The British & Irish Lions struggled to see off the spirited challenge of the NZ Provincial Barbarians in their tour opener in Whangarei, needing a lone try from England’s Anthony Watson to record a forgettable 13-7 win.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS TOUR – MATCH 1: Saturday, June 3
NZ PROVINCIAL BARBARIANS 7 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 13, Toll Stadium, Whangarei
Scorers: NZ Provincial Barbarians: Try: Sam Anderson-Heather; Con: Bryn Gatland
British & Irish Lions: Try: Anthony Watson; Con: Owen Farrell; Pen: Jonathan Sexton, Greig Laidlaw
HT: NZ Provincial Barbarians 7 British & Irish Lions 3
2013 Lions Jonathan Sexton and Rory Best both started along with Iain Henderson, who was the first of two Irish debutants in the famous red jersey today. Prop Tadhg Furlong had a 30-minute run-out as a second half replacement.
However, there were no opening night fireworks from the Lions who played just like a team that had arrived in the country three days ago. While their opponents looked sloppy and rusty, the NZ Barbarians deservedly took a 7-3 half-time lead thanks to captain Sam Anderson-Heather’s 23rd-minute try.
Bryn Gatland, the son of Lions head coach Warren, was a key figure for the home side who drew their players from all Mitre 10 Cup Unions and Heartland Championship and Meads Cup champions Wanganui. In all, there were 15 different provinces represented.
Sexton had kicked the Lions’ only points of the opening 40 minutes, but a penalty from his half-back partner Greig Laidlaw – early on the resumption – and Anthony Watson’s well-taken try, converted by replacement Owen Farrell, proved to be enough for Warren Gatland’s men.
Former Blackrock College prop Oliver Jager was another notable inclusion in the Barbarians selection, and the Lions were immediately on the back foot, failing to gather the kick-off with wingers Sevu Reece and Sam Vaka both showing their pace out wide.
The Barbarians opted for lineouts from successive penalties but the second maul was held up and possession turned over. Sexton pushed his first penalty attempt wide from outside the 10-metre line, 10 minutes in, after Ireland captain Best had done well to hoover up a breaking ball from a box-kick.
The New Zealanders were dominating territory while the Lions continued to struggle. They could not take advantage of Ben Te’o’s tackle-breaking run, while handling errors from Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Joseph led to turnover ball. However, an easier place-kick in the 17th minute saw Sexton open his side’s account – 3-0.
Almost straight from the restart, Taulupe Faletau, who was comfortably the Lions’ best performer, prevented a certain try for centre Inga Finau. Luteru Laulala, brother of former Munster centre Casey Laulala, made a terrific initial break but blundered when presented with a three-on-one overlap. He eventually passed to Finau but retreating number 8 Faletau brilliantly recovered the situation by holding him up over the line.
The try craved by the home crowd duly arrived in the 23rd minute. Second row Henderson gave away a penalty in front of his posts and from the advantage, Henderson and Laidlaw were unable to stop Anderson-Heather from scrambling over to the left of the posts. Gatland converted for a 7-3 lead.
The remainder of the first half was a tale of individual mistakes and missed opportunities from the Lions. Hogg should have set up a try for English flyer Watson but he butchered the chance with a rather ragged pass, summing up the tourists’ general ineffectiveness. The Baa Baas were much slicker in attack, finding it easier to get their pacier players on the ball.
The hosts were also defending stoutly deep in their own half, holding up Hogg, Faletau and Joseph approaching the break as a first try remained frustratingly out of the Lions’ reach. Tour captain Sam Warburton was also pinged for running into a team-mate and Sexton, who struggled to exert much influence, overcooked a cross-field kick intended for Tommy Seymour.
With Sexton down receiving treatment, Scottish scrum half Laidlaw landed a straightforward penalty early in the second period, but the Baa Baas continued to have big moments and Andrew Makalio’s man-and-ball tackle on Alun Wyn Jones produced a knock-on – much to the delight of the Kiwi fans.
The otherwise impressive Kyle Sinckler took the wrong option from a quick tap, leaking a penalty and relieving the pressure on the Barbarians’ defence. Sexton, Best and Henderson were all called ashore by the 50-minute mark, with their Ireland colleague Furlong introduced for the final half-an-hour.
Owen Farrell, who came on for Sexton, had the desired impact off the bench, passing for Ross Moriarty to carry up into the 22 before the Saracens clubman sent Watson spinning over for a much-needed try wide on the right. Farrell added the difficult conversion for good measure, making it 13-7 to the Lions.
Ultimately, that proved to be a match-winning seven-pointer as the Lions could not add to their tally and it was the Barbarians who looked the more dangerous team during a nervy final quarter. Solid defence from Hogg and Seymour held them at bay, though, before Farrell hit the near left hand post with a very kickable 65th-minute penalty.
The Lions wanted the three points to give themselves some breathing space at 16-7, however the resilient Barbarians had other ideas. They denied Rhys Webb an opportunist try, forcing a knock-on on the deck after the lively Justin Tipuric had turned Farrell’s booming garryowen into a scoring opportunity.
The Lions had to rely on their defence to see out the victory, with Tipuric rushing up quickly in midfield to close off the space, and fellow replacement Mako Vunipola crucially stole possession in the midst of an advancing Barbarians maul in his 22. It was a hard grind for the Lions but it is ‘one out of one’ as skipper Warburton noted the positives post-match.
“One out of one, I’m pretty pleased with that,” Warburton told Sky Sports afterwards. “They played with nothing to lose, you could tell that and it was good. At least we have some footage now to work on D (defence) and some attack stuff as it obviously wasn’t perfect. It was the first building block.
“We’ll get together now and support the guys who are playing Wednesday (against the Blues). For us it is a Test match and the most important thing for us is winning. Each time we play it’s a dress rehearsal for the Test series, we’re treating every game like a Test match.”
Lions boss Gatland highlighted: “We got held up over the line four times and created some chances. It’s one of those games where if we had got two or three tries we might have got away. It was a tough game.
“It was definitely a good hit-out for us. There was good energy coming off the bench, we made some changes early on and I’m pleased with the energy the bench brought, I thought that was important for us.”
TIME LINE: 10 minutes – B&I Lions penalty: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 0-0; 17 mins – B&I Lions penalty: Jonathan Sexton – 0-3; 23 mins – NZ Barbarians try: Sam Anderson-Heather – 5-3; conversion: Bryn Gatland – 7-3; Half-time – NZ Barbarians 7 B&I Lions 3; 43 mins – B&I Lions penalty: Greig Laidlaw – 7-6; 52 mins – B&I Lions try: Anthony Watson – 7-11; conversion: Owen Farrell – 7-13; 65 mins – B&I Lions penalty: missed by Owen Farrell – 7-13; Full-time – NZ Barbarians 7 B&I Lions 13
NZ PROVINCIAL BARBARIANS: Luteru Laulala (Counties Manukau); Sam Vaka (Counties Manukau), Inga Finau (Canterbury), Dwayne Sweeney (Waikato), Sevu Reece (Waikato); Bryn Gatland (North Harbour), Jack Stratton (Canterbury); Aidan Ross (Bay of Plenty), Sam Anderson-Heather (Otago) (capt), Oliver Jager (Canterbury), Josh Goodhue (Northland), Keepa Mewett (Bay of Plenty), James Tucker (Waikato), Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki), Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury).
Replacements used: Jonah Lowe (Hawke’s Bay) for Finau (19 mins), Andrew Makalio (Tasman) for Anderson-Heather (half-time), Matt Matich (Northland) for Boshier (46), Tolu Fahamokioa (Wellington) for Ross (50), Richard Judd (Bay of Plenty) for Stratton (54), Joe Webber (Bay of Plenty) for Gatland (58), Marcel Renata for Jager, Peter Rowe (Wanganui) for Mewett (both 61), Mewett for Tucker (64-69).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors/Scotland); Anthony Watson (Bath/England), Jonathan Joseph (Bath/England), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors/England), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors/Scotland); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/Ireland), Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester/Scotland); Joe Marler (Harlequins/England), Rory Best (Ulster/Ireland), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins/England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Iain Henderson (Ulster/Ireland), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester/Wales), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues/Wales) (capt), Taulupe Faletau (Bath/Wales).
Replacements used: Owen Farrell (Saracens/England) for Sexton (49 mins), Mako Vunipola (Saracens/England) for Marler, Jamie George (Saracens/England) for Best, Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Ireland) for Sinckler, George Kruis (Saracens/England) for Henderson (all 50), Rhys Webb (Ospreys/Wales) for Laidlaw (58), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys/Wales) for Warburton (65). Not used: Elliot Daly (Wasps/England).
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)