WHANGAREI – Sam Warburton led the British and Irish Lions to a hard-fought 13-7 win in their opening tour match against a willing New Zealand Provincial Barbarians side in Whangarei on Saturday.
Tour openers are always a concern for a Lions side with limited preparation, and the impact of travel fatigue resulting in a lack of polish, making points hard to come by.
For coach Warren Gatland, who has promised all his players a start over the first three games, the opening match would not have answered many questions about the shape of his first Test line-up.
There was only one successful penalty by Johnny Sexton in the first half as the Lions trailed 7-3 at the turn, and it took 52 minutes before Anthony Watson scored their first try.
The last time the Lions were in New Zealand, on the 2005 tour, they were held 17-17 at halftime in their first match against the Bay of Plenty before pulling away to win 34-20.
This time, they found it even harder to secure control.
Before a sell-out crowd of 20 000 at Toll Stadium, it was the Barbarians, a side representing a cross-section of New Zealand provincial rugby players, who made the most of the running for the first 30 minutes.
In a brief foray into enemy territory after 16 minutes of play, the Lions put the first points of their tour on the board with Sexton’s close-range penalty.
But it was a short-lived lead as the Barbarians relished the counter-attacking opportunities offered by the Lions kicking away possession, often the result of a lack of harmony between halfbacks Greg Laidlaw and Sexton.
The home side fired back with a Luteru Laulala break that took an exceptional tackle by Taulupe Faletau to prevent a try, when he flipped Barbarians centre Inga Finau on his back over the line.
A few more minutes later, the constant pressure told on the Lions, with Barbarians captain Sam Anderson-Heather driving over for the try and Bryn Gatland – the son of Lions coach Warren – added the extra two points.
The first half ended with the Lions opting for a scrum instead of an easy penalty shot at goal in front of the posts, but their drive for a try evaporated when outside centre Jonathan Joseph was held up over the line.
Greg Laidlaw took over the Lions kicking duties after the break and narrowed the gap to one point with a handy penalty.
Tellingly, Sexton was replaced soon after by Owen Farrell who converted the Lions first try by pacy wing Watson, but later missed a handy penalty opportunity.