This weekend saw the first run out for the Lions class of 2017 and it was an interesting one, to say the least. The Provincial Barbarians, a scratch team of youngsters, put the best of Britain and Ireland to the test and nearly got the better of them, playing fast and loose and with the skillset and tempered edge that is synonymous with Kiwi rugby.
Amongst the highlights for the Lions was number 8 Taulupe Faletau, the rangy back row forward needed a strong performance to ease the fears of Lions fans concerned about the loss of Billy Vunipola and he certainly delivered, creating the go forward that the Lions needed to create some structure and adding the subtlety and handling that is much less common in the Northern Hemisphere game. Unfortunately, neither of the two Scots on the field managed to really get into the game as they would have wished. Greig Laidlaw struggled to deliver the service that was necessary with an open game which likely would have favoured the sniping runs of Rhys Webb and Conor Murray than the more conventional kicking game of the Gloucester man. The phenomenal talent of Stuart Hogg stuttered against the Provincial Barbarians with handling errors and a noticeable lack of line breaks meaning he didn’t meet his usual game-changing standards. All in all an underwhelming start, but a win nonetheless and many would take that as a positive with the squad fresh off the plane and only a handful of training sessions under their belt.
Looking forward, the next week will certainly reveal a lot about the prowess of this year’s group, with super rugby opposition in the form of the Blues and the Crusaders posing a significant threat. In order to achieve the desired result against the Blues on Wednesday, the Lions will have to slow the pace down and use the boot of either Dan Biggar or Leigh Halfpenny to keep the scoreboard ticking over and stifle the flair and individual brilliance that both these sides have in abundance. As this tour moves forward the defence coaching of Andy Farrell will be absolutely paramount in the success of the team as a whole and, with Wednesday’s Irish centre pairing of Payne and Henshaw already well versed in the ways of Farrell from international duty it will be very telling if they manage to nullify the threat of World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams.
It is easy to say that results aren’t the be all and end all until the Tests come around but with the New Zealand media ready to prey upon any Lions slip up, and momentum and confidence an increasingly integral part of the game at the highest level, a win against the provincial sides can certainly not be underestimated. This is evidently not lost on the New Zealander at the helm of the tour as Warren Gatland has named a squad with proven combinations throughout, with the second row, halfback, centre, and wing all featuring duos from the same country it’s clear that winning is on the agenda just as much as the gelling of combinations across the four nations
In a big week for the Lions, it is certainly a case of game on!