Gatland ‘pleased’ as midweek men find scoring touch
Chiefs 6 Lions 34
It was the game none of the Lions players wanted to be involved in and a fixture the management could have done without, but in the end it was a worthwhile exercise for the tourists.
The Chiefs were hugely under-strength and below par, unable to reproduce the performance they'd put in against Wales last summer and they were suffocated by the Lions' line-speed and over-powered at set-piece.
Yet, there was a different element to yesterday morning's script; the northern hemisphere side scored some memorable tries thanks to their good work in open play.
They crossed for four tries, one penalty try from their driving maul being joined on the board by three backline strikes. Jack Nowell got a double, Jared Payne the other as the wide-boys finally got in on the action and gave Warren Gatland some food for thought as he enjoyed a successful return to his home town of Hamilton.
For those players who have found themselves stuck in the midweek team, it was a valuable exercise. Robbie Henshaw, for example, had not won a game in red before this victory and at least has that monkey off his back.
When it comes to Test selection, however, little changed. Elliot Daly was hauled ashore early in what looked like a clear signal that he'll be on the bench on Saturday, while CJ Stander and Iain Henderson did everything in their power to force their way into the reckoning.
It's unlikely to have been enough. Both players went the 80 minutes and, while they offer more impact off the bench than Welsh pair Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones it seems more likely that the experienced pair of former Test captains will get the nod.
"You need to put your hand up," Stander (above) said. "There is going to be injuries and there is going to be swaps. You just want to give the coaches a headache.
"If everyone puts their hands up in a squad of 40 everyone is going to get pushed, players are going to get pushed and the momentum is going to go forward because everyone knows that the jersey isn't yours, you just need to make sure that you do get into it week in, week out.
"We were disappointed with the two losses and you think to yourself, 'Do I really have an opportunity to get into the Test side', so you need to win and play well to make sure you do as best as you can to put your hand up. It is good to get the win, good for the morale for the team. It's good getting momentum going into the Test."
The midweek team's old failings were on show in the first half as Joe Marler stupidly got himself sin-binned, but they managed their way through the first-half regardless and Nowell's first try was the difference between the sides at half-time.
The Chiefs were well below the standard, however, and once the Lions began to find their rhythm after half-time the Super Rugby side couldn't live with them.
First, they mauled their way over and earned a penalty try before the backs finally cut loose with a length-of-the-field effort that started with Daly and Payne combining up the left to release Henshaw, before Henderson's crisp pass put Nowell into space and he finished brilliantly.
Payne completed the set by finishing a good Liam Williams counter-attack and might have had a second but for a brainless piece of attacking by Tommy Seymour. The controversial gang of six newcomers on the bench largely stayed there with Allen Dell the only one to see a few minutes' action when Marler was off the pitch.
"We wanted as many of the players as possible to go 80 minutes tonight. Some of them haven't played much rugby for a while," came Gatland's reasoning.
On Saturday, he had said that "they only become Lions when they play" and this may be his way of countering talk that the four Welsh and two Scottish call-ups are devaluing the jersey.
It's hardly the most pressing thing on his mind as he turns his attention fully to the main event on Saturday.
"The result was pretty important for that group of guys," the coach said. "We've spoken about the disappointment of the players who were involved in the Blues and Highlanders games where we have been in front after 70 minutes.
"The result was the first priority and the performance after that. We were pleased with that and some guys put their hands up tonight.
"Whatever people might say about a split in the camp, those boys are pretty together. There was a real spirit and there was a sing-song after the game. In the changing room, everyone realised just what it meant, not just for the players that took the field, but the rest of the squad."
Chiefs - S Stevenson; T Pulu (C Tiatia 12), T Nanai-Williams, J Fa'auli, S Alaimalo (L Laulala 66); S Donald, F Christie (J Taumateine 58); S Fisiihoi (A Ross 65), L Polwart (H Elliot 60), N Laulala (A Moli ); D Bird, M Allardice (M Karpik 65); M Brown, L Boshier, T Sanders (L Messam 55).
Lions - L Williams; J Nowell, J Payne (E Daly 77), R Henshaw, E Daly (T Seymour 60); D Biggar, G Laidlaw; J Marler (A Dell 16-24), R Best (capt) (K Dacey ), D Cole (T Francis ); I Henderson, C Lawes (AW Jones 53-58 HIA); J Haskell (A Dell 14), J Tipiuric, CJ Stander.
Ref - J Garces (France)