Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Fluffed lines turned Lions' dream opening night into more of a horror show

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Opening night on the big stage and it hardly went to script for the British and Irish Lions, with plenty of missed lines against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.

Indeed there will be a few who'll be worried they fluffed their big audition for a larger part down the line after the narrow win in Whangarei against a scratch side comprised of fringe Super Rugby players and semi-pros.

It was meant to be Rocky against Apollo Creed, with one side just happy to be going toe to toe with some of the biggest names in the sport.

But in a game that was an arm-wrestle from start to finish Warren Gatland was left with more questions than answers, especially with his son Bryn the best out-half on show.

Former Irish rugby players of a certain vintage will remember the young Gatland scampering around national camps when his Dad held the top job in these parts, but his was a mature showing for the Baa-Baas on Saturday, featuring a varied kicking game.

It certainly troubled the back three, with Stuart Hogg in particular having a night to forget defensively.

Ulster's Iain Henderson, who along with Rory Best became the first from this province to represent the Lions on New Zealand soil since David Irwin in the final Test of 1983, described the side as "groggy" after their lengthy jaunt halfway across the world only last week.

Indeed, the 25-year-old made a few errors himself in his Lions debut, although Best equipped himself well and was a force at the breakdown.

Another who will have been far from pleased with his performance on the trip down to Auckland is Ireland's Johnny Sexton. The Leinster out-half, such a key figure in the series win over Australia four years ago, hasn't played much rugby in recent months and there looked to be plenty of rust in the 31-year-old's game in Toll Stadium.

A kick booted out on the full summed up his frustrating day.

Coupled with both his showing in the PRO12 semi-final against Scarlets last month, as well as the improvement brought by England's Owen Farrell from off the bench, Sexton looks to have plenty of ground to make up before he can think about once again wearing the 10 jersey come the Test series. But the St. Mary's man was far from alone.

Prior to the game, Gatland snr said: "To be honest we have to go out there and win.

"It's important we get the tour off to a good start."

Even the most optimistic Lion would struggle to argue that they fulfilled any more than half of that objective.

Stand-outs for the men in red were few and far between.

Kyle Sinckler, who has yet to start a Test for England and who came on tour saying he wanted to soak up the knowledge of his more experienced peers, was the one showing the way early on and, bar one ill-advised tap-and-go, had an imperious Lions debut.

Ben Te'o, the former Leinsterman who was perhaps the biggest surprise inclusion, had a strong game too, while Taulupe Faletau's performance was particularly pleasing given the pre-tour injury to England's Billy Vunipola.

With only five games before the All Blacks the rust can't linger, but context is key.

When the Lions were here 12 years ago, they won their first game on New Zealand soil relatively comfortably, but that didn't stop the game against the Bay of Plenty Steamers being something of a disaster.

It was during the first 20 minutes of action after getting off the plane that England's World Cup winning back-rower Lawrence Dallaglio picked up a serious ankle injury that saw him miss the rest of the tour.

Nothing that happened on Saturday will have the same long lasting effects.

Indeed the Lions' only series victory in New Zealand began with an opening game defeat, while few remember how Ian McGeechan's men laboured in South Africa against a similarly scratch outfit for their 2009 curtain raiser, given how compelling the Test series with the Springboks became.

What this underwhelming showing does do is ramp up interest in Tuesday's contest with the Blues in Eden Park.

Tana Umaga, who captained the All Blacks in the 2005 series and was involved in the tour-ending injury suffered by Brian O'Driscoll and his side, will be oh so keen to give the Lions more food for thought.

Belfast Telegraph

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