Faletau proves there’s life after Billy
Losing a player of the calibre of Billy Vunipola is never good news for any team, so Warren Gatland will have been pleased to see his obvious replacement, Taulupe Faletau, play a starring role in the 13-7 win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians.
While some of his teammates faltered on their first audition for the Test side, Faletau stood up to take on the responsibility and, not only was he prominent in attack, he pulled off a moment of brilliance in defence to save the Lions from a potential tour-opening defeat – something that would have been a disaster for Warren Gatland and his side.
Faletau was wise enough to back-track and not only haul down Barbarians wing Sevu Reece but rotate his body as they slid towards the line to ensure that he could not ground the ball, with the try likely to have condemned the Lions to a loss. If Faletau can maintain this level of performance, then the No 8 shirt should be in good hands for the rest of the tour.
Te’o takes his chance to put himself in Test mix
One of the surprise inclusions in the tour party was Ben Te’o, but his opening performance went a long way to justifying Gatland’s selection of the New Zealand-born former rugby league international. Te’o was the Lions’ standout attacker in the first 40 minutes, and he continued to make intrusions into Barbarians’ territory as the second half wore on and the Lions grew into the game.
He also played a strong role in defence, securing a turnover when the Lions were under pressure on their own 22, and if few people put their hands up for Test selection, he will certainly be among the ones who did.
The Lions centre equation looks fairly murky given that Gatland appears reluctant to select Farrell at No 12. That means that Robbie Henshaw and Te’o could be fighting each other for the inside centre role, although Te’o has the advantage of being better suited to the No 13 shirt than his Irish counterpart.
Sexton missing that something special
Jonathan Sexton is a quality player that is capable of turning in the highest performances, and yet in his last two appearances he has faltered and the team has suffered as a result. The fly-half uncharacteristically fired the ball into touch on the full when under little pressure, and he also missed a shot at goal that you would have backed Owen Farrell, the man he’s fighting for the No 10 Test role, to have converted.
Lions vs New Zealand Provincial Barbarians player ratings
Lions vs New Zealand Provincial Barbarians player ratings
1/15 Stuart Hogg - 5 out of 10
Butchered a try-scoring opportunity when his poor pass forced Watson to sprawl just to catch the ball, and also should have got over the line following good work from Te’o. Failed to collect the ball when chipped through by Inga Finau in defence.
2/15 Anthony Watson – 6 out of 10
Finished his try well, dancing his way past Laulala to touch down and score what proved to be the match-winning try. Otherwise he was fairly anonymous.
3/15 Jonathan Joseph – 5 out of 10
Apart from being held up with the final play of the first half, he did little of note and was outshined by his centre partner.
4/15 Ben Te’o – 7 out of 10
Looked the most lively Lion out there as he made two surging breaks in the first half, the second of which should have sent Hogg over. Continued to work hard after breaks and made another telling run into the Barabarians 22, and he also did a shift in defence with a crucial ball-rip in the closing minutes.
5/15 Tommy Seymour – 6 out of 10
Starved of the ball which gave him little to do. One good kick-chase forced a knock-on, but that’s about it.
6/15 Jonathan Sexton – 5 out of 10
Did not cover himself in glory at all as his passing was wayward and kicked straight into touch on the full from an attacking scrum. Missed his first effort at goal, and was receiving treatment when the next shot at goal came around, meaning Greig Laidlaw had to take it. His withdrawal and the introduction of Owen Farrell changed the game.
7/15 Greig Laidlaw – 6 out of 10
Lacked the direction needed to guide a pack that has barely played together and he was too slow to take the ball from the breakdown. Looked unsure of his options whenever he took the ball to the line, that meant he at times needed to take the ball into contact unnecessarily.
8/15 Joe Marler – 6 out of 10
Didn’t enjoy the scrum advantage that you would have expected from the big Harlequins prop, and his high work-rate at the start of the game tailed off slightly as the barbarians fought fire with fire. Replaced in a full front-row switch in the 50th minute.
9/15 Rory Best – 6 out of 10
Solid at the lineout as the Lions were at least able to battle on that front, but he was off the pace in the loose.
10/15 Kyle Sinckler – 7 out of 10
Enjoyed a good start to the match, and while he was carrying well, it was his slight of touch that impressed with neat offloads and long passes to the back line standing out. He left the field after a silly decision to tap-and-go from a penalty that resulted in conceding one, but the fact that that proved to be his final contribution should not take away from a good outing.
11/15 Alun Wyn Jones - 7 out of 10
Wore a big hit from replacement hooker Andrew Makalio but recovered well and dished out his own punishment when Sevu Reece ran down his channel. One of the more reliable players and showed his experience at the death to see out the match.
12/15 Iain Henderson - 6 out of 10
Failed to collect the kick-off that resulted in seven minutes of pressure without the Lions escaping their half. Carried well though that freed up his teammates, but didn’t have the impact that he would have wanted.
13/15 Ross Moriarty - 7 out of 10
Two big tackles and one strong run saw him bounce off two defenders before surging into the opposition 22. One of the Lions’ more prominent runners and put in a few powerful tackles, while it was his insurgence in the Barbarians 22 that set-up the Lions’ try.
14/15 Sam Warburton - 5 out of 10
Fairly anonymous in the first half, both as a leader and as an openside flanker. He looked shattered at the start of the second half, which is no surprise given he has not played for two months. He was replaced by Justin Tipuric shy of the hour mark.
15/15 Taulupe Faletau – 7 out of 10
Two good runs in the first half got the Lions onto the front foot, and he also showed strength to stay on his feet before hitting the deck when the support arrived. Looked to take on some responsibility when it wasn’t all going the Lions’ way, and he further cemented his place in the Test line-up with a simply brilliant try-saving tackle on Reece Suva.
It was a very similar performance to the one in Leinster’s Pro12 semi-final defeat, and it would seem that at the moment Sexton has lost that X-factor that he has always had in the locker. It would be wrong to write the stand-off out of the Test equation given his talents, but another performance like this one before the first Test would probably do that for him.
Gatland Jr wiser than his age suggests
The best player for the first 60 minutes was undoubtedly Bryn Gatland, the son of Lions coach Warren. The 22-year-old put in a display that a 15-year rugby veteran would have been proud of, with his tactical kicking causing all sorts of problems for the Lions. The back three of Stuart Hogg, Anthony Watson and Tommy Seymour really struggled to cope with the high ball, and he was also able to pin the Lions back in their own territory with smart kick to the sidelines.
Having broken into the Auckland Blues side this season, Gatland looked like he had enough in the locker to make a Super Rugby career out of his future. Watch this space.
Jetlag hurt Lions but it’s Test hopes that may pay the price
Gatland admitted after the match that the two-day journey to New Zealand and the subsequent struggle to conquer their jetlag had a detrimental effect on the 22 players who featured for the Lions on Saturday night.
Their sleeping patterns will not have been helped by the 24-hour storm that hit the Northland area ahead of the match, given the trouble that it caused for most of the fans that had travelled to Whangarei for the match.
Gatland will happily take this into consideration when he judges his players’ performances, although the problem is that some of these squad members will only get two chances to impress, and this was one of them. Tired, uncomfortable and drained of energy is no way to go through a Lions tour.
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