4 Jun 2017

Lions opener a bit of a damp squib

8:35 am on 4 June 2017

OK, 13-7, but a win is a win, isn't it? Job done, one in the bag, the boys will be better for the hit-out, etc, etc.

Well not quite. According to the British and Irish sports pages, this was a nervy, limp, laboured affair. A bit of a Barry Crocker then.

The first of the Lions' 10 fixtures should have been straightforward against a side of Super Rugby fringe players, but after Saturday's opener against the NZ Provincial Barbarians, the media pack were pulling no punches.

Richard Judd and Ross Moriarty.
Provincial Barbarians v British and Irish Lions. Rugby Union. Whangarei, New Zealand. Saturday 3 June 2017.

Richard Judd of the Provincial Barbarians and Welsh player Ross Moriarty don't quite see eye to eye. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Telegraph led the chorus. "First the deluge, then the despair", it said, accusing the tourists of being sloppy and shoddy in so much of what they did. Leaden, lumpy and off the pace.

"Lions hit bum notes", was the Irish Times take.

Meanwhile, The Sun weighed in with typical red-top relish. "Lions poor" (as opposed to Lions' roar... geddit?) said its kicker.

Lions supporters were out in force for the match.

Lions supporters were out in force for the match. Photo: Photosport NZ

While not quite in the league of their infamous "Bring 'em home" rants, their man had them only just avoiding being "mown over by a gardener".

"Warren Gatland's men were well and truly cut to size by the part-timers of the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei. Green-fingered gardener Sam Anderson-Heather planted the seeds of doubts in the minds of Gatland's boys."

It was a theme echoed by the Guardian. For a while out there it looked as though the unthinkable might happen, it said, against a bunch whose ranks included a sheep farmer, a shopkeeper, a nurse and a fruit-picker.

Sam Anderson-Heather scores a try for the Barbarians as his team mates celebrate.

Sam Anderson-Heather and the Barbarians celebrate their provincial early try against the nation of Lions. Photo: PhotoSport

On social media, old Lions were more generous and reasoned.

Former England stalwart Brian Moore tweeted: "Lions - 1st game is often forgettable and this is no different. Credit to the NZ barbarians side all comfortable on the ball."

Ireland's Tommy Bowe said: "A tough game but a win most important to get the momentum started. Bigger and better to come."

Fair point. As Gatland said: "We would have preferred to have had a week in the UK with the full squad and a week in New Zealand before the first game.

"We arrived on Wednesday and we are still recovering from the travel and the guys haven't got into regular sleep patterns - perhaps the schedulers need to look at that for future tours.

"Some players are still seeing the doctor for sleeping pills."

Hear, hear, said the Telegraph, sardonically.

"They looked for all the world as if they had got off a long-haul flight only three days earlier.

"Those responsible for such a murderous itinerary ought to have been shifting uncomfortably in their seats. It has been a ruinous experience, a schedule designed by Marquis de Sade."

Gatland's only real consolation, the hacks agreed, would have been the performance of son Bryn at fly-half for the Barbarians. Otherwise, as the Guardian summed up, dad has a raft of issues to address before Wednesday's game against the Blues at Eden Park.

The view was that Ben Te'o, Kyle Sinckler and Taulupe Faletau all showed up well, while Ross Moriarty did his Test chances no harm, but many of their teammates resembled men in the grip of serious jetlag.

 Jack Stratton of Barbarians makes a tackle on the Lions' Taulupe Faletau.

Jack Stratton of Barbarians makes a tackle on the Lions' Taulupe Faletau. Photo: Photosport NZ

Of particular concern is the lack of penetration up front, the form of Johnny Sexton, picked ahead of Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar at No. 10, and the failure of his backs to shine. "Stuart Hogg made a pig's ear of everything that came his way," The Sun screamed reliably.

With six matches before the first Test, Gatland will need to decide which of his squad are up to the task, especially with his opposite number helpfully upping the ante in the week.

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen told BBC's Radio 5 Live his world champions were a better team now than when Dan Carter and Richie McCaw inspired the 2005 whitewash.

A young fan celebrates the Baabaas' battle with the Lions.

A young fan celebrates the Baabaas' battle with the Lions. Photo: Photosport NZ

Rightio. Game on then, mate.

* Mick Reid is an Australian journalist who has called Old Blighty home for too long. A late convert to the oval ball game, he has worked at the past three Rugby World Cups and considers himself a neutral - of sorts.

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