British and Irish Lions vs New Zealand Provincial Barbarians: Anthony Watson seals victory in nervy opener

New Zealand Provincial Barbarians 7 British and Irish Lions 13: The tourists got off to an unconvincing start in their series opener

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The Independent Online

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.

A Maori warrior lays down the challenge to the Lions before kick-off (Getty)

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.

Jonathan Joseph in action for the Lions (Getty)

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.

Bryn Gatland, son of Warren, plays a pass (Getty)

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.

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.