Eyes On: New Zealand Provincial Barbarians v British and Irish Lions

The British and Irish Lions kicked off their tour of New Zealand on Saturday with a match against the Provincial Barbarians. Though the Barbarians will arguably be the easiest opponent on the tour, the Lions laboured for much of the game and will likely be relieved to have come away win a 7-13 victory. While this is a difficult match to read into too much – neither team has had much time together and the Lions were likely getting over jet lag – my intention at this point is to write one of these articles for each match of the tour, so I have put together a couple of thoughts on this game.

 

Putting down a marker

After this year’s 6 Nations tournament I suggested that, though he would probably still make Touring Party, Taulupe Faletau would likely struggle to make the Test 23. After injury forced Billy Vunipola to pull out of the tour, it likely became a battle between Faletau and CJ Stander for the number 8 shirt in the first Test. Against the Barbarians, Faletau certainly didn’t hinder his chances and was probably the most impressive Lion on the pitch, especially in the first half. He was always willing to take the ball to the line and – as always – did the basics spot on, which though it sounds simple actually seems very difficult for many players. He also saved the Lions from an even more awkward half time scoreline with a fantastic try-saving tackle: not just bringing the man down before the line, but also twisting his body around to ensure he was able to hold the ball up once momentum took the two players over the try-line. Stander will have a chance to impress in the coming games, but I will now be very surprised if Faletau doesn’t make the Test 23 given that Stander’s versatility allows them both to feature in the same back row.

Battle for number 10

While Faletau’s performance may have helped play him into the starting lineup, Johnny Sexton should be feeling a lot more nervous about his chances. His last performance for Leinster in the Pro12 semi-final was poor and this one against the Barbarians was more of the same unfortunately. Passes and kicks were going astray in open play and he also missed a kick at goal that you would expect him to land (though there have been suggestions that the ball for the Tour is taking some getting used to for the kickers). He also needed some treatment on-field in the second half, which I am sure the All Blacks and Super Rugby franchises will have been paying close attention to given his history of getting injured during matches. What won’t have helped him either is the way that the back line seemed to work much better – albeit with English centres – once Owen Farrell replaced the Irishman. Farrell may have also missed a relatively easy kick at goal but really improved the cohesion of the back line.

The fact that Gatland chose to replace Sexton with Farrell suggests that he is not considering the Englishman as a centre, so it would appear that it will be a shootout between Sexton and Farrell for the number 10 shirt in the Tests. As it stands, it’s surely Advantage: Farrell.

An unexpected star

If you want to get an idea at the strength of New Zealand rugby, just take a look at this Barbarians squad. Many of the squad are not currently contracted to a Super Rugby franchise and will have been using this as a game to prove themselves worthy of a step up to the next level. To have come so close to beating the Lions will be a massive boost moving forward to all of these players’ careers, but surely none more so than fly half Bryn Gatland. The 22-year-old son of Warren Gatland is currently on a short-term contract at the Blues, but with Piers Francis off to Northampton next season there would appear to be a space in the squad. Gatland certainly did everything he could to prove that he deserves the spot and was arguably the best player on the pitch in the first half. His variety in play, and the way he varied his kicks in open play, drew comparisons from the Sky Sports commentators to Dan Carter, which is the highest of praise for the young fly half. He caused so many problems for the Lions, I would love to know what Gatland was thinking watching his son come so close to beating his team. If Gatland isn’t in a Super Rugby squad next season, I will be shocked!

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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