Rugby-Gatland praises Itoje but also gets in a dig

FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - Tour match - Lions v British and Irish Lions - Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa - July 3, 2021 British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland before the match REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland praised Maro Itoje’s man of the match performance last weekend, but not before delivering a barb at a news conference as he named the giant lock among the starters for Saturday’s second test against South Africa.

The England international fought an attritional physical battle with his South Africa counterpart Eben Etzebeth and was a key figure as the Lions fought back from nine points down to beat the Springboks 22-17 in last Saturday’s first test.

"I thought it was an excellent performance,” said Gatland when asked to comment on Itoje’s evolution into one of rugby’s top stars.

"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 as well, and said maybe the penny has finally dropped,” said Gatland.

He picked out Itoje's decision-making, saying that previously the player had tended to chase lost causes on the pitch and waste energy.

“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. 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,” added the Lions coach.

The 26-year-old Itoje featured in all three tests in New Zealand four years ago and will win a fifth Lions cap at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.

(Reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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