Sport loves nothing better than a good build-up. Countless column inches and TV time are given over to the anticipation of big sporting events, and the British & Irish Lions’ tour is most certainly one of those.
Yet ironically, while the tour itself, and the squad selection, has been built-up and debated since the naming of Warren Gatland as head coach last September, on the field the Lions have been distinctly lacking in build-up.
With the domestic season only wrapping up a week last Saturday (and the French Top 14 final taking place on Sunday evening, as Toulon, sans Leigh Halfpenny, were defeated by Clermont Auvergne), and the squad only flying into New Zealand three days before their opening fixture, the chances of Gatland’s squad being both jet-lagged and under-cooked on the field was a likely prospect.
Having jettisoned a pre-tour game, the Lions’ first taste of action came on Saturday as they faced Provincial Barbarians in rainswept Whangarei. The mixture of jet-lag and lack of game time, coupled with a home side who were keen to play in the Barbarian style, resulted in a disjointed and rather un-engaging encounter, albeit one the Lions would have been more than happy to have edged out 13-7, Anthony Watson grabbing the try that, coupled with Owen Farrell’s conversion and penalties from Jonathan Sexton and Greig Laidlaw, saw them begin the tour with a win.
With Bryn Gatland (son of Warren) pulling the strings at outside-half for the Barbarians, the Lions never truly settled and even Watson’s try, a score that pulled them clear, wasn’t enough to calm their edginess, with the Barbarians looking the more likely to snatch a win at the end.
A tough opening encounter then, and one that, while not negotiated with the ease that some were expecting and hoping for, will at the very least have worn some of the rust off with bigger tests ahead.
While the team performance was poor, there were some shining examples individually – Kyle Sinckler was superb in the tight and the loose, Taulupe Faletau put in a shift that will have slightly eased the concerns following Billy Vunipola’s withdrawal through injury, while Ben Te’o looked purposeful in the centre.
Also heartening (although not without the caveat that they were coming into the game late on) were the changes made by Gatland as the game was in the balance. Farrell looked assured at outside-half, replacing the off-colour Sexton, Rhys Webb more threatening than Laidlaw, while the rest of the replacements bench gave the Lions a slightly surer footing once they were on the pitch.
With a harder, and far more trickier test on Wednesday against the Blues, their ranks made up of eight All Blacks, Warren Gatland has named a completely changed line-up, which sees Ken Owens skipper the team. Gatland will no doubt be hoping some extra time on the training pitch, and also time together as a squad, which often seems to be a key ingredient in successful Lions tours, will equal an improved performance.
Make no mistake, a victory over a strong Blues side will not only be a feather in the cap of those players selected for Wednesday’s game, but will also lay down a marker that these Lions have the ferocity to push the All Blacks all the way come the first test on June 24. The Blues will not be as forgiving as the Barbarians, and the time for jet-lag is over.
Team: Halfpenny; Nowell, Payne, Henshaw, Daly; Biggar, Webb; McGrath, Owens (c), Cole, Itoje, Lawes, Haskell, Tipuric, Stander. Replacements: Best, Marler, Sinckler, Henderson, O’Mahony, Laidlaw, Sexton, L Williams.