The British and Irish Lions won the opening game of their tour of New Zealand, but it was an otherwise unimpressive performance by the tourists, as they struggled to beat a Provincial Barbarians team made up of amateurs and semi-professionals.
The Barbarians showed just how tough a tour of New Zealand can be, as a group of players unable to crack the Super Rugby franchises showed enough grit and skill to be the equal of internationals for the better part of an hour.
However, in a scrappy game that offered little entertainment, both sides looked like what they were – scratch teams that had never played or trained together before this week, which accounted for disorganisation in defence and at set pieces, but not for the missed tackles and dropped balls.
There was an inauspicious start for the tourists, who made a mess of catching the kick-off, letting winger Sevu Reece snatch the ball and make ground, setting up several minutes of Barbarians pressure.
The Lions were unable to secure much possession during the opening ten minutes, getting the ball only long enough for Jonny Sexton to miss a straightforward penalty kick that heralded a bad day for the fly-half.
Instead, they were forced to absorb more pressure until the 17th minute when Sexton made good with a second attempt, to take a 0-3 lead.
Rather than settling the tourists’ nerves, the score seemed to motivate the Barbarians, most of whom were playing in the biggest match of their careers.
Only a wonderful tackle by Taulupe Faletau, running 20 metres to drag Inga Fina down and roll him over to stop the ball being grounded, stopped what looked like a certain score after Luteru Laulala created space for himself and broke deep into the Lions’ 22.
It typified a superb all-round performance by Faletau, which will reassure the Lions, after the blow of losing his cousin, and perhaps the form number eight in world rugby, Billy Vunipola, through injury a week before the tour.
Faletau’s tackle only delayed what had been coming – a close range try from Barbarians captain, hooker Sam Anderson-Heather, with the conversion kicked by impressive fly-half Bryn Gatland, the son of Lions coach Warren.
The score brought the Lions to life and twice before half time they were held up over the line. First, Ben Te’o, who ran good lines throughout the game, set up Stuart Hogg, and second, a close range surge from Faletau had the same result.
The Lions’ inability to finish their chances made for a tense half time, but nerves were eased by an early second half penalty from Greg Laidlaw, taking over the kicking after Sexton appeared to be shaken by a tackle. It summed up the fly-half’s bad day and Owen Farrell, who replaced him soon afterwards, exerted greater control on the game.
The fresh legs led to a breakthrough minutes later. Farrell fed Anthony Watson, who looked lively on the limited occasions the ball came to his right wing, and he bustled past a couple of tackles to score in the corner.
Farrell added the conversion from near the touchline. With a six-point lead and 25 minutes to go, the stage seemed set for the Lions to have a strong finish, but instead the game rather fizzled out.
Farrell hit the post with a relatively simple penalty effort, the handling mistakes continued from both sides and neither created much in the way of clear-cut chances. The Barbarians’ gritty and effective performance continued to put pressure on the Lions line, but their own unfamiliarity showed and they did not create anything more threatening than some pick and drives.
The first game of a tour is often a tough proposition only a few days after stepping off the plane, but that does not entirely account for the handling errors and missed tackles, especially as the Barbarians were also a scratch side, albeit not a jet-lagged one.
The provincial side did themselves proud, holding their own up front and looking lively out wide. Many of these players will break into Super Rugby in the near future, while others will return to their day jobs, having shown the incredible depth of New Zealand rugby.
The opening fixtures of Lions tours in the professional era have been a mixed bag. As in 2009, a composite team, a throwback to the amateur past, has proved a tougher opponent than the established teams the Lions have faced on other tours.
Then, a ‘Royal XV’ of non-Super Rugby players gave the Lions a scare with a typically competitive South African performance, while the Lions struggled to get going, before securing a hard-fought 37-25 win.
Other opening games have been regulation tour matches against professional opponents. In 2013, the Lions swept aside the Western Force, one of Australia’s five Super Rugby teams, 59-8, after stopping in Hong Kong to cruise past a group Barbarians players tired from a long season and too much partying.
In 2001, the Lions won a largely pointless game 116-10 against an outclassed group of amateur players from Western Australia, which did not then have a professional franchise.
On the 1997 tour, the first of the professional era, the Lions played Eastern Province, a traditionally weaker domestic side, and won comfortably.
Today’s result also echoed the opener of the last tour of New Zealand 12 years ago (discounting the hard-fought 25-25 draw in a pre-tour test match against Argentina), against Bay of Plenty, one of the smaller provincial teams, who gave the Lions a tougher game than expected before eventually winning 34-20.
The Lions travel to Auckland to play the Blues on Wednesday and an almost entirely different line-up will have to improve significantly on today’s performance if they are to avoid the first defeat of the tour.
Gatland needs to have an idea of his test team by the fifth game, against the Maori on 17 June, and be certain of it afterwards, because whoever plays in the following midweek game, against the Chiefs, will not feature against New Zealand.
Aside from Faletau and Te’o, English prop Kyle Sinckler, was also impressive, looking dynamic around the field, and could make himself a star on this tour.
Most players will only get two games to prove their worth, so those who underperformed against the Barbarians, the weakest opposition on the tour, may come to rue their performances.