A few thoughts on today’s tour opener between the British & Irish Lions and New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, as an Anthony Watson try gave the touring side a far from convincing victory.
Credit where credit is due, today’s game wasn’t just about a poor performance from the British & Irish Lions. It was centered around an excellent display from New Zealand’s Provincial Barbarians, who were in with a chance of causing a massive upset in the closing minutes of the game.
The week-long ‘novelty’ of Warren Gatland coaching the Lions against his own son wore off as proceedings got underway, with young Bryn Gatland leading his team around the park with impressive aplomb. His kicking game put the tourists under huge pressure, and he led from the front in a brilliant opening 40 minutes for the Kiwi side.
Considering the New Zealanders will be the weakest side the Lions will play during the tour, their standard of ball-handling and in-play skills are a healthy reminder of what the Lions are up against. The level expected of players in New Zealand is high, and the fact that a team of semi-professionals and young players can cause the Lions so much difficulty says as much about them as it does a terrible Lions’ performance.
The other note of interest from an Irish perspective in the Baa Baa’s play was the performance of tighthead prop Oli Jager, the former Blackrock College pupil. He didn’t look in any way out of his depth against Joe Marler, and the Lions did not get what they expected at the set-piece at all. At only 21, there is a big future ahead of the Canterbury & Crusaders forward.
Amidst a poor display and a number of disappointing personal performances, Gatland will be thrilled that three of his more surprising squad selections adapted themselves excellently to the game – Ross Moriarty, Kyle Sinckler, and Ben Te’o.
Kyle Sinckler made a strong impression on his Lions debut, all the more impressive considering the Harlequins prop has yet to start a test for England. Excellent in the loose, his enthusiasm and energy was a big positive for the Lions today. The quick tap penalty into a turnover will frustrate him hugely, but it’s clear sign of his hunger and desire as the young tighthead is raring to go.
The initial selection of Ben Te’o was somewhat contentious, but the English international possesses all the attributes Gatland loves in a midfielder and he put them all on display today. An excellent source of go forward ball, Te’o was easily the most dangerous back in a red jersey, and he laid down a marker to anyone that questioned his merits to travel. His suitability to Gatland’s gameplan could see him play an integral role in the tour.
Perhaps it’s unfair to call Moriarty a wildcard pick after a fantastic Six Nations, but considering the wealth of options the Lions have in his blindside position it was surprising for the Welsh forward to travel. He took his opportunity with both hands today however, with his abrasive style really playing a role in the game. That aggressive nature is something the Lions need in New Zealand, and if Moriarty continues in that vein of performance, he could easily thrive over the next 6 weeks.
An all action display from the Welsh Number 8 will have installed confidence in head coach Warren Gatland, especially after the unfortunate loss of Billy Vunipola to shoulder surgery. The Saracens’ man was set to be a key figure in Gatland’s test team, so Faletau’s impressive start will act as some sort of consolation to his cousin’s absence.
His incredible try saving tackle will be the most memorable moment from today’s game, but he was a class above all throughout. Special shout-out to the referee’s stylish slide into position.
After spending a large portion of the season injured, there’s a lot to be said for the freshness for which he is approaching the next few weeks with. Less mileage on his legs than others on tour, his form is something to build on.
And the Rest…
Apart from 4/5 stand-out performances, the rest of the Lions were subpar today. The context of only arriving into New Zealand on Wednesday and the lack of familiarity together must be applied, but it still needed to have a more composed, deliberate and informed performance.
An early miss from Iain Henderson off the kick-off, Stuart Hogg’s unforced knock-on and poor pass to Anthony Watson, Rory Best’s crooked throw – it was an error strewn 80 minutes from the Lions, butchering chances and missing balls all over the park. These are errors that should be – and likely will be – cleaned up over the coming weeks, but it was still disappointing to see the tourists falter in so many ways at the first hurdle.
It was a particularly frustrating start for Johnny Sexton, who has massive competition from Owen Farrell to retain that test jersey from 2013. He did himself no favours today, continuing in the poor form that saw him struggle against the Scarlets in the Pro 12 semi-final. Greig Laidlaw was pedestrian at scrum-half, Sam Warburton was anonymous as captain, and the Lions looked far more comfortable after Owen Farrell, Rhys Webb, Justin Tipuric and George Kruis entered the fray – increased line speed in defence, pressure on the lineout and more control ball in hand.
Onto Next Week
It’s early days and the first game was always going to be tough, but there needs to be a considerable difference in the level of performance next week. An entirely different XV will start against the Blues on Wednesday, and they’ll look at today’s game and sense a massive opportunity to stake their claim as a Test Lion.
Gatland’s side were very lucky to claim a win today, and a higher standard is required if they are to mount any sort of challenge against Steve Hansen and his team. If the Lions have another performance like they did today, they’ll be lucky to escape New Zealand with more than two victories let alone any sort of credible Test match display.