A select few Lions
Take a bow Ben Te’o and Rory Best, you were two of a rare breed of starters on Saturday at Toll Stadium to have emerged from this desperately disappointing tour opener with your Test credentials enhanced.
The rest may have been given something of a free pass due to the lack of preparation time and the lingering effects of jet lag. Best was easily the pick of the Irish trio, surviving an early lineout malfunction to throw steadily and work tirelessly at the breakdown with two impressive turnovers.
Te’o, on the other hand, showed the footwork, craft and chance creation at inside centre which belied his billing as a bash-em-up merchant for the Lions.
From the bench, Owen Farrell moved closer to the Test fly-half berth as he replaced a struggling Johnny Sexton.
If the Lions had not been warned beforehand, they were given a swift reminder that the New Zealand rugby public have not bought tickets to worship at their altar.
They want to see a touring side worthy of facing their beloved All Blacks and they let the opening XV know exactly what they thought of the performance in Whangarei.
“Worst. Lions. Side. Ever!” droned one spectator seated above the Toll Stadium press box, and while No15 Stuart Hogg agonised as the wet ball ran along the ground and through his hands he will not have failed to catch the dulcet tones that delivered this zinger, “Who’s your full-back? Susan Boyle?”
The rest of the matchday squad
Being selected to play in the opening game of a Lions tour should be considered an honour, but it seems to be a poisoned chalice after Saturday’s damp squib of a showing in Whangarei.
Pitifully ill-prepared just three days after landing in New Zealand and asked to put in 80 minutes against a side all revved up for their game of a lifetime, the starting XV were battling jet lag and massive expectations as well as passionate opposition.
Such is the commercial juggernaut that this 129-year-old sporting institution has become that there is the uneasy feeling that on this 2017 tour, success on the rugby field is no longer the singular priority for the men in blazers.
Head coach Warren Gatland made a subtle yet effective display of his frustrations when defending his side’s sluggish performance on Saturday.
Not just the farcically late arrival in New Zealand, following a stop off in Melbourne, Australia, the home country of airline partner Qantas, Gatland also appeared to question the thinking behind the mode of transport to Whangarei from Auckland for a series of community visits.
Reporting back spasms for two of his Saturday starters, Kyle Sinckler and Ross Moriarty, the head coach added, “We’ve done community stuff yesterday where the guys have been sitting in cars for five hours, coming up and probably still recovering from the effects of that flight as well.”
The cars were supplied by Land Rover, like Qantas, one of the Lions’ six principal partners. There are also five official sponsors, five official media partners, five more official suppliers.... and New Zealand’s five Super Rugby outfits, all gunning for a Lions’ scalp.
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