Warren Gatland felt Maro Itoje’s outstanding display in the British and Irish Lions’ victory over South Africa last weekend was the best he has seen from the back-row.

Itoje was named man of the match after playing a huge part in the Lions overturning a half-time deficit to win the first Test at Cape Town Stadium 22-17.

The 26-year-old England lock was dominant at the breakdown against the world champions and came up with a game-high three turnovers.

"To me that’s probably the best game I’ve seen him play in any sort of jersey," said Gatland.

"He has been guilty in the past of giving away penalties and probably pushing the limits but I thought we saw an incredibly mature performance last weekend."

 

Gatland was impressed with Itoje's discipline in an attritional battle.

"I thought it was an excellent performance; I made a joke on Monday that it was the first time in about 360-odd games that Maro Itoje hadn't given away a penalty," Gatland added.

"I thought his decision making around the game in terms of when he went for things, when he decided to leave things alone, I kind of felt in the past he's chased lost causes and gone after things he didn't need to do and probably wasted a lot of energy.

"But I thought on Saturday his decision making about when to go after something, counter-ruck at the breakdown and the line-out stuff, was actually outstanding."

The Lions have made three changes for the second Test on Saturday, bringing in scrum-half Conor Murray, Mako Vunipola and debutant Chris Harris.

Maro Itoje hailed the British and Irish Lions' "mental fortitude" as they came from behind to seal a superb 22-17 first Test win over South Africa on Saturday. 

Four penalties from Handre Pollard put the Springboks 12-3 ahead at half-time, but Warren Gatland's side roared back in the second period at the Cape Town Stadium. 

A Faf de Klerk try extended the world champions' lead after Luke Cowan-Dickie had crashed over, yet Dan Biggar took his tally from the tee to 14 points with a couple of penalties, before Owen Farrell put the Lions five points up late on.

Man of the match Itoje was in supreme form for the visitors, missing only one of 10 tackles and making three turnovers.

"These moments don't come very often in your career and you've got to take advantage," he told Sky Sports. 

"It's a massive privilege to wear this jersey and represent the Lions. To come out here and win as well is really special

"Second half was a great comeback but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We want to come out here and win this series so we have to go out and do the business next week.

"Fingers crossed after that we can go out and be a bit more light-hearted.

"We had to tidy up our discipline. We were making silly mistakes and giving away silly penalties.

"We tidied up our discipline in the second half and luckily we had the mental fortitude to see it through."

Gatland was full of praise for the performance of Saracens and England man Itoje.

He added: "Maro was immense and both he and Courtney Lawes had outstanding games.

"Then we had some decisions to make about bringing players on and we got those right, but certainly those two were very good."

The second Test takes place next Saturday in Cape Town.

Maro Itoje is looking forward to the competition Alun Wyn Jones will provide when he returns to the British and Irish Lions squad.

Jones, who was initially named as the tour captain, suffered a dislocated shoulder in a pre-tour match against Japan and was expected to miss the series against South Africa.

However, the most-capped player of all time will be back in contention for the Lions when their three-Test series against the Springboks starts on July 24.

England lock Itoje played and impressed on Wednesday, as the Lions failed to battle back against a South Africa A team littered with 2019 Rugby World Cup winners, suffering their first defeat in eight games in the process.

Though he will be competing with Jones for a place in Warren Gatland's team, Itoje is relishing the prospect of playing alongside the Wales star.

"He's a man of immeasurable experience, he is the most capped player in the history of rugby. He is going to add his experience, add his clout and add his edge," Itoje told Sky Sports.

"To be honest, I want the competition, I want the best team available and I want to compete. Those kind of decisions are not up to me, they're up to the man who gets paid the big bucks, Warren, so I'll leave that to him."

 

The Lions went down 17-13 in Cape Town, with their points tally their fewest in a match since a 12-3 win against the Crusaders in the 2017 tour of New Zealand.

Gatland's team came into the game having scored 50 points or more in three successive games – the first time they had managed such a run in their history. In fact, only on three previous tours have they scored a half-century of points in more than three games (1959, 1974, 1997).

Despite Wednesday's loss, Gatland is still confident his team can go on to defeat the world champions, who have played just one Test since beating England back in 2019.

"They came pretty hard at us in the first half. I was really pleased with the way we got back into the game and how strong we looked in the second half," the former Wales coach told Sky Sports.

"We stayed in the battle. That was the pleasing thing. The guys in the changing room are saying there is no reason why we can't win the series."

The British and Irish Lions will repeat a feat last achieved back in 1959 if they avoid a series defeat in South Africa.

Warren Gatland's side drew with New Zealand four years ago after a 2-1 triumph in Australia in 2013.

It is 62 years since the Lions were able to avoid defeat in a third consecutive tour and they will have to face the world champions without Alun Wyn Jones, who was replaced as captain by Conor Murray after he suffered a dislocated shoulder in the win over Japan.

Confirmation on Sunday that three members of the Springboks squad have tested positive for coronavirus was a concern before the Lions boarded the plane to South Africa.

They are due to play five tour matches before the first Test against the Springboks at Cape Town Stadium on July 24.

Stats Perform picks out some of the standout Opta numbers for such an eagerly-awaited tour.

 

BOKS TO GO BACK-TO-BACK?

South Africa were 2-1 winners the last time the Lions toured in 2009, but they have not won back-to-back series since coming out on top in 1962 and 1968.

The Springboks have won eight, lost four and tied one of their previous series against the Lions.

South Africa can boast 23 victories to the Lions' 17, with six of the 46 previous showdowns ending in a draw.

There have been alternate winners in the past five series between the Lions and South Africa, a sequence the Lions will be hoping continues.

 

SOUTH-AFRICA-BORN FLYER AMONG DEADLY DEBUTANTS

While the loss of Jones and Justin Tipuric to injury in the win over Japan at Murrayfield were big blows, Gatland will have been encouraged by the performances of his debutants.

Three of the four try-scorers in Edinburgh were making their Lions bows, with Josh Adams, Duhan Van Der Merwe and Tadhg Beirne crossing.

South-Africa born Scotland wing Van der Merwe was the leading try-scorer in the Six Nations this year with six and beat 31 defenders in the tournament, breaking a record set by Brian O'Driscoll.

He can make a big impact against his country of birth along with Adams, the leading try-scorer at the 2019 World Cup with seven.

South Africa must also be wary of Louis Rees-Zammit, the youngest tourist aged 20, after he scored four Six Nations tries and had the most clean breaks (nine) in the competition, also gaining the most metres per carry (9.9m from 27 carries).

Beirne caught the eye against Japan and can play a big part in South Africa. He affected the most turnovers in the Six Nations with nine and was the first man to 87 rucks - the same number as Gregory Alldritt.

 

PASS MASTER MURRAY CAN DICTATE

Murray was surprised to be given the honour of skippering the Lions in the absence of the most-capped player in the history of international rugby.

The Ireland scrum-half has vast experience and can lead by example in his third Lions tour.

Murray has won two, lost two and drawn one of his previous Lions Tests and will look to pull the strings for the tourists.

The 32-year-old pivot has assisted 25 Six Nations tries, eight more than any other player, and holds the record for the most passes in the competition with 3,527. Peter Stringer is next on the list with 2,539.

 

KEY MEN CAN ROAR AGAIN

There were some outstanding performances in the Lions' tour of New Zealand as they drew 1-1 with the All Blacks.

Maro Itoje was among the heroes of that tour and the England lock will embrace the battle with the Springboks. He hit more rucks (162) than any other player in the Six Nations this year and amassed 16 turnovers.

Versatile back Liam Williams made the most metres by a Lions player on the tour in New Zealand four years ago with 344 from six games.

Gatland has been able to rely on Taulupe Faletau time and again over the years. The back-row made the most tackles (76) in New Zealand and beat more defenders (14) than any other forward.

Maro Itoje gave away five penalties in England's 40-24 Six Nations defeat to Wales but head coach Eddie Jones claimed officials can "tend to over-referee a player like him".

Referee Pascal Gauzere faced scrutiny over his decision-making in Saturday's Cardiff clash, a third-round tussle in the Six Nations.

Wales scored two controversial first-half tries, but England's lack of discipline was also the Red Rose's undoing, giving away 14 penalties in total.

Jones related the attention Itoje draws from match officials to that experienced by former Australia forward George Smith.

Speaking about Saracens star Itoje, Jones said: "He is one of the best players in the world and he plays the game on the edge.

"I can remember the same sort of discussion being had about George Smith at one stage. Sometimes the referees tend to over-referee a player like him."

Quoted in several newspapers, Jones said Itoje could find ways to improve, for the benefit of his teams.

"There are areas of the game he needs to tidy up and he knows that," Jones said. "He's a good boy. A good player. There are just a few things in his game he needs to tidy up."

Jones would not want a repeat in England's next scheduled match, the home clash with coronavirus-hit France on March 13.

The apparent depths to which sporting rivalries can sink was underlined on Sunday when England prop Ellis Genge revealed he had received death threats after the Principality Stadium defeat.

Genge was shown on camera not clapping off the Wales team at the end of the match.

Genge wrote on Twitter: "Don't know why I'm not clapping in that tunnel must be deep in thought, utmost respect for the Welsh. As for keyboard warriors sending death threats etc ...."

England Rugby denounced such social media targeting of players, stating: "Respect is a core value of rugby. Yesterday we lost to Wales who deserved their victory.

"Unfortunately some of the reaction on social media to players and the team has not shown the level of respect the rugby community prides itself on.

"We will support our players and team against online abuse and hope true rugby fans will stand with us."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.