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Warren Gatland wants the same again from ‘mature’ Maro Itoje

British & Irish Lions


Lions star: Maro Itoje was man of the match in the first Test. Credit: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Lions star: Maro Itoje was man of the match in the first Test. Credit: INPHO/Billy Stickland

©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Lions star: Maro Itoje was man of the match in the first Test. Credit: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Warren Gatland has hailed Maro Itoje’s “incredibly mature” performance in the British and Irish Lions’ first Test victory over South Africa as the best match of the England lock’s career.

Itoje was at his dominant best as the Lions turned a 12-3 half-time deficit on its head to topple the world champions 22-17 in Cape Town on Saturday.

The 26-year-old second row spearheaded the Lions’ devastating tight-five work, leaving head coach Gatland heaping praise on the Saracens star.

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

“We all know the energy he brings to a game and how enthusiastic he is, and sometimes that’s probably been to his detriment because 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.”

Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try, 14 points from Dan Biggar’s boot and a match-securing penalty from Owen Farrell ensured the Lions kick-started the three-Test series in style.

The frustrated Springboks will be desperate to sharpen up for Saturday’s second encounter, however, with the Lions well aware of the hosts’ desperation.

Gatland’s men have the chance to seal a first series win over the Boks since 1997 and Itoje will once again prove central to the Lions’ chances. “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,” said Gatland.

“I spoke to him as well, and said maybe the penny has finally dropped.

“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.”

Lukhanyo Am, however, has vowed South Africa will take the physical battle to the Lions on Saturday.

The Springboks centre produced a thundering hit on Elliot Daly to start the three-Test series in shuddering style last weekend.

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Asked about his big hit on Daly, Am said: “It was the first Test of the series and the emotions were there, it was intentional to set the standards.

“As a team we have always had a great defensive mindset and it is something we are very proud of. This weekend it will be another physical battle we will be taking on.”

South Africa’s discipline slipped markedly in the second half on Saturday, with the Lions forcing the hosts into errors every time they kept possession in extended spells.

The Boks have worked hard this week to sharpen up their focus on both sides of the ball, leaving Am confident of a quick improvement as the hosts will bid to square the three-Test series.

“We are very good at adapting and reading what is happening on the field; it is something we will be aware of during the game,” said Am.

“We obviously expect some sort of a change because of the personnel that they have. That’s something we’re preparing for and will be aware of during the game.”

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