Rusty Lions struggle to get into the groove
Captain Sam Warburton acknowledges the need for improvement after shaky first outing
Jack Stratton of NZ Provincial Barbarians gets his pass away during the game against the British & Irish Lions at the Toll Stadium in Whangarei, New Zealand. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images)
New Zealand Provincial Barbarians 7 British & Irish Lions 13
The Toll Stadium last Saturday night was set fair. The torrential rain had relented, and the sand-based pitch was perfect. The night sky was almost pleasant, and the pre-match pageantry and fireworks in front of a capacity near 20,000 crowd. The Baabaas were fired up, the Lions looked the business, and then it all felt a little flat and anti-climactic.
The Lions looked strangely lacking in energy and spark, struggled to impose themselves physically and will need to be strikingly sharper and more accurate at the breakdown, an area where, hereabouts, the Super Rugby sides compete feverishly. Allowing for the lack of cohesion, there was also a worrying lack of a clinical edge, as tries and points went abegging.
Twice Stuart Hogg failed to put his wingers over in the respective corners which, admittedly, is normally a strength of his, and twice more the impressive Toby Faletau and Jonathan Joseph were held up over the line.
Perhaps if one or two of those chances had been taken, the Lions would have pulled away more convincingly, before experiencing what was still an embarrassing endgame, as the Provincial Barbarians went up the line in search of the converted try that would have given these 16/1, 31-point underdogs an unexpected scalp.
Perhaps too our expectations of the Lions were excessive.
There was always the likelihood of a scratch side producing a scratchy performance first up. The long-haul from London to Auckland via Melbourne had only been completed three days beforehand and jet lag and general grogginess assuredly contributed to a less than accurate display, either on the ball or in defence.
Most of all though, one suspected that the relative lack of rugby which most of these Lions had experienced of late simply had to take a toll, so to speak. Everywhere you looked, this starting team was comprised mostly entirely of players who simply had to be rusty due to relative inactivity of late.
For Rory Best and Iain Henderson, this was their first game in five weeks. For Alun Wyn Jones, it was only his second in 11 weeks. For Sam Warburton it was his first in eight weeks. Coming into this game, Johnny Sexton had played once in six weeks. And so on, and so on.
Best was his durable self, making 11 tackles and wining two turnovers, whereas Henderson missed the kick-off and a couple of tackles to boot in a less than distinguished start.
Warburton was blowing hard early in the second half. Sexton did some things well, but was unusually awry with a crosskick and a couple of passes, as well as a shot at goal. Greig Laidlaw, who took too much out of the ball, and Joseph missed five tackles between them in undistinguished nights.
Faletua showed up well, with one superb try-saving tackle amongst his 14. Kyle Sinckler provided some lovely touches in open play and Ben Te’o was the pick of the backs. Ross Moriarty carried well too.
Hence, while some looked groggier and rustier than others, all will assuredly come on for the run-out. Yet while allowing for the jetlag, this also needs to be a wake-up call.
Even so, Sam Warburton had a valid point yesterday when observing: “If I said to the guys now, “How did X play in Hong Kong four years ago?’ I don’t think many people can recall that. We’ve only had game one and players just have to know that it is a long tour and there will be plenty of opportunities to put your hand up. Some guys will take a few games to get into their rhythm and that’s why these warm-up games are so important.
“By no means will anyone have ruled themselves in or out with this one game. After maybe three or four games you start painting a pretty decent picture. Players know, we’re not stupid, after three or four games you can kind of pencil in what the Test team will be. We’ve got two weeks now where it really is a big audition to get in that Test team.”
You’d hope he is right, although with the Maoris constituting the fifth game of the tour, one week out from the first Test, chances are actually at a premium. So, when asked what his message had been to the players, Warburton quipped: “Do you want the clean version? I can’t tell you exactly what I said!
“I think we lost the physical battle in the first-half,” he admitted. “I don’t think we won enough collisions in defence and that was an emphasis before the game. And that was discussed at half-time as well.”
“We base our game on a few key components and I think we lost the physical battle in the first half. I don’t think we won enough collisions in defence. That was an area we improved after half-time, but we want to get this back line moving as well. We’re not just about taking scrums and driving lineouts; we’ve got some electric players in that back line so we want to play some rugby and score some tries.
“We treat each game like a Test match and take three points when they’re on offer, but we do realise that to play New Zealand, you’re going to have to score 20 points minimum. You’re going to have to score points against New Zealand. We know we’re not going to win the Test series by taking every three-point opportunity.
“We’re trying to work on some attacking stuff. We got in their 22 quite a few times but didn’t come away with tries. We got to their line or very close quite a few times but it’s about edging forward now and making sure we score the tries. If you can score three or four tries a game, you’ll give yourself a good chance.”
Scoring sequence: 17 mins Sexton pen 0-3; 23 mins Anderson-Heather try, Gatland con 7-3; (halt-time 7-3); 43 mins Laidlaw pen 7-6; 53 mins Watson try, Farrell con 7-13.
New Zealand Provincial Barbarians: Luteru Laulala (Counties Manukau); Sam Vaka (Counties Manukau), Inga Finau (Canterbury), Dwayne Sweeney (Waikato), Sevu Reece (Waikato), Bryn Gatland (North Harbour), Jack Stratton (Canterbury); Aidan Ross (Bay of Plenty), Sam Anderson-Heather -(Otago, capt), Oliver Jager (Canterbury), Josh Goodhue (Northland), Keepa Mewett (Bay of Plenty), James Tucker (Waikato), Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki), Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury). Replacements: Jonah Lowe (Hawke’s Bay) for Finau (19 mins), Andrew Makalio (Tasman) for Anderson-Heather (half-time); Matt Matich (Northland) for Boshier (46 mins), Tolu Fahamokioa (Wellington) for Ross (55 mins), Joe Webber (Bay of Plenty) for Gatland, Richard Judd (Bay of Plenty) for Stratton (both 58 mins), Marcel Renata (Auckland) for Jager (61 mins), Peter Rowe (Wanganui) for Tucker (62 mins).
British & Irish Lions: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby, England), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors, England), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland), Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland); Joe Marler (Harlequins, England), Rory Best (Ulster, Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), Iain Henderson (Ulster, Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester Rugby, Wales), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, Wales), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales). Replacements: Owen Farrell (Saracens, England) for Sexton (49 mins), Jamie George (Saracens, England) for Best, Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England) for Marler, Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland) for Sinckler, George Kruis (Saracens, England) for Henderson (all 50 mins), Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales) for Laidlaw (58 mins), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys, Wales) for Warburton (67 mins). Unused: Elliot Daly (Wasps, England).
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia).