The waiting is finally over: Saturday saw the opening game of the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand.
The game against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians – which had been billed as being, on paper at least, the least challenging fixture of the tour – proved a testing 80 minutes for the tourists, whop eventually scraped through 13-7, Anthony Watson’s second-half try proving decisive.
The visitors struggled to contain the Baa-Baas in a first half played at ferocious pace. A team largely built of Provincial stars and Super Rugby fringe players caused havoc, running the ball from deep, kicking out of hand, off-loading with style, and asking serious questions of the Lions defence.
It took a quite remarkable last-gasp tackle from Taulupe Faletau to deny the hosts their first try after 20 minutes. The Wales back-rower caught Inga Finau around the ankles a mere five metres from the whitewash, and showed his strength to hold the ball-up to prevent a score that had seemed inevitable.
The Baa-Baas soon took the lead, however when the excellent Bryn Gatland – son of Wales and Lions Herad Coach Warren – sent an inspired up and under into a pile of bodies on the Lions ten metre line. Barbarians Captain Sam Anderson-Heather took advantage of the resulting chaos to crash over with the ball, Gatland Jr. duly adding the extras.
The lions simply could not get a foot-hold in the game, and were held up over the line on four occasions. Johnny Sexton’s missed penalty before half-time compounded the tourists’ frustrations.
The Lions finally turned pressure into points on the 60 minute mark with Watson completing a slick move down the right wing, ensuring a nervy final quarter, but the visitors held on to claim a highly unconvincing, but very important, victory.
It was a disappointing opening game from the Lions. This great touring team has only once lost their opening tour fixture, but this game truly hanged in the balance until the final whistle. I realize the team arrived in New Zealand just three days beforehand, and there is no denying the brutality of the schedule, but ultimately this is the cream of the crop in the UK and Ireland. While there were a few noteworthy contributions, from the likes of Faletau and Ross Moriarty, I felt others, like Sexton and Alun Wyn Jones, failed to make an impact on the game. It’s early days, but this will need to be ironed out, and fast.
I must commend the Baa-Baas in this match. From 1 to 23, they were brilliant, they took their chances, and really gave it everything. They looked hungry, and it made for a great fixture. Bryn Gatland certainly made a huge impression internationally, with great kicking and slick handling. He may well be an All Black waiting in the wings.
The Lions face The Blues in Auckland tomorrow. Arguably the weakest of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises, The Blues still boast the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and ex-Scarlet Michael Collins among their ranks. This will be a huge step up for the Lions. Gatland has named an entirely new starting XV for this match, key inclusions being Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes at second row; a formidable back-row of Haskell, Tipuric and Stander; plus Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb feature at half-back. The excellent Ken Owens captains the side.
This will be a tough one, but we have some serious fire-power on the bench too, including Liam Williams, arguably in the form of his career to date. Best of luck, lads!