Dwayne Sweeney was something of an outlier in the Provincial Barbarians side many in the Northern Hemisphere expected to roll over and have their tummies tickled by the British & Irish Lions on Saturday night.
NZ Provincial Barbarians 7 British & Irish Lions 13
Older than most of his team-mates at Toll Stadium, the 32-year-old Waikato centre has seen enough of the rugby world to understand the Lions led by his former coach Warren Gatland were on a hiding to nothing in this opening game for the 2017 tourists.
Recently home from a four-year professional stint in Japan, Sweeney has represented both the Maori All Blacks and the original, British-based Barbarians and he has spent enough time on planes as well as training grounds to know the Lions he faced in Whangarei at the weekend were victims of poor planning as much as the pride, passion and talent of the opposition.
Just three days in-country since their arrival in Auckland last Wednesday, the Lions selected to get this 10-game tour up and running were merely ticking the boxes required before the even tougher games ahead.
Jaded by jet-lag, these were mostly the players who had been in camp the longest, a week at the Vale of Glamorgan and another at Carton House while their future squad mates were still at the business end of their domestic campaigns.
While the Lions will have a bit more swagger in the coming weeks as the games come thick and fast against Super Rugby opposition and combinations start to gel, this was a team badly in need of game time as a result of their club seasons ending a month ago while some were even more undercooked.
Johnny Sexton had played just three times since the Six Nations, Alun Wyn Jones, tour captain Sam Warburton are finding their feet after longer absences through injury.
It made for a disjointed, less than clinical team effort that saw the Lions cross the line four times without registering a try while their hungrier opponents drawn — from clubs and provincial teams — tore into them as if their lives depended on it, leading 7-3 at half-time as captain and Dunedin property manager Sam Anderson-Heather punched a massive hole in the tourists’ defence and Iain Henderson’s reputation for the only try of the first-half.
It needed an early second-half penalty from Greig Laidlaw, as Sexton rose gingerly from some on-field attention by the physios, and an Anthony Watson try, converted by Sexton’s replacement and putative Test fly-half Owen Farrell, to put some much-needed daylight between the rivals in the 52nd minute.
“I have travelled a lot with rugby I know what it is like. It is very hard to turn up on a Wednesday and especially with the travel and the time zone,” Sweeney empathised, briefly, before adding: “but they are professional players and they would have been prepared for that.
“It would have been something they would have spoken about. With us opening the tour, we didn’t want to go out there and roll over. We said we are going to get stuck in and we put on a good show. They are a good team and they are coached very well. I have played under Warren and he is a good coach. He will get them on track. The first game of a tour is always hard.”
Sweeney said the Provincial Barbarians had spent just 30 minutes working on their defence yet it was enough to frustrate Warburton’s Lions for long periods while a brilliant covering tackle from No.8 Taulupe Faletau to turn and then hold up outside centre Inga Finau prevented further embarrassment in the opening 40 minutes. It made for a lively half-time team talk from the Lions captain.
“Do you want the clean version?” Warburton replied when asked what his message had been. “I can’t tell you exactly what I said!
“I think we lost the physical battle in the first-half, I don’t think we won enough collisions in defence and that was an emphasis before the game. That was an area we improved after half-time, but we want to get this backline moving as well. We’re not just about taking scrums and driving lineouts; we’ve got some electric players in that backline so we want to play some rugby and score tries.”
With missed penalties from both Sexton and Farrell, who struck his lone effort against an upright, and a number of butchered try chances, the Lions left possibly 20 points on the field that would have considerably changed the outcome of this contest had they been taken.
Those are opportunities the Lions can ill afford to waste in the next seven days, never mind the weeks ahead. The Blues are next up on Wednesday morning Irish time followed by a trip to Christchurch to take on the unbeaten Super Rugby table-toppers, The Crusaders.
“It would be huge for us to get some scalps from Super Rugby sides,” Warburton said. “We want to be tested, and it’s probably only until we play sides like that that we’ll get any better.
“We don’t want to be playing teams where we’re winning by 40 points, they’re the best teams for us right now to compare... So it’s great to have these games to get used to the style and the tempo, acclimatise ourselves and give ourselves the best chance in a few weeks’ time.”
Last Saturday’s Lions will be given a free pass, head coach Warren Gatland insisted and Warburton reminded them they had better make the most of their second chances if they are to make the team for the first Test against the All Blacks on June 24.
“We’ve only had game one and players just have to know it is a long tour and there will be plenty of chances to put your hand up.
“Some guys will take a few games to get into their rhythm and that’s why these warm-up games are so important. By no means will anyone have ruled themselves in or out with this one game. After maybe three or four games you start painting a decent picture.
“Players know, we’re not stupid, after three or four games you can kind of pencil in what the Test team will be. We’ve got two weeks where it really is a big audition to get in that Test team.”
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.
Replacements not used: E Daly.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia).
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