Monday 11 December 2017

Tony Ward: Race is on to instil belief after false start to tour

Playing with best of the best brings unique pressure and tourists must find confidence and imagination

Owen Farrell, pictured alongside Warren Gatland yesterday is looking like a castiron certainty at No 10. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Owen Farrell, pictured alongside Warren Gatland yesterday is looking like a castiron certainty at No 10. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

As false starts go - short of losing - let's hope this is as false as it gets. Given the gulf in class and experience in Whangarei, the Lions were putrid. That they will improve beyond recognition is a given; for the simple reason they have to.

A repeat of the insipid performance against the Provincial Barbarians and they will be beaten out the gate by every New Zealand opposition from here on in. That's fact, not opinion.

I have my own belief as to why those wearing red were so listless first time out and it has nothing to do with "only a fortnight preparing" or "jet lag".

Just to put it in context, those involved on Saturday have been together for the guts of a fortnight ahead of the tour opener. They travel business class, with every need covered - including an overnight break in Melbourne in order that they could enjoy the normality of a standard bed.

Warren Gatland would be well within his rights to bitch about individual and collective delivery, but complaining about lack of sufficient time in preparation or difficulty sleeping is not the way to go.

He is better equipped than anyone to deal with the New Zealand media, but excuse upon excuse in relation to preparation is most definitely not advisable. Of course they will improve with time together, as they get to know each other and when the body clocks equate with all things local. It is the essence of touring with undercooked acclimatisation and is a necessary evil.

Tadhg Furlong’s performance was the only real positive from a bad day at the office. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong’s performance was the only real positive from a bad day at the office. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile


An issue much closer to the mark and one with which most, if not all, Lions can identify with was best articulated by Keith Wood in the build-up. He concentrated on the human element and the nervousness he felt in his opening game and in his first Test.

I can readily recall those feelings from 1980. It would be too easy to dismiss today's cohort as highly paid professionals and have little sympathy. Yes, they are full-time athletes who are well remunerated for the time spent in New Zealand, but they are also human.

No matter what tour you go on and no matter how much quality training you do - or how many 'normal' sleeping hours you get - to have that opening match out of the way is the biggest plus of all. While representing your country is the greatest individual honour, to be picked for the touring Lions as the best of the best brings a different type of pressure.

I'm not sure I go along with Gatland's take that such a tough grilling beats a soft run out with an accompanying cricket scoreline. There is definitely a happy medium.

Just for the record, the greats of 1971 lost their opening match on that tour (to Queensland) before losing one of the 24 that followed in New Zealand. At least, as Sam Warburton rightly noted, it's one win from one.

Beyond that, and a few decent individual performances, we are clutching at straws to find anything positive bar the result. Kyle Sinckler showed youthful exuberance, plus the temperament to do what he does when ball-carrying for Harlequins. Alun Wyn Jones did enough to show that he is one of the leaders the Lions will need come Test time.

Ross Moriarty and replacement Justin Tipuric both did well, thereby ratcheting up the early tour pressure on fellow Welshman and captain Warburton. That said, it was another of the Welsh back-rowers on duty, Taulupe Faletau, who (almost) single-handedly kept the show afloat. Billy Vunipola will be missed, but Faletau is a cast-iron certainty.

So is Owen Farrell, but most probably wearing 10. Ben Te'o and Anthony Watson, the latter from limited opportunities, were the best of the backs, with Stuart Hogg mixing the ridiculous with the sublime.

Obviously, depending on how Leigh Halfpenny goes against the Blues - and bear in mind that Jared Payne is a clear and obvious full-back alternative - then 2017 Player of the Six Nations Hogg may well be used as an impact sub or a last throw of the dice. I like Hogg because of his willingness to try things, but there are definitely frailties in the overall package.

From an Irish perspective it was a bad day at the office, with Tadhg Furlong's induction as a Lion the only real positive. Depending on how Dan Cole goes against the Blues, the Leinster tighthead is still well placed for inclusion against the All Blacks in the opening Test.

The side selected to face Crusaders on Saturday will be the first indication of Gatland's likely Test hand. Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Johnny Sexton all had what could best be described as underwhelming performances in Whangarei.

The inclusion of all three in the match-day squad, albeit on the bench for Auckland tomorrow, is tactful in the circumstances.

There has been a lot of positive analysis of Farrell's contribution when replacing Sexton at out-half and even the most staunch Sexton supporters cannot argue otherwise.

Let us not lose sight either of the quality of the Barbarians effort. Bear in mind they had about half the time together that the Lions did and in Bryn Gatland a star turn at out-half linking it all together. No matter where his career takes him from here, even in defeat this was a game he will never, ever forget.

The old man joked afterwards about a win/win scenario for the family. Naturally we get where he is coming from, but in the cold light of day what transpired against the Barbarians will have appeared anything but.

The Blues represent a different challenge, but still way less than what lies beyond that again. To that end, opportunity knocks to put in a winning performance befitting the status of a Lions tour.

The only way is up after Whangarei. And with respect to the Barbarian part-timers, winning ugly won't cut it against some teams.

Save for atrocious conditions in the Test series, winning ugly won't count. Already it's time for confidence and imagination to take hold.

Irish Independent

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