Cowan-Dickie try helps Lions to victory

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Exeter Chiefs hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie reaches out to score the all-important try for the British & Irish Lions in their victory over South Africa. Pictures: Getty Images

By Mark Stevens

The British and Irish Lions drew first blood in their Three Test series against South Africa, fighting back from nine points down at half-time to win 22-17 in Cape Town.

Warren Gatland’s side were adrift at the break after Handre Pollard's four penalties, but Exeter Chiefs hooker hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie scrambled over from short range four minutes after the break to change the tide for the tourists, who also included fellow Chief, Stuart Hogg, in their starting line-up.

Faf de Klerk's scrappy try briefly restored the world champions' cushion, but Dan Biggar's boot and the tourists' superior conditioning saw them home with Owen Farrell's penalty three minutes from time sealing their success.

Post-game, Gatland admitted his side’s win could have gone either way, but took understandable satisfaction from knowing that whatever else, at a bare minimum his squad have ensured this Test series will go the distance.

The Lions head coach also pointed to the way his team defended throughout and particularly in the last phase of the match.

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Exeter's Stuart Hogg looks to find a way through for the British & Irish Lions

“We didn’t think that they created a lot of attacking opportunities and in that last passage of play, we were coming off the line and making big tackles and they weren’t going anywhere.

“They’ll be hurt from this because they’re an incredibly proud nation and world champions. Next week will be even bigger and tougher I would expect.From our point of view you win that first one and you know that no matter what happens, you’re going to the last weekend of the series. That keeps everyone engaged and really interested in it.

“It wasn’t just about the 23, this is an incredibly tight group of players. The non-23 did a brilliant job this week in helping that Test 23 prepare. The victory was as much about them and the whole squad as the guys who took the field.”

Trailing 12-3 at the interval, Gatland conveyed the impression that the away dressing room was quite calm.

“We normally give the guys some time. We don’t go in with messages straight away. They rehydrate, take some fluids on, give them a bit of time to gather their thoughts and then the forwards and backs will meet as units.

“Then Steve Tandy will deliver something from defence and Gregor [Townsend/] will talk about attack stuff and I will finish with some points. The message for me was, ‘Look, we are still in this arm-wrestle even though we are down, just keep our composure. We will get some opportunities in the second half and when we do get some opportunities we spoke about, if we got an easy three points, let’s take the three points. If it was a bit wider or a little bit longer or a little bit closer to the touchline to put them into the corner and squeeze them that way’.”

So the decision to go to the corner for the crucialCowan-Dickie try at the start of the second-half had been discussed during the interval.

Asked if the decisions by the officials had leaned towards the Lions, Gatland merely said: “No.”

He was altogether more effusive, naturally, about the performances of England duo Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes.

“I thought both of them were outstanding. I thought Courtney Lawes carried exceptionally well, he was strong. The big thing was when we started to get some ball on the front foot. It just stopped a little bit of their line speed, we were able to play through some phases and we got some reward from that.

“I thought Maro was immense as well. Both of them had outstanding games and that was key for us really. I thought we made some good decisions about when to bring replacements on and they all had a big impact coming off the bench too. But definitely Courtney and Maro’s impact was significant.”

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