WARREN Gatland has declared himself “very, very happy” with the opening phase of his British and Irish Lions squad’s Australia tour.
The Lions will depart Brisbane for Newcastle tomorrow after preserving their 100 per cent record through a pulsating 22-12 victory over Queensland Reds.
It followed emphatic successes against the Barbarians and Western Force, and another comfortable win looks likely on Tuesday when Gatland’s men face a Combined Country XV at Hunter Stadium, home of Newcastle Knights rugby league club. There are three games left before the first Test on June 22 and, although the Lions have lost props Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins to injuries – and wing Tommy Bowe underwent surgery on his damaged hand yesterday – they are building towards what should be a gripping series. Bowe’s Ireland team-mate Simon Zebo is on his way from North America to provide injury cover.
“Absolutely. I’m very, very happy,” Gatland said. “Yesterday’s game was exactly what we wanted. We would like a couple more lead-in games, and for the first two games to be a bit tougher than they were, but that’s what happens on tour – you are not dealing with tough teams all the time – so we will have to see what Tuesday is like.
“The Waratahs [Saturday’s] are missing a lot of players as well, so how tough are they going to be? The Brumbies are different – they will be tough before that first Test.”
The Lions had to dig deep at Suncorp Stadium, with fly-half Owen Farrell’s 17-point haul making the difference after Reds backs Luke Morahan and Nick Frisby scored tries in each half.
Set-piece control was key to the Lions win, though, as they showcased a dominant scrum and an effective lineout, where locks Richie Gray and Geoff Parling both did their Test team chances no harm at all.
“I thought that [set-piece] was the victory in the game,” Gatland added. “If you look at the way the Reds played – tactically, maybe Australia will do the same thing – they kept the ball in the park and only had about four lineouts.
“It was like watching Wales play against other teams. I thought our scrum was excellent and the line-out very good defensively. There needs to be a huge amount of credit placed on that part of our game.”
Gatland praised the contribution of England scrum-half Ben Youngs, who not only scored a try but delivered a quality all-round display that will keep Test team number nine favourite Mike Phillips on his toes.
“There is a subtlety Ben brings to the game,” Gatland said. “In the Wales-England Six Nations game [in March] he was the player who caused Wales the most problems around the fringes. He played really well that day.
“He is confident in his own ability, takes the line on and offers a different threat to the other two [Phillips and Conor Murray]. It’s nice to have two or three players in certain positions who are putting their hands up.
“We’ve given everyone a guarantee that they would get a start in the first three games, and we put a new side out last night against a team who – even though they were missing some key players – had had 16 rounds of Super Rugby together.
“For us to put a team together at short notice, who hadn’t played together before, with new combinations, to come away and win is a real credit to them. We knew going into the game, with the amount of travel we’ve had and what we’ve been doing on the field, that, physically, our players weren’t as fresh and were a bit flat.
“So for us to come under that pressure without being so fresh in the legs, I was pleased how we came out of it. We’ve been training very hard, and between now and the first Test it will be a case of shortening up and shortening up so that players are fresh.”
Queensland Reds dominated the early stages of the game and Morahan gave them an early lead after a stunning run in which he left Lions skipper Sam Warburton for dead before chipping over Stuart Hogg’s head to touch down under the posts for Quade Cooper to convert.
Farrell kept the tourists in touch with two penalties, before a brilliant burst by George North, who had replaced the injured Manu Tuilagi after 20 minutes, nearly resulted in a try for Warburton. Lions pressure was starting to tell, however, and their reward came when Youngs pinched the ball at the base of a retreating home scrum to touch down.
Farrell kept the Lions ticking over on the scoreboard as their set-piece control gave them command of the game, and he had the last word with a fifth penalty, shortly after Frisby scored an opportunist second try for the Reds.