Four things the Lions can improve on this week before series decider

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images

1. The aerial contest

In many ways the second Test was a mirror image of the first with South Africa this time powering home after an early try in the second half. Similarly, whereas South Africa had looked shaky under the high ball in the first Test, so the Lions looked ill at ease in the second. South Africa set the tone from the very first whistle with the outstanding Makazole Mapimpi scorching down his wing to contest Handre Pollard’s kick-off. Mapimpi was a nuisance throughout and Stuart Hogg – who shelled the ball on three occasions – Anthony Watson, who also made three handling errors, and Duhan van der Merwe all failed to cope. Warren Gatland cannot say the Lions did not see it coming but perhaps he put a misguided faith in his back three after the first Test considering his side failed to gather cleanly no fewer than nine contestable kicks in the second half alone. South Africa capitalised, too, given Mapimpi’s try came after a Hogg drop while Pollard turned the screw from the tee with Watson floundering. Liam Williams is the best bomb defuser in the Lions squad and it would be a surprise if he does not come into the side for the decider.

 Related: Decisive Lions Test overshadowed by unsporting behaviour and ugly rugby | Robert Kitson 

2. The set-pieces

Two images of the second half linger – one an emphatic shove at scrum-time to earn a penalty, and the other a South African driving maul picking up pace and pushing into the Lions’ 22. Gatland has repeatedly said how pleased he is that the Lions have not conceded a try from a driving maul all tour and, while that still rings true, here was the Springboks pack flexing their muscle – dented egos now restored – with the touring side forced into giving away too many penalties. Lood De Jager made a huge difference when coming off the bench to disrupt the Lions lineout and Robin McBryde has his work cut out this week to bring about the necessary improvements. It is also time for Gatland to load the bench with players with specialist skills. Adam Beard, for example, could be called upon if the lineout is going awry, Hamish Watson if the breakdown battle is being lost, or even Sam Simmonds if the Lions are able to get width on the ball. In the second Test South Africa’s bomb squad was back to its explosive best but the Lions’ bench – five players came on within three minutes of each other – failed to make an impact.

3. The tempo

Gatland largely bit his tongue after the match, venturing only that Cheslin Kolbe taking Conor Murray out in the air “didn’t look great” when asked if it warranted a yellow card or more harsh a sanction. The closest he came to criticising the officials, however, was to lament how South Africa were repeatedly able to slow the game down. The first half lasted more than an hour and while the officials’ insistence to triple check everything did not help, the Lions emphatically failed to run South Africa off their feet. “The referee was continually talking to them about trying to speed the game up and keep it moving,” Gatland said. “He was trying to stop the clock. So that is something we will look at raising next week in terms of how we get some more tempo in the game. It’s difficult to change that and you’ve just got to hopefully get the captain working with the referee and Alun Wyn was talking to Ben [O’Keeffe] in terms of trying to speed the game up and keep it moving. It was very stop-start.” Gatland was also honest enough to admit his players needed to inject tempo and that is likely to be reflected in changes, possibly at half-back. Ali Price coming back into the starting XV would be a good bet while Finn Russell getting the nod outside him would be a bold move that could just pay off. Dan Biggar passed the ball just three times all match and that attitude needs to change.

4. The verbals

How Gatland approaches his public appearances this week will be fascinating. Both pre- and post-match Gatland was in defensive mood, insisting his issue with the TMO appointment for the first Test was not specifically with Marius Jonker’s integrity, rather that World Rugby did not have a backup plan and did not inform him of its contingency plan until a few days before the match. Should Gatland step on the offensive this week with a few comments he hopes Mathieu Raynal – the referee for the decider – will hear or will he keep his counsel? Four years ago, after the first Test defeat in New Zealand when the Lions were comprehensively outplayed, Gatland took aim at his players. “If I was playing on Saturday night and I felt I was physically dominated, I’d be a little bit disappointed in myself,” he said. “I’d be doing everything I could physically do the following week to make sure I fixed that area of the game. If I felt my pride was hurt a little bit, I’d be wanting to fix that.” He also took aim at the All Blacks for illegally targeting Murray so history tells us Gatland will not be afraid to speak his mind this week.

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