Rusty Lions stretched by Barbarians in tour opener

This was a little too close for comfort. The opening game of a ten-match tour that on paper at least, offered the British & Irish Lions their easiest challenge in terms of the quality of their opponent, proved instead to be a banana skin on which they slipped, fell badly, but recovered just in time to save face and start with a 13-7 win thanks to a second half try from Anthony Watson.

Coach Warren Gatland and his players can point with some justification to the mitigating factors of long-distance travel and the paucity of time with which have they been able to spend as a complete squad thus far. But that shouldn’t take away from some of the sloppiness on display from international players, or from the incredible effort of the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, who approached the game with every suggestion that they knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become heroes in front of a throbbing crowd of 19,951 in Whangarei.

It was almost a horror start for the tourists as Iain Henderson misjudged the kick-off and allowed the ball to bounce into the path of Barbarians winger Sevu Reece. Had he taken it at the first time of asking, he would have had a relatively unhindered run to the line.

The hosts ran it back at the Lions at the first opportunity and earned a penalty, kicked to touch instead of at the posts in the true Barbarian ethos. But having been pinned inside their own half for the opening seven minutes, the Lions, unrestrained by any traditional values of their own in terms of an obligation to entertain, didn’t hesitate to throw the ball to Johnny Sexton when their opponents infringed.

The star flyhalf couldn’t match his distance with the accuracy required and the stalemate remained until he made amends on 15 minutes after Rory Best made a mess of the Barbarians breakdown. But it was the hosts who kept their foot on the throat and the ball in hand, and just before the end of the first quarter, they blew a golden opportunity for the first-five pointer.

Fielding a loose kick, fullback Lauteru Laulala scooped up and returned with interest, over halfway and through a gap. But having seemingly done the hard part, he failed with the basic execution required to finish the job. Ignoring the unmarked man on his inside, he tried to beat the last defender, got tagged and offloaded to Kaveinga Finau in support, who slid for the line only for a tremendous last-ditch tackle from Taulepe Faletau to turn him on his back and hold him up.

If that was a warning shot for the Lions, they didn’t heed it. Just four minutes later, a good old-fashioned Garryowen soared into the Whangarei night sky courtesy of Bryn Gatland, the posse of red jerseys waiting underneath it made a mess of claiming possession, and the ball was recycled for skipper Sam Anderson-Heather to hit a hard line and power home.

Father to son_Gatlands 2017

Father to son: Barbarians flyhalf Bryn Gatland greets Dad – and Lions head coach – Warren

Gatland added the extras, and it was the flyhalf – under so much media scrutiny in the build-up to the game given he was facing his father, Lions head coach Warren – that was dictating proceedings. Crossfield-kicks, of which the tourists can expect to see plenty of while they travel the Shaky Isles, were mixed up with midfield bombs, sneaky grubbers and an intention to play the game at such a pace as to run the Lions off their potentially jet-lagged feet, as he outshone his opposite number, the much-vaunted Sexton.

The Lions saw their own gilt-edged chance go begging when a sloppy pass from Stuart Hogg fell towards the feet of Anthony Watson instead of the chest, and the Englishman was driven into touch with the line in sight. And when Hogg himself hit a nice line off a Ben Te’o pass on the half hour, it took another try-saving tackle, this time from Barbarians winger Sam Vaka, to keep the tourists off the five-point ledger.

The first half ended with the Lions on top, some green shoots of rhythm and cohesion beginning to sprout with Faletau and Ross Moriarty offering their side the most go-forward ball with a succession of positive carries. But the gallant Barbarians refused to yield, defending their territory stoutly, holding several Lions up over the line, and preserving their 7-3 lead at the break, much to the delight of the vocal locals at Toll Stadium.

Clearly aware they were now entrenched in a battle, the tourists didn’t hesitate to take the 3pts on offer a couple of minutes after the restart, Scottish scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw assuming kicking duties with immediate success while Sexton received treatment.

And that proved to be the end of the night for the Irish pivot, Owen Farrell on to lay his claim to the no.10 test jersey, and the Saracen was soon followed by several team mates off the bench as a seemingly disgruntled coach Gatland rang the changes. Whether that was the catalyst for the tourists first try of the series a couple of minutes later is open to debate, but certainly, the passage of play that led up to the score saw heavy involvement from Farrell, working off the back of a couple of damaging surges from Moriarty and Tommy Seymour, and putting the last pass wide for Watson to step inside and swivel his way across the chalk.

Anthony Watson_Lions v Baa Baas_2017

Anthony Watson finds the line for the Lions only try of the night

Farrell added the extras for a 13-7 advantage, and with the Lions beginning to blow away the cobwebs, and the Barbarians understandably tiring from their efforts, you wondered if the pre-match expectations of a fairly comfortable victory would hold true. But these Baa Baa’s were beyond any capitulation, continuing to fire up with a barrage of heavy hits, several of which were at the expense of Welsh lock Alun-Wyn Jones, who may well have been left counting his ribs in the sheds at full-time.

A rare miss from sharpshooter Farrell off the boot on 64 minutes cost the Lions a two-score buffer, and as it turned out, left his side vulnerable to a late onslaught from the hosts. Back-to-back penalties piggy backed the Barbarians upfield with a couple of minutes left to play, and dreams of matching the achievement of Southland back in 1966, the only other side to defeat the Lions in a tour opener on New Zealand shores, became a distinct possibility.

But just when they needed to execute under pressure as well as they had all game, excitement and nervous tension got the better of them, and an early shove at scrumtime released the pressure valve. Time ran out and Farrell kicked the ball out to the relief of his team, the coaching staff, and the sea of visiting red in the stands.

Legendary All Black winger Sir John Kirwan perhaps encapsulated the game best when he described the Barbarians as “15 kiwis with nothing to lose and the skills to back it up.” If the Lions somehow didn’t know they were in for the toughest test of their collective international careers over the next five weeks, this was one heck of a wake up call, and they’d better be listening.

British & Irish Lions 13 (Anthony Watson try; Owen Farrell con, Johnny Sexton pen, Greig Laidlaw pen) defeated New Zealand Provincial Barbarians 7 (Sam Anderson-Heather try; Bryn Gatland con)

*********************

Lions Watch – Five in Focus:

Warren Gatland has promised to give everyone in his squad a chance to stake a claim for the all-important test spots but on a night where many in a red jersey fell short of their usual standards, there were some performances that caught the eye.

1 – English tighthead Kyle Sinckler is yet to earn a starting spot with his country but his work in the loose in particular would have seen his stock rise in the eyes of Gatland and co. A tidy scrummager blessed with natural aggression, it was his soft hands that made him a key link player in the first half when the Lions were struggling to gain a foothold on proceedings.

2 – Taulepe Faletau may well have had to play second fiddle to Billy Vunipola for the no.8 jersey but the Englishman’s injury-enforced absence from the tour leaves the Welshman in pole position, and his efforts in both attack and defence – the first half try-saver was simply superb – are unlikely to imbue any need for change. On his day, an absolute game-changer.

Ben Teo_Lions v Baa Baas_2017

Kiwi born Ben Te’o excelled on familiar territory

3 – Faletau’s presence however, has meant that Gatland has to had to find a different role for Ross Moriarty, who stood in for his injured team mate at the back of the Welsh scrum throughout the Six Nations, and excelled. Shifted to blindside, the burly 23-year-old was a constant threat to the Barbarian ranks, racking up 12 carries and 11 tackles in an impressive debut.

4 – Greig Laidlaw was only a late call-up due to the admirable decision by Ben Youngs to stay at home and provide support for brother Tom and his terminally ill wife. But while the Scotland captain was presumed to be third in line to the scrumhalf throne behind Conor Murray and Rhys Webb, his efforts in the 57 minutes he was given before being replaced by Webb, can only have given Gatland the kind of selection headache an ambitious coach craves. Also offers a positive kicking percentage from the tee.

5 – Last but by no means least, Ben Te’o was the go-to man in the Lions backline. Filling the ‘crash-ball’ shoes of previous incumbent Jamie Roberts in Gatland’s favoured method of attack, the kiwi-born ex-leaguie brings a bit more footwork than his illustrious predecessor, and with a game-high 84 metres and 13 tackles, may well prove to be the damaging inside centre Gatland goes for against the All Blacks, instead of a ball-playing Sexton-Farrell combination.

Next game:
British & Irish Lions vs Blues, Eden Park, Auckland, Weds 7th June, 5.35pm AEST

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