Warren Gatland hails decision-making of Maro Itoje against South Africa
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 now have the chance however to seal a first series win over the Boks since 1997, teeing up a tense tussle this weekend.
Itoje will once again prove central to the Lions’ chances, and Gatland expects the England lock to continue his razor-sharp decision making.
“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 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.”