British and Irish Lions just avoid embarrassing loss against NZ Barbarians

The Lions got their heavily predicted opening game victory but it was one that saw them reach unimaginable levels of mediocrity.

It was one that saw them embarrassed by a side that had no business putting them under as much pressure as they did and getting so close to a shock victory.

If coach Warren Gatland had a worst case scenario in mind for the Lions performance, his team surpassed it. It was, frankly, a ghastly night for them where, with the exception of Toby Faletau and Ben Teo’o, they spectacularly failed to impress.

And given what lies ahead for the Lions, they’d have to be worried. New Zealand should be worried for them. Maybe even say a little prayer because they need some kind of miracle to survive the next five weeks if what they offered in Whangarei is what they are all about.

There they were, up against a group of hastily thrown together provincial battlers, and…nothing. The big opening statement was never made.

They couldn’t impose themselves. They couldn’t find space. They couldn’t control the breakdown or determine the tempo.

It was the Barbarians who had all the answers. Bryn Gatland controlled the game and Josh Goodhue and the rest of the pack gave everything to deliver the most compelling performance.

It felt ridiculous to be thinking the Barbarians could win but the thought couldn’t be eliminated – not when they only trailed by six for most of the second half.

And while many of the Lions’ difficulties could be attributed to the inevitable bedding-in period they will have to endure as a scratch side with limited preparation time, they need to be careful not to think that was at the heart of their inadequacies.

The bit that will trouble the Lions coaching staff, or it should be troubling them, is that their players didn’t have the speed of thought or movement to impose themselves.
There is a bit of nonsense, as Warren Gatland himself pointed out, written about the set piece, pedestrian nature of Northern Hemisphere rugby. It’s not the up-the-jumper stuff of a few decades back.

There is a bit of zip and zap about most club games in the UK and Ireland and a bit of expansive stuff between the crunchy bits.

But rugby in New Zealand is undeniably breathtakingly quick. And the speed is generated by reaction times – by the awareness of the players as well as their accurate basic skills.

That’s where the Lions were well off. They were so slow to react. They took an age to transition from defence to attack.

They were so slow to see where the threats lay and more worryingly, they couldn’t think quickly enough to take advantage of the opportunities that came their way. When they did eventually realise where to run, they butchered a raft of opportunities simply by not being masters of the not so complex process of pass and catch.

For the entire first half they were clunky beyond all expectation. They were beaten across the park, left to chase the game and wonder how on earth they were going to get into it given the magnitude of their problems.

It also looked as if a few of their players were a bit shell-shocked, trying to make sense of why they were failing to live up to expectation.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that for the Lions. They had come to Whangarei with the best squad imaginable and universal predictions they would enjoy a gentle hit out to ease their way into business.

So when what they actually got was beaten up at the breakdown, smashed around in the contact areas and ripped apart on the wider fringes, there was an element of panic coming from them.

No brain explosions or anything like that, just a sense frustration was building at their ineptitude.

NZ Provincial Barbarians 7 (S. Anderson-Heather tries; B. Gatland cons)
British & Irish Lions 13 (A. Watson tries; J. Sexton, G. Laidlaw pens; O. Farrell cons)

Date: Saturday, June 3
Venue: Toll Stadium, Whangarei
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)

https://www.lionsrugby.com/


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