Lions too hot to handle in stylish opening salvo
Lions 59 Barbarians 8
To say the Lions barely raised a sweat would, clearly, be libellous. Take away the oppressive humidity and moisture-soaked palms which dominated this occasion, however, and the opening fixture of the 2013 tour was about as routine as they come. The only gates these Barbarians will be storming this weekend will be the ones over at Hong Kong airport en route to their various end-of-season vacations.
What this contest proved, as a result, is anyone's guess. With balls repeatedly falling from slippery fingers and the pace of the game up front frequently slowing to a virtual crawl, it all bore little relation to the white heat of a Lions Test series. In fits and starts there were signs of a promising touring team trying to get out, but accurate judgments, sadly, will have to wait until they encounter conditions which permit a proper game of rugby union.
It was a shame because the expectation surrounding this tour is both genuine and thrilling. We all want to see more of talented young men like Toby Faletau, Jonathan Davies, Dan Lydiate, Stuart Hogg, Justin Tipuric and Mako Vunipola, all of whom showed up pretty well on their Lions debuts. A curious Asian audience also deserved something more substantial than a Barbarian side which amounted to rather less than the dim sum of its parts.
Instead it was a day for salesmen of cold drinks and cooling fans rather than 20-stone prop forwards and deft handling. Maybe it was all written beforehand. According to the Chinese almanac Tung Shing this was an inauspicious day for grand openings but a lucky one for the colour red and the numbers four and nine. While Richie Gray had a relatively quiet game, the scrum-half Mike Phillips ended up with two sharp tries and there were enough red-shirted points to entertain the perspiring hordes of Lions supporters. The touring side, 20-3 up at half-time, also appeared to avoid serious harm in terms of injuries, although their heavier forwards will not recall this match with the remotest affection. It was a mixed day, too, for Owen Farrell who kicked 15 points but mostly stuttered as a playmaker.
Farrell, furthermore, was involved in the game's only real flare-up when he tugged back his Saracens team-mate Schalk Brits and was rewarded with a sharp right forearm to the head. Brits, in a more serious contest, might have received worse than a yellow card, while Farrell's retaliatory slap to the not-so-gallant Brits' face was not particularly clever either.
Over in Australia, every one of the Lions' future tour opponents will have taken due note. They will also have recognised, however, that the Lions' Welsh contingent are already in good order. Phillips' second try was a trademark sniping effort and Jamie Roberts' familiarity with both Davies and Alex Cuthbert yielded further second-half scores. The increasingly prolific Cuthbert also added a second, courtesy of a neat pass from replacement Jonny Sexton. The Irishman lent a touch of late class to proceedings and also combined well with his compatriot Conor Murray as the Lions steadily turned the screw.
In the final analysis there were more tries than lengthy drinks breaks but it was a pretty close-run thing. There has also been plenty of rehydrating going on in the bars, clubs and dentists' chairs of Hong Kong.
Say what you like about the contentious wisdom of stopping in the Far East en route to Australia but they love a rugby party in the old colonies. Only inflated ticket prices kept the crowd down, although the stifling heat may also have had some bearing. The inevitable result, either way, was rugby with a totally tropical taste, pure undiluted sweat with the merest dash of blood and tears.
Was it case of commercialism gone awry? The tour sponsors, HSBC, insist not but someone in Hong Kong clearly made the Lions an offer they were unable to refuse. If the full extent of the searing heat was slightly unfortunate – it had been raining here for weeks prior to the Lions' arrival – there was always a risk of a sauna-style experience. If this experiment is to be repeated, an air-conditioned stadium may be required.
At least, from the Lions' perspective, no long-term fitness harm has been done. The management reckon it could even prove to be a bonus when they return to the training ground this week ahead of Wednesday's game against the Western Force in Perth. "We're going to get a benefit out of training and playing in those conditions," insisted Gatland. "I'm looking at it as a positive. It's almost the same benefit as training at altitude."
The head coach also stressed that, as far as he is concerned, this was the start of something rather than a half-hearted warm-up game. "We definitely feel like the tour's started. The tour starts when you get on the plane and leave Britain and Ireland but we are aware that the microscope is going to be on us a heck of a lot more than it is at the moment."
Scorers – Lions: Phillips, Cuthbert 2 tries each; O'Connell, Davies, Lydiate, AW Jones try each; Farrell 3 cons, 3 pens; Sexton 2 cons.
Barbarians: Fotuali'i try; Daly pen.
Lions: S Hogg; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts (G North 67), S Maitland; O Farrell (J Sexton 57), M Phillips (C Murray 57); M Vunipola (C Healy 55), R Hibbard (T Youngs 43), A Jones (M Stevens 55), R Gray, P O'Connell (capt) (AW Jones 29-36, then 62), D Lydiate, J Tipuric, T Faletau (J Heaslip 62).
Barbarians: J Payne; J Rokocoko, E Daly, C Laulala (J Hook 68), T Ngwenya (M Tindall 60); N Evans, D Yachvili (K Fotuali'l 53); P James ( D Jones 58), S Brits (L Ghiraldini 45), M Castrogiovanni (A Lo Cicero 69), M Wentzel (J Hamilton 59), D Mumm, S Manoa (L Ghiraldini 10-19), S Jones (I Harinordoquy 53), S Parisse (capt).
Referee: S Walsh (ARU)