Lions un­der no il­lu­sions af­ter dour tour opener

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

WELLING­TON: If the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions were un­der any il­lu­sions as to how dif­fi­cult their Tour of New Zealand would be, a scratchy per­for­mance in their opener re­moved them.

War­ren Gat­land se­lected a strong side to face the New Zealand Provin­cial Barbarians, an in­vi­ta­tional side made up of semi-pro­fes­sion­als who were sup­posed to present by far the eas­i­est op­po­si­tion of the 10-match tour.

The Barbarians, though, put them un­der pres­sure, re­fused to buckle in the set piece – where the Lions are ex­pected to have an ad­van­tage – showed more en­ter­prise and were only beaten 13-7.

Local pun­dits tore into the Lions yes­ter­day, la­belling them “pa­thetic” and “in­com­pe­tent” and sug­gest­ing if the All Blacks had been play­ing the mar­gin of vic­tory would have been closer to 100 points.

Gat­land has al­ready said all 41 mem­bers of the squad will get a chance to play in the open­ing three games but on Satur­day sev­eral play­ers failed to make the most of their op­por­tu­nity, no­tably Ire­land fly­half Johnny Sex­ton, pic­tured.

Sex­ton, first choice in Aus­tralia four years ago, did lit­tle to sug­gest he could hold off the chal­lenge of Eng­land’s Owen Far­rell, who re­placed him on Satur­day, or Welsh­man Dan Big­gar, who is ex­pected to start against the Blues on Wed­nes­day.

The 31-year-old showed lit­tle vi­sion, run­ning or kick­ing threat and did not link well with the hard-run­ning Ben Te’o out­side him, with some sug­gest­ing his opposite num­ber, Gat­land’s son Bryn, com­pre­hen­sively out­played him.

One fac­tor in Sex­ton’s favour could be his part­ner­ship with Ire­land team­mate Con­nor Mur­ray, who has the in­side run­ning to start at scrumhalf dur­ing the Tests af­ter both he and Sex­ton were twice out­stand­ing against the All Blacks late last year.

The Ir­ish duo’s in­nate un­der­stand­ing of each other’s game would no doubt cut down on the time needed for Gat­land to gel the all-im­por­tant com­bi­na­tion be­fore the first Test on June 24.

Mur­ray, who is ex­pected to part­ner Big­gar on Wed­nes­day, said noth­ing was be­ing taken for granted by any of the play­ers.

“Maybe War­ren and the lads have a few ideas in their heads of com­bi­na­tions and peo­ple they may want to play but it’s just so tight,” he told Bri­tish me­dia.

“There’s an air of red-hot competition, which is great ... (and) it’s go­ing to be re­ally tough to get into that team.”

De­spite their strug­gles in their open­ing tour match, and the crit­i­cism, few ex­pect to be able to make any real judge­ments un­til af­ter the meet­ing with the seven-time Super Rugby cham­pion Cru­saders on Satur­day.

The Blues, who have sev­eral All Blacks, will also pro­vide strong op­po­si­tion and coach Tana Umaga did not se­lect a hand­ful of top play­ers for the win over the Reds last Fri­day to make sure they were at full strength for the Lions. – Reuters

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