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Rugby-Lions under no illusions after underwhelming opener
June 4, 2017 / 6:33 AM / 6 months ago

Rugby-Lions under no illusions after underwhelming opener

WELLINGTON, June 4 (Reuters) - 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 on Sunday, 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.

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 or 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 team mate 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 Canterbury 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 Queensland Reds last Friday to make sure they were at full strength for the Lions. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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