Sexton fails to take his chances as tame Lions struggle in opener against New Zealand Provincial Barbarians
Barbarians 7 Lions 13
Johnny Sexton arrived in New Zealand knowing he was under pressure to retain his hold on the Test No 10 shirt and his grip has loosened considerably after a difficult opening night.
The Irish out-half was far from the only underwhelming performer as the recently arrived tourists struggled to put away a collection of Super Rugby fringe players, club stalwarts and semi-professionals in front of an enthusiastic sell-out in the northern town of Whangarei.
But, after finishing his Leinster season with an error-strewn display against Scarlets two weeks’ ago, Sexton’s performance was full of inaccuracies before he was replaced by the far more assured Owen Farrell after just 48 minutes.
The games will come thick and fast and no doubt he’ll get another chance, but the England star is now firmly in pole position to start the Tests.
The Lions came into this game seeking a momentum and morale-boosting win, but instead they were met by a committed and skilful performance from the locals and fell over the line.
Their next five games come against the in-form, full-strength Super Rugby teams and the Maori and they now know just how difficult their task will be.
Few players will have impressed Warren Gatland, although Taulupe Faletau, Kyle Sinckler and Ben Te’o did their cases no harm.
For Sexton, Iain Henderson, Greig Laidlaw, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg it was a backward step. Captain Sam Warburton looked under-cooked after a long absence through injury.
The Lions only arrived in the country on Wednesday, but they’ve insisted the travel was not an issue. This team trained together in Carton House throughout last week, but there was little sign of that as they lacked cohesion throughout.
After 36 hours of relentless rain, the weather brightened up in time for kick-off. Conditions were slippy and both sides had endured limited preparation time, but the Barbarians coped better and in Bryn Gatland, son of the Lions coach, they had the night’s star man.
Gatland Jr peppered the Lions back three with clever kicks and caused mayhem as the recently arrived tourists struggled to settle.
Twice, the Barbarians went to the corner when the tourist’s discipline slipped but the second time Joe Marler got in amongst the maul and forced the scrum that allowed Greig Laidlaw clear his lines.
Sexton missed a 40m penalty attempt after the hosts strayed offside in the backline, but the Lions got their turn to take the Barbarians through the phases after a clever scrum move saw the Irish out-half release Tommy Seymour, before Te’o made a useful break. It all came a cropper when Hogg knocked on, but it was promising.
Sexton made no mistake a second time to get the first points of the game with a 17th minute penalty after Inga Finau strayed offside.
The Baa-baas almost hit back instantly as Finau picked up a bouncing ball and glided through the Lions defence. Hogg did well to halt his march, but he managed to offload to Luteru Laulala who must have been sure he was in only for Faletau to catch him, turn him and brilliantly prevent him from touching down.
They made up for it minutes later, Sexton skewed his kick to touch and from the lineout Gatland put an up-and-under into the Lions’ ’22 and the visiting back three were marked absent. Having re-established territory 5m out, the locals turned to their forwards and captain Sam Anderson-Heather powered through Henderson and over from close range.
Gatland converted to the back-drop of jubilant local celebrations and the Lions made life more difficult for themselves when Hogg butchered a certain try with a poor pass to Watson who was in had the ball been put in front of him.
He then was then held up over the line by Vaka after Ross Moriarty made a big carry and Sexton’s fine pass put Te’o into space but the Scotland full-back couldn’t apply the finish.
Sam Warburton turned down a penalty under the posts to go for the scrum, but the set-piece didn’t get them over the line and when Sexton was stopped short the captain was penalised when he ran into Te’o.
Every time they showed attacking promise, they were undone by their own errors. Faletau was showing strongly, but his good carry up the left was followed by a Moriarty knock-on.
Amidst the mediocrity, Faletau was the class Lion on show and he almost got over the line before half-time but was again held up short.
They were handed one final chance with a kickable penalty under the posts, but again Warburton went for the scrum. Again, his team couldn’t get over the line and trailed 7-3 at the break.
They managed to pull a penalty back just after the restart through Greig Laidlaw who took over the tee as Sexton received treatment.
The Irish out-half was withdrawn before the 50th minute as the Lions began to panic. Iain Henderson won a penalty on the Barbarians’ 10m line, but Sinckler took it quickly and was promptly turned over.
They finally got the first try of the tour after 52 minutes of huffing and puffing. Again, Moriarty punched a hole in the Barbarians’ rear-guard and this time the scrambling defence couldn’t prevent Anthony Watson finishing in the corner.
Farrell slotted the touch-line conversion, but the visitors soon needed to be sharp defensively as the Barbarians went after another try and Tommy Seymour’s fine tackle denied them.
Farrell missed a chance to make it a two-score game, while a second try almost arrived when Farrell hoisted an up-and-under, Faletau patted the ball back to Justin Tipuric and he found Rhys Webb but the replacement scrum-half knocked on.
As the clock ticked closer to the 80th minute with the gap at six points, the locals began to believe that an upset was possible.
A sloppy penalty concession from Alun-Wyn Jones allowed them kick to the corner, but Mako Vunipola stole the ball from the maul and the Lions escaped.
This was supposed to be their gentle opener ahead of the far tougher tests to come. On this evidence it’s going to be a long tour.
PROVINCIAL BARBARIANS – L Laulala (J Webber 59); S Vaka, I Finau (J Lowe 19), D Sweeney, S Reece; B Gatland, J Stratton (R Judd 56); A Ross (T Fahamokioa 75), S Anderson-Heather (capt) (A Makalio h-t), O Jager (M Renata 75); J Goodhue, K Mewett (P Rowe 62); J Tucker, L Boshier (M Matich 44), M Dunshea.
LIONS – S Hogg; A Watson, J Joseph, B Te’o, T Seymour; J Sexton (O Farrell 49), G Laidlaw (R Webb 58); J Marler (M Vunipola 50), R Best (J George 50), K Sinckler (T Furlong 50); AW Jones, I Henderson (G Kruis 50); R Moriarty, S Warburton (capt) (J Tipuric 67), T Faletau.
Referee: A Gardiner (Australia)