The Force was not strong at Patersons Stadium, certainly nowhere near strong enough to derail a completely new Lions 15 from chalking up a second win of this fledgling tour with nine tries and some outstanding place-kicking from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny, who succeeded with 11 kicks from 11 and contributed 24 points with nine conversions and two penalties.
Gatland’s vow to give every member of his 37-player squad a start in the first three games has already revealed some winning combinations and judging by the performances of yesterday’s back rowers Tom Croft, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, the expected all-Welsh Test trio is far from a done deal.
Despite losing the goal-kicking duties, Jonny Sexton got one arm into the Test fly-half jersey with an assured play-making performance at 10, including a try of his own, while Brian O’Driscoll captained the side and grabbed two tries to baptise a promising centres pairing with Manu Tuilagi.
The other tries came from Croft, Heaslip, Mako Vunipola, who had replaced the injured Cian Healy at loosehead before half time, Tommy Bowe and replacements Owen Farrell and Geoff Parling.
So what if the Western Force, placed 14th in the Super XV table, had one eye on this Sunday’s clash with the New South Wales Waratahs and kept back nine first-choice players. That was the fault of the Lions anyway, this first game on Australian soil in 12 years having been nudged back from last Saturday into midweek after an extra, lucrative fixture in Hong Kong was shoe-horned into the tour schedule. Yet this was never going to be a game about the opposition as far as the Lions management were concerned.
“It was good hit out for these guys,” Gatland said. “It was about us, I wasn’t worried about the opposition. I think we’re going to get a tougher game on Saturday against the Reds.
“The Force were thinking about their Super Rugby game and made a few changes. That’s their prerogative. Ideally we’d liked to have played against a stronger side but we just made the focus about ourselves.”
Even the concession of two tries, in the 44th and 63rd minutes, as Force forwards Richard Brown and Lachlan McCaffrey bundled over from short range, were seen by Lions defence coach Andy Farrell as opportunities to learn.
“The Force tested us in some key areas that we will be tested in a lot on this tour. It’s good to get some pictures and to sort it out as early as we can in the tour. They had quite a bit of success in pretty tight with the pick and go and around the ruck area. That’s quite an important area so it’s a good lesson for us.”
The Lions march on to Brisbane with strong minds and their focus in the right place.
WESTERN FORCE: S Christie; D Haylett-Petty (J Rasolea 73), E Stubbs, C Tuatara-Morrison, C Brown (N Haining 62); S Norton-Knight, B Sheehan (A Mathewson 73); S Manu, J Hilterbrand, S Ma’afu (S Kolo 50); T Lynn (T Metcher 66), P Battye; A Cottrell (L McCaffrey 53), M Hodgson — capt, R Brown.
Yellow card: E Stubbs 57-67
Reps not used: H Roach, B Matwijow.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: L Halfpenny; T Bowe, B O’Driscoll – captain, M Tuilagi, G North; J Sexton (O Farrell, 67), C Murray (B Youngs, 67); C Healy (M Vunipola, 36), R Best (T Youngs, 61), D Cole (M Stevens, 68); A W Jones, I Evans (G Parling, 61); T Croft (T Faletau, 71), S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Rep not used: S Maitland.
Yellow card: A W Jones 70-80.
The Ulster hooker, a late call-up as replacement for the disgraced Dylan Hartley, will be disappointed the lineout did not function as well as it might, with a couple of throws flying out the back door, but Best acquitted himself well around the park and in a strong front row.
The loosehead prop’s tour could have come to an end 36 minutes into this match after he badly sprained an ankle. Had scrummaged well to that point and was posing his usual problems in the loose. Last night’s citing news piled further woe on to Healy and the Lions face an anxious wait for news.
Showing no sign of being hampered by the knee injury which kept him out of Leinster’s RaboDirect Pro12 final victory and the opening tour match, O’Brien was in rampaging form, typically hard-running and offers Warren Gatland an exciting alternative to the Welsh opensides Justin Tipuric and Lions captain Sam Warburton.
Back to his ball-carrying best for the Ireland captain. Number 8 Heaslip grabbed a try and in an outstanding back-row performance did more than his share of the breakdown work at the most closely contested area of the game. Really threw the gauntlet down to Toby Faletau for a Test place.
A mixed bag for the Munster scrum-half, whose bright and feisty play was undermined a small bit by the concession of a couple of penalties. His partnership with fly-half Jonny Sexton is now up and running however and the pair combined well for the 66 minutes they played.
Denied the opportunity to place kick after Leigh Halfpenny was handed the duties, Sexton nevertheless shone as a playmaker, working well with scrum-half Murray and supplying his backline with numerous try-scoring opportunities. He scored himself and sent a beauty of a long pass out wide for Bowe to power over.
Captained the side and claimed two well-taken tries in the city where he made his British & Irish Lions debut 12 years ago. His second-half score under the posts highlighted what could be the start of a promising midfield partnership with Manu Tuilagi, the pair prising open the opposition defence.
Looked sharp on the right wing, running some very good lines, coming off his flank to great effect and working well with Sexton and his midfield. Scored his second-half try with a powerful finish in the right corner, busting Force number 8 Richard Brown’s tackle eight metres out to charge over.