Warren Gatland hails ‘incredibly mature’ Lions ace Maro Itoje after penalty quip

England lock Maro Itoje was named man of the match in the Lions’ series-opening win over South Africa, though coach Warren Gatland joked he was more concerned with the player’s improved discipline

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British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has praised Maro Itoje for his man-of-the-match performance in the series-opening win over South Africa —and his improved discipline in particular.

Itoje, 26, completed eight tackles and won a match high of three turnovers as the Lions won 22-17 in the first of three Cape Town Tests, including a crucial steal in injury time to end the game.

That victory means the tourists are only 80 minutes away from sealing their first series win over South Africa since 1997, with the two teams scheduled to rematch one another this Saturday.

Itoje has been touted as one of the best rugby talents of his generation, but a patchy reputation for drawing penalties has at times papered over his considerable contributions elsewhere.

Itoje was named man of the match for his first Test performance in South Africa



Gatland, 57, told reporters he’s hoping it’s the start of a new trend for the second-row star: “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!

“I spoke to him last night [Monday] as well, and said maybe the penny has finally dropped, because 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. To me, that’s probably the best game I’ve seen him play in any sort of jersey.

Gatland was delighted with his star lock’s contributions in Cape Town



“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.”

As well as retrieving possession to seal the result at the tail end of the result, Itoje also robbed the ball when South Africa captain Siya Kolisi was threatening to score early in the first half.

Much of the pre-match talk concerned Itoje’s lock partner, Alun Wyn Jones, after he recovered from a dislocated shoulder suffered three weeks prior to start the first Test.

Both second-rowers earned plaudits for their contributions at Cape Town Stadium, but it was Itoje who ultimately made the greater impact on the day.

The pair have been retained in Gatland’s XV for the second Test this Saturday, while South Africa made three changes to their pack ahead of the next fixture.

The Lions have the edge in depth with some 40 players to pick from, though Gatland will still need world-class individual performers like Itoje if they’re to complete the job in Cape Town.

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