CAPE TOWN: British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland praised his players for staying in the bout as an excellent second half performance powered them to a bruising 22-17 victory over world champions South Africa in the first test in Cape Town on Saturday.
The Lions trailed 12-3 at halftime, but won the physical battle in the second period as they began to dominate in the scrums and finished the game much the stronger against a wilting home side.
The decision to turn down two kickable penalties at the start of the second period paid dividends with a maul try from hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie that turned the momentum in their favour.
"The message at halftime was that we are still in the arm-wrestle," Gatland told reporters. "We had given away a few soft penalties and allowed them opportunities. We had to stay in it and we would get chances, don't try and force things.
"As the second half went on we got stronger and stronger. But it was a tight test match that could have gone either way."
Gatland was pleased with the Lions' defence, which thwarted the Bok attack and allowed them just a single try, though two more scores were chalked off by the Television Match Official.
"You could look at it as the bounce of the ball, which could have gone either way," he said. "A couple of calls (from the referee), if they had been different it might have affected the result. But we are happy with the way we defended."
He believes the Boks, who have played just one test in 20 months since lifting the World Cup, will be more formidable in the second match at the same venue next Saturday with another 80 minutes under their belt.
"They will be hurt from this because they are an incredibly proud nation and world champions, so next week will be bigger and tougher I should imagine," he said.
"It wasn't about denting their ego, it was about us getting confidence from certain aspects of the game, the line-outs were excellent, the (Lions) scrum was under pressure, but we eased into it and won a couple of penalties there.
"We feel like there is a lot more in us as well, from the conditioning side we look to be getting better. I thought we contested well for the full 80 minutes."
(Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Christian Radnedge)