Lions struggle in narrow first win

Warren Gatland (Getty)
Warren Gatland (Getty)

Whangarei - The British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand got off to a shaky start after they scraped past the Provincial Barbarians with a 13-7 win in Whangarei. 

It was the hosts who led 7-3 at the break thanks a try from captain Sam Anderson-Heather, with Johnny Sexton's penalty the only points on the board for the Lions despite coming to close to the line.

A Greig Laidlaw penalty followed up by a try from Anthony Watson put the Lions in control at 13-7 as the clung on for the win, but there was a huge amount for Lions head coach Warren Gatland to ponder, with several players struggling in the first match on tour three days after getting off the plane in Auckland. 

The Provincial Barbarians coaching staff and squad deserve huge credit, with Bryn Gatland in particular looking composed on a night when there was plenty of attention on him coming up against the side coached by his father. 

Tenacious, physical and always threatening, the Barbarians dominated large passages of the game in Whangarei and arguably deserved to win, and should be very proud of their efforts. 

The Lions had not lost an opening match on tour since falling to Queensland in 1971, but for some time it looked as though history would be rewritten. The Lions were sloppy, and made hard work of the game, especially in the second half when they had momentum. 

Anderson-Heather must have had long odds as the first try-scorer but it was Barbarians captain who burrowed his way over midway through the first half for a deserved score, given the Barbarians had been comfortably the better side. 

All the problems the Lions had feared, the lack of preparation time, unfamiliarity with their new team-mates and worst of all basic errors, led to a frustrating first half. 

The signs were there from the kick-off, the Barbarians taking the kick-off and then piling on the pressure in the Lions 22 with multiple attacks from the lineout. 

Once the Lions did get their hands on the ball there was a chance to add the first points off the tee for Sexton, with much made in the week about his insistence on taking the goal kicking duties. He missed, keeping the score at 0-0. 

Sexton was on target with his second effect but the Barbarians back three always looked dangerous, Sam Vaka and Sevu Reece slicing their way through. 

But they were not without mistakes themselves, Luteru Laulala butchering a simple three-on-one when he went for glory, only Taulupe Faletau's desperate cover tackle saving the day. 

That break however did keep the Lions under pressure deep in their 22, and eventually it paid off for the Barbarians when Anderson-Heather drove low at the line to score. The Lions could have no complaints, down 7-3. 

Stuart Hogg struggled; a stray foot in touch and mis-read of the bouncing ball topped by his poor pass to Anthony Watson with the line threatening. 

Kyle Sinckler, Ben Te'o and Ross Moriarty offered glimmers of hope, but the Lions' best attack ended when after being held up short of the line, they were then penalised for obstruction. 

Faletau however continued to shine, his break sparking the latest Lions surge on the Barbarians line, but once more the Lions came up short, Jonathan Joseph held up over the line as referee Angus Garnder blew for half-time. 

The tourists started the second half with more impetus, Laidlaw taking over the kicking duties to slot a penalty and cut the gap to one point. 

Sexton's tough night lasted 48 minutes as he was replaced by Owen Farrell, with the rest of the Saracens cavalry plus Tadgh Furlong arriving off the bench to try and turn things around. 

It did not take long, Farrell's flat pass releasing Moriarty and with the Barbarians defence scrambling, Watson was put away in the corner for the Lions' first try on tour. 

Even Farrell couldn't escape some jitters, clattering a penalty off the post in the 66th minute, and that miss looked costly with the Barbarians continuing to look confident. 

Successive penalties in the closing minutes allowed the Barbarians to put the ball into the corner to try and unleash their maul as the crowd sensed a huge upset. 

Instead Mako Vunipola's superb steal saved the day, as the Lions clung on. They have a lot of work to do.


Barbarians - Try: Sam Anderson-Heather. Conversion: Bryn Gatland.

Lions - Try: Anthony Watson. Conversion: Owen Farrell. Penalty: Johnny Sexton, Greg Laidlaw

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