The British and Irish Lions made a nervy and deeply unconvincing start to their tour of New Zealand as they beat the Provincial Barbarians 13-7 at Toll Stadium in Whangarei on Saturday night, needing a second half Anthony Watson try to ensure they didn’t come a cropper in what is expected to be their easiest match over the next six weeks.
That the match went down to the final minute summed up how close this game was, with the Lions triumphing due to their willingness to take points when they were on offer, with Jonathan Sexton, Greig Laidlaw and Owen Farrell all landing successful kicks at goal that proved the difference.
It took the introduction of Farrell, on for the jittery Jonathan Sexton, to calm the Lions nerves, with the Saracens fly-half taking control of the game and immediately enjoying a major say in the match-winning try.
Along with Farrell, both Taulupe Faletau and Ben Te’o pushed their test credentials with impressive performances, while Ross Moriarty and Alun Wyn Jones were crucial to seeing the Lions off to a winning start. On the other hand, the best player on the pitch came not in a Lions shirt but in the barbarians’ No 10 jersey, with Bryn Gatland controlling the game beautifully with a kicking game of the highest degree.
The fact that the match was going ahead as planned, on a pitch that had taken a battering after nearly 24 hours of non-stop torrential rain, was testament to the brilliant drainage system and groundwork at Toll Stadium, and after an entertaining pre-match ceremony that featured a two-minute firework display minutes before the players emerged, a passionate and partisan New Zealand support oared on the Barbarians.
They made a flying start to the game, which stemmed from Iain Henderson’s failure to take the kick-off, and the only problem for the Barbarians is that they lacked the cutting edge needed to convert the pressure into points.
The Lions knew on the other hand that they needed to take their chance to build pressure, though Sexton’s decision to kick for goal when the Lions were awarded an early penalty for a ruck infringement brought jeers from the home crowd, though they soon turned to cheers as he missed the target with his first shot at goal. He would make no mistake with his second though, putting the tourists ahead after an offside penalty, while they breathed a huge sigh of relief when the exciting Luteru Laulala broke free after another high ball was not claimed.
Laulala, the younger brother of former New Zealand internationals Casey and Nepo Laulala, charged clear of the Lions pack and though Stuart Hogg tackled him short of the line, his offload to Sevu Reece left the try line gaping. It took a phenomenal tackle from Faletau to catch the wing and, as they slid towards the line,the Welshman rotated his body to ensure the ball could not be grounded.
The Barbarians would issue the best response possible though when they took what must be said was a deserved lead. A period of sustained pressure at the start of the match that saw the Lions stranded in their own half for the opening seven minutes failed to reap reward, but when the Barbarians attacked again they would not come away empty handed.
The orchestrator proved to be Warren Gatland’s son, Bryn, whose dangerous up-and-under came spiralling back to earth deep inside the Lions 22. No one claimed it, and when the ball was recycled on the Barbarians side, it was the captain Sam Anderson-Heather whose pick-and-go saw him drive through Sexton’s attempted tackle to score, with Gatland converting.
The Lions would fail to trouble the scoreboard again in the first half, with a late chance going begging as Jonathan Joseph was held up, but the second half would at least be an improvement.
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.
After three points from the boot of Laidlaw, who took on kicking duties while Sexton received treatment, the Lions finally found a way over the try line. It took the introduction of Farrell in place of Sexton after 48 minutes, and his first contribution was to release Ross Moriarty into the Barbarians’ 22. The break put the defence on the back foot, and that allowed Laidlaw to feed Farrell on the blindside, who shipped it on the Watson with the England win pirouetting his way over the line to score.
Farrell’s conversion gave the Lions a 13-7 lead, though he was unable to add to it in the 66th minute when his first penalty effort struck the upright, and it would prove to be the last scoring opportunity for either side as the tourists chalked up their first win of the series, no matter how unconvincing it was.
New Zealand Provincial Barbarians:
Luteru Laulala; Sam Vaka, Inga Finau [Jonah Lowe, 19], Dwanye Sweeney, Sevu Reece; Bryn Gatland [Joe Webber, 58], Jack Stratton [Richard Judd, 58]; Aidan Ross [Tolu Fahamokioa, 55], Sam Anderson-Heater [Andrew Makalio, 41], Oliver Jager [Marcel Renata, 61]; Josh Goodhue, Keepa Mewett; James Tucker [Peter Rowe], Lachlan Boshier [Matt Matich, 46], Mitchell Dunshea.
British and Irish Lions:
Stuart Hogg; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Ben Te’o, Tommy Seymour; Jonathan Sexton [Owen Farrell, 49], Greig Laidlaw [Rhys Webb, 58]; Joe Marler [Mako Vunipola, 50], Rory Best [Jamie George, 50], Kyle Sinckler [Tadhg Furlong, 50]; Alun Wyn Jones, Iain Henderson [George Kruis, 50]; Ross Moriarty, Sam Warburton [Justin Tipuric, 67], Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements not used: Elliot Daly.
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