A meaningless match? Try telling that to this British & Irish Lions matchday squad which yesterday gave their comrades a morale-boosting victory to take into this Saturday’s first Test against New Zealand.
For the first time on this tour, the Lions have put together back-to-back victories and it could not have come at a better time for Warren Gatland as he gets down to the business of trying to become the first visiting Test coach to secure a victory over the All Blacks at Auckland’s Eden Park since 1994.
This had been a journey around the North and South Islands characterised by two steps forward on a Saturday followed by one back a few days later. Yet now the shutdown of the Maori All Blacks last Saturday in Rotorua by the putative opening Test team has been backed up with further progress to give the Lions some genuine momentum heading towards that first of three appointments with the world champions.
That it was delivered by a group of players whose hopes of inclusion this weekend are slim at best, save for a handful who could sneak onto the replacements’ bench, speaks volumes of the sense of unity among the touring party that many in the home media here have doubted could exist.
For through the disappointment of missing out on a Test place, this team led by Rory Best has augmented the defensive brilliance of the Saturday team with a cutting edge that delivered three excellent tries while the forwards did their bit from driving mauls to earn a second penalty try in as many games.
For Best, who had captained the midweek Lions in Canberra four years ago in the last game before the first Test against the Australians and lost to the Brumbies, this was a Tuesday evening date he could have done without. The Ireland skipper though spent the pre-match build-up reminding his players of their duties to the wider Lions cause. “Rory Best spoke so well this week and prepared us so well in terms of making sure that whatever our motivation was, whether it was individual, family, friends, whoever it is, that was a real performance of courage and rolling our sleeves up tonight,” fly-half Dan Biggar said.
“It was really good to put a little bit of pressure on the guys, but the focus now switches to Saturday, and I suppose whoever is involved in that 23, and whoever is not, it’s our job to prepare the team as well as we can and hopefully achieve something special on Saturday.”
The Lions made the 90-minute drive to Auckland straight after the Chiefs match with head coach Gatland set to gather his assistant coaches for a Test selection meeting today that will now have some added names to consider following this impressive win over an admittedly understrength Super Rugby side at FMG Stadium Waikato.
Two tries from Jack Nowell, a penalty try and another from Jared Payne were the product of the immense defensive pressure the Lions put on the Chiefs, forcing errors and turnover ball from which the tourists punished their hosts in their boss Gatland’s hometown.
Places in the starting XV for Saturday look pretty locked in but the Lions played some of their most exciting rugby of the tour against the Chiefs and as well as Nowell and Payne, there may be intense competition from Liam Williams and Elliot Daly for the outside back replacement role if none of them can dislodge back three favourites Anthony Watson, George North and Leigh Halfpenny.
There were also fine performances from tighthead prop Dan Cole, locks Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes and No. 8 CJ Stander, plenty of food for thought for Gatland ahead of that selection meeting.
Whoever gets the nod, Stander believes the squad is bubbling nicely now and ready as a collective for the Test series ahead.
“I think we started off slowly, but we’ve come up the rollercoaster and we’re on top now, and hopefully we can push on from this,” the Munster and Ireland back rower said. “We’ve got a bit of momentum going on, so we just need to push on from there, and I think the boys are ready for the weekend, for sure.”
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).
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.
J Marler 12-22
Replacements not used:
K Dacey, T Francis, C Hill, G Davies, F Russell.
Jerome Garces (France)
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