British and Irish Lions: Gatland reason to be happy

Richie Gray and Stuart Hogg of the British and Irish Lions look on after their victory. Picture: Getty
Richie Gray and Stuart Hogg of the British and Irish Lions look on after their victory. Picture: Getty
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YOU don’t need the genius of legendary Lions coach Carwyn James to conclude that the touring side’s opener in Hong Kong was a very satisfactory evening’s work.

There was plenty to improve upon but there was far more from the match that will put a smile on the face of coach Warren Gatland, not least the fact that the men in red duly triumphed in this “must win” match. If anything, the Lions might have appreciated a tougher workout ahead of the business end of the tour because this was a rout well before the final quarter.

The game got off to an ugly start when the Barbarians’ South African hooker Schalk Brits was yellow carded after catching his Saracens team-mate Owen Farrell with a forearm to the face when the stand-off held on to his jersey off the ball. Referees and touch judges have been ignoring this problem for years and Brits will have done everyone a favour if he reminds match officials of their obligations.

Still, Steve Walsh deserves some sympathy since he had to police a set scrum that was a shambles from first to last, with the Lions front five almost unopposed in the bump and grind department. If the Barbarians had a decent front row on paper they were hapless on the pitch. Almost every scrum resulted in a free kick or a penalty to the Lions and if Australia’s big men didn’t already know what was coming their way, they will have no illusions after watching this display of raw power.

Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies made a very convincing case to form the Test midfield while we witnessed the best and the worst of Mike Phillips, who helped himself to two tries but butchered a third when he went for the line with an overlap outside. The big Welshman was all but unstoppable in broken play. He shrugged off tackles with ease, going past Sergio Parisse for one try, and when he was replaced by Connor Murray in the second half the Irishman did exactly the same thing to create a score for Alex Cuthbert, pictured left. It looked great against the Barbarians but the Lions are deluding themselves if they think the Wallaby defence around the fringes will be quite so soft.

Not every aspect of Phillips’ game matches his ability to break the line. He won the man of the match award but it’s doubtful that his stand-off Owen Farrell would have voted for him. It’s been noted that as a scrum-half, Phillips is a great flanker and his service yesterday can only be described as variable. If Farrell wasn’t picking passes off his shoelaces, the Englishman was plucking the ball from above his head and he was little better himself. Several of Farrell’s passes were a little wayward, including one in the first half that slipped out of his hand and travelled as far forwards as it did laterally.

It was a pretty satisfactory evening for the three Scots who started this match, especially since Richie Gray hasn’t donned his boots in anger since the Six Nations. The big lock needed a good workout and he duly got it. He lasted the full 80 minutes and he did his fair share of the hard graft, carrying and clearing. Gray was used sparingly at the sidelines, perhaps just once in each half, and replacement hooker Tom Youngs’ first throw was horribly squint, not that the Scot was responsible for that.

The other Scots made up two-thirds of the back three and they were a little unlucky not to get their names on the scoresheet. Sean Maitland had a cast-iron opportunity early on but the flying winger could not quite keep hold of Jonathan Davies’ grubber kick and knocked on as he went over the line. Since he probably starts behind Cuthbert and George North in the pecking order, Maitland arguably needed an exceptional performance to leapfrog his rivals and he couldn’t quite produce it on the night.

Later in the match Maitland almost benefited from an audacious counter-attack that was sparked by his Scotland team-mate Stuart Hogg, who displayed astonishing composure for a 20-year-old making his first appearance in a Lions shirt. Hogg had to back-pedal to his own 22 to collect a Dimitri Yachvili clearance. He was caught by the kick chase but off-loaded to the supporting Cuthbert who made a few yards before returning the favour and the Scot was able to whisk the ball away from trouble. The move carried on, Justin Tipuric collected Davies’ kick and passed to Farrell, only to see the stand-off’s attempted lob to Maitland being intercepted by a Barbarian hand.

Hogg had started the match by running straight into the brick wall that is Casey Laulau, who stopped him dead in his tracks, but one of the youngster’s most valuable assets is his ability to put these things behind him and he did so yesterday with some panache. He ran some beautiful lines and, had the ball not been as slippery as a greased pig, he would have enjoyed line breaks following offloads by Paul O’Connell and Gray. He fielded the Garryowens, kicked the ball a mile in return and cleared up the mess made by Farrell being charged down, even if the Englishman was never going to return the favour by handing Hogg the long-distance penalty shot at goal that ended the first half.