Warren Gatland hailed a morale-boosting 34-6 victory for the British & Irish Lions over the Chiefs but admitted there will be some tough decisions to be made in Wednesday's selection meeting for Saturday's first Test against New Zealand, writes Simon Lewis.
Ireland captain Rory Best led a team of players to the first midweek win of the 2017 tour who for the most part understood they will be playing little or no part in this weekend's series opener against the All Blacks at Eden Park in Auckland.
Yet both he and head coach Gatland recognised the importance of this convincing victory, not just in terms of sustaining momentum following last Saturday's resounding win over the Maori All Blacks but also sending a message to the Test squad that they now have to fulfil their side of the bargain.
“We didn't want this group not winning tonight and they went out and gave a commanding performance,” Gatland said of his side's four-try to nothing win over an understrength Super Rugby side in his hometown of Hamilton at the FMG Stadium Waikato.
“In the changing room afterwards, everyone recognised just what it meant, not just for the players that took the field, but the rest of the squad. They were incredibly vocal and you could see how pleased they were for the players that took the field. We had quite a big sing-song in the changing room. It was a good feeling, I was pleased for the players.”
The Lions played some of their most exciting rugby of the tour so far as wing Jack Nowell scored a try in each half, the forward pack eked out a penalty try after dominating with their driving maul and Ireland centre Jared Payne finished off a fine counter-attack started by Nowell.
There were also fine performances from tighthead prop Dan Cole, locks Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes, No. 8 CJ Stander and Nowell's back three colleagues Eliot Daly and Liam Williams. That will have given Gatland food for thought as he prepares to sit down with his coaching team on Wednesday in Auckland to finalise his matchday squad of 23 players for the opening Test against the world champions.
“We are pretty happy with where we are at the moment and the place that we're in as a group of players,” Gatland said. “The selection meeting will be tough and that’s the way we want it. Guys put up their hands tonight and I've no doubt there will be some healthy debate about the Test side.
“We spoke about the quality of the squad before we left the UK and Ireland and some players haven’t disappointed us, for sure.”
The Lions will go into Saturday's series opener having won four of their six tour matches since arriving in New Zealand, in the previous midweek games to the Blues and Highlanders and Gatland added: “I'm still not happy that we lost a couple of games on the way.
“We have always said how difficult this tour was, we knew how tough the schedule is and the quality of opposition. It’s not like previous tours where midweek games have tended to be against much lesser opposition.
“This is unlike anything that’s been taken on before. We said if we did drop a couple of games it wouldn't be the end of the world because it was about improving from week to week. We have demonstrated that. We have got better the longer we have been in New Zealand, as combinations have come together. We said we would do that and I think we've achieved that so far.”
Best was skipper four years ago in Australia when the Lions lost to the Brumbies in Canberra in the final tour game before the Test series and that memory shaped his pre-match conversations with the rest of the team.
“Four years ago we lost that game and the way I played and the team played was disappointing and that was something that we've talked about in the last couple of days. Regardless of what happens off the back of this, don't regret this fixture, don't regret the way you perform, that was something we really tried to channel and produce a performance from.
“For me to have captained those boys, when you get to the 80th minute and your tighthead prop (Cole) that's been on the pitch every single one of those minutes makes a turnover to end the game, it shows the commitment the boys had.
“It is a wider squad and I think it was important for us to feel like we'd contributed with a victory and momentum. I think we've done that and we're in a good place going forward into Saturday.”
The Chiefs were the second Super Rugby side to have been kept tryless on this tour following a similar shutout of the Crusaders in Christchurch nine days earlier but Gatland knows much sterner challenges lie ahead for the Lions defence, starting this weekend at the All Blacks fortress of Eden Park.
“From a defensive point of view, we are getting stronger and stronger in that area against the best attacking teams in world rugby, who score multiple tries week-in, week-out and we are starting to strangle them a little bit.
“On Saturday we are up against the best team in world in their own backyard, a place they haven't been beaten at since 1994. It’s going a completely new level for us to be tested at.”
CHIEFS: S Stevenson; T Pulu (C Tiatia, 12), T Nanai-Williams, J Faauli, S Alaimalo (L Laulala, 66); S Donald, F Christie (J Taumateine, 58); S Fisi'ihoi (A Ross, 64), L Polwart (H Elliot, 60), N Laulala (A Moli, 64); D Bird, M Allardice (M Karpik, 64), M Brown, L Boshier, T Sanders (L Messam, 55).
Yellow card: M Brown 54-64
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: L Williams; J Nowell, J Payne (E Daly, 76), R Henshaw, E Daly (T Seymour, 60); D Biggar , G Laidlaw; J Marler, R Best - captain, D Cole, I Henderson, C Lawes (A Wyn Jones, 52-58); J Haskell (A Dell, 13-23), J Tipuric, CJ Stander.
Yellow card: J Marler 12-22
Replacements not used: K Dacey, T Francis, C Hill, G Davies, F Russell,.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)