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Matt Dawson column: British and Irish Lions climbed a mountain against South Africa

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Published in Rugby
Sunday, 25 July 2021 04:06

Stepping on to the field for the second British and Irish Lions Test against South Africa in 1997 having won the first was the most intense thing I have ever experienced.

A packed-out stadium with a load of Lions fans tucked up in the corner and the sound system on full volume.

Enormous South African players running down the ramp on to the pitch, then the physicality of what they bring, was incredibly intimidating.

It stirs the soul and the pit of your belly. That is why you want to play in those games.

You do not want to play because it is a stroll in the park and you are going to win 30-0. You want to test yourself to the max and that is what the Lions will get against South Africa on Saturday.

Either you are the type of player where the hairs are up on the back of your neck and you are ready to fight, or you are not.

The Lions can go away and pat themselves on the back for an epic first-Test win against South Africa but in the cold light of day on Monday or Tuesday they are going to look at it and examine places where they were not good enough, in order to prepare for the next challenge.

'The world champions are going to be sharper'

South Africa are the world's best underdog and that is what they are going to bring next week.

Imagine what the Springboks are going to be like where everything is on the line. They are not leaving anything behind.

The world champions are going to be sharper. They are going to have more match fitness. You expect that they are going to be a better side next week. It is going to be huge.

A 3-0 whitewash is not even on the Lions' radar. I can categorically say that the players will not be thinking about anything other than 2-0 and a series win.

They have got an opportunity and they only need to win two games.

'The Lions pulled themselves out of a gaping hole'

The Lions climbed a mountain after the first half. They were 12-3 down at half-time and ordinarily you do not come back from that when you are playing in South Africa.

It shows what a class group they are and what intensity they have to pull themselves out of that gaping hole they were in and dominate so much of the second half.

What a half-time Warren Gatland must have had. The intent right from the off in the second half was as if captain Alun Wyn Jones and Gatland had asked the Lions why they were backing off.

They were matching South Africa at set-piece - the only way the Springboks were in the game is that the Lions kept giving penalties away. Jones and Gatland would have said, 'let's take it to them'.

In the second half the Lions did not give away any penalties, and they were kicking for corners to score tries.

They also realised in the second half they could put it through the hands, rather than trying to kick the leather off it and beat South Africa at their own game.

The Lions had revealed their fury during the week after a late change in officials meant the television match official was South African Marius Jonker.

Jonker ruled out Willie le Roux's try for an offside and I cannot believe he disallowed it. Looking at the slow-motion video, it looked like it was a try.

You do wonder, was it a masterstroke from Gatland? To kick up a right fuss about that just to mark the card. Then there is just a niggle in the back of the TMO's mind about giving a 50-50 call to South Africa.

'Lawes played like a man possessed'

Ian McGeechan spoke all those years ago about Test match animals and no truer word has been said - Gatland knows that about Courtney Lawes.

The Lions brings out certain individuals that just fill the jersey, it triggers something in them.

Lawes played like a man possessed. Both he and Itoje were just epic and Ken Owens was magnificent when he came on.

The Lions bench was so strong, particularly Owen Farrell and Conor Murray, who came on when the game loosened up a bit and brought the calmness that was needed to see it out.

All in all, I would be really surprised if Gatland makes unforced changes. You win a Test match for the Lions, you deserve to be playing next week.

Matt Dawson was speaking to BBC Sport's Becky Grey.

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