beat the Boks at their own game, with the world champions renowned for their physical approach, he feels the Lions have the gameplan and the fitness to ask questions of the world champions.

"You can't go into a Test match playing South Africa without trying to match their physicality. Test match rugby is all about the physical battle and that doesn't change," he explained.

"But then it's about making sure you are smart and capitalising on chances from an attacking perspective.

"After that A game [last Wednesday's defeat by South Africa 'A'], we felt we were in a great position from a conditioning point of view. The guys have worked incredibly hard in the pre-tour camp and since we have been here.

"So we don't think we are going to fall away. We think as the game goes on, we are going to get stronger and stronger."

'Sometimes you don't have answers for players'

Gatland has left a host of players with strong Lions pedigree out of the starting XV, with hooker Jamie George and number eight Taulupe Faletau - heroes in New Zealand four years ago - not even making the matchday 23.

Meanwhile Conor Murray and Owen Farrell, who both started all three Tests in 2017, have to make do with places on the bench, with Ali Price and Dan Biggar the starting half-backs.

For Farrell, it will be the first time he hasn't started a game for England or the Lions when fit and available since 2015.

"I had a good chat with Owen and he wanted to know where he was; [but] sometimes you don't have answers for players, you just decide to go with a player because you feel they are the right player at the time," Gatland said.

"And we felt Dan Biggar was the right player. But the message to Owen was [to use] his experience off the bench, and to play instinctively. That experience for us is going to be important.

"There was a lot of discussion about the bench, and there are guys who are going to be disappointed they are not starting, and will want to come on and make an impact, whether that is Conor [Murray], Owen [Farrell] or Liam Williams.

"We feel these guys can come on and make a difference."

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