NZ Provincial Barbarians 7 British & Irish Lions 13
By Simon Lewis, Whangarei
Lions head coach Warren Gatland insisted there were plenty of positives for the tourists to take forward in tougher games after struggling to a narrow opening-game victory against the Provincial Barbarians today.
The Lions got their 10-game tour of New Zealand off to a winning start but it was not the try fest expected against a scratch team of mostly young club players hoping for a break into Super Rugby.
The Kiwis, many of them amateurs with full-time jobs, actually led 7-3 at half time as the Lions failed to fire in their first outing since arriving just four days earlier.
Gatland suggested jet lag and limited preparation time were contributory factors to the poor performance but despite the fact he will demand an improvement for next Wednesday's clash with Super League outfit the Blues, when he field a completely different starting XV, the Lions boss pronounced himself satisfied with the run out at Toll Stadium.
“It was a tough match, very tough. We've learnt a lot tonight in terms of how tough it is to come to New Zealand, how motivated the teams are going to be against us,” Gatland said.
“Probably when I look back, four years ago we played the Barbarians in Hong Kong and had a comfortable victory that didn't test us. Tonight tested us.
“In 2009, the first game in South Africa was up against a Royal XV in Rustenburg and we struggled a little bit in that opening game as well, so tonight was tough.
“We created a number of opportunities, we just need to be a bit more clinical in terms of finishing that. We got held up over the line about four times and if we're a bit more clinical and finish those opportunities then the game is reasonably comfortable.
“Look, it was a tough hit out for us but there were some positives and things to work on for us too.”
Asked if he would have preferred to have waited to play the first game of the tour against the Blues a week after arrival, Gatland replied: “We’d have preferred to have a week in the UK with the squad and a week in New Zealand.
“We’ve known about the schedule for 12 months and it’s difficult to change that. I think that the powers that be in four years' time will think about the schedule and the importance of having the right preparation and the right time. The ideal scenario would’ve been to have a week in New Zealand before the first game.”
Gatland dismissed criticism of fly-half Johnny Sexton's performance. The Ireland star was called ashore after just 48 minutes with the Lions trailing 7-3 and after a below-par outing was replaced by Owen Farrell, the favourite for the starting number 10 Test jersey in the upcoming series with the All Blacks.
“I think that's pretty unfair in terms of making an assessment like that. These guys arrived on Wednesday and are still recovering from the travel. We know the guys are still.. a number of players in the squad still haven't got into regular sleep patterns.
“So we knew it was going to be difficult in terms of adjusting to that and preparing in such a short period. For us the most important thing was the result and getting the tour off to a good start and we can go away knowing that there are a number of things for us to work on and some positives out there in terms of the opportunities and chances that we did create, and knowing that we have to be better at finishing them.”
Gatland also appeared to criticise the decision to send his players on a 160-kilometre drive punctuated by community visits in in a fleet of the Lions' sponsored Land Rovers from Auckland to Whangarei the day before the game.
“A couple of guys got back spasms. Ross Moriarty has got a back spasm, and so has Kyle Sinckler. We’ve done community stuff yesterday where the guys have been sitting in cars for five hours, coming up (to Whangarei) and probably still recovering from the effects of that flight as well. The doctors are confident they will be fine, but no injuries picked up from the match.”
NZ PROVINCIAL BARBARIANS: L Laulala; S Vaka, I Finau (J Lowe, 19), D Sweeney, S Reece; B Gatland (J Webber, 58), J Stratton (R Judd, ); A Ross (T Fahamokioa, 54), S Anderson-Heather – captain (A Makalio, h-t), O Jager (M Renata, 61); J Goodhue, K Mewett (P Rowe, 61); J Tucker, L Boshier (M Matich, 45), M Dunshea.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: S Hogg; A Watson, J Joseph, B Te'o, T Seymour; J Sexton (O Farrell, 48), G Laidlaw (R Webb, 58); J Marler (M Vunipola, 50), R Best (J George, 56), K Sinckler (T Furlong, 55); A W Jones, I Henderson (G Kruis, 50); R Moriarty, S Warburton – captain (J Tipuric, 66), T Faletau.
Replacement not used: E Daly.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)