Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Crucial win for Lions but big tests keep coming
Last Updated: 12/06/17 12:35pm
Stuart Barnes reflects on a crucial win for the Lions in Christchurch, Tuesday's clash with the Highlanders and the battle for Test places...
1. The white horses are rolling into the beach, the sun is rising on a beautiful morning in St Clair, a little beach suburb on the edge of Dunedin and all is well with the world.
Moods switch dramatically on a Lions tour. A week ago, I was pondering a poor opening performance and the implications - or not - of jet lag. Now, after Saturday's win in Christchurch, the entire feel to the tour has changed.
Whether this upbeat atmosphere is premature....well, we'll find out eventually.
2. The win against the unbeaten Crusaders was a big one. The tour was in a bad psychological place had they lost for the second time in a week. Instead they stopped the Crusaders from scoring a try for the first time since 2015.
The defence was immense, the pressure constant, the control emanating from half-back assured. A couple of tries and it would have been, to misquote the late Lou Reed, 'a perfect day'.
3. These missed opportunities are a major cause for concern further on up the road.
A Kiwi hack asked Gatland whether he was concerned with the fact the Lions have only scored the two tries in three games. Gatland snapped back, how many had the Lions conceded?
It was not Warren's best rhetorical retort. Two tries for, four against is not a record to beat an All Black team who will be a different kettle of fish to the Crusaders, no matter how much the Lions manager claims otherwise.
4. Tries were a surprising rarity in Wellington on Friday night as the Chiefs claimed the scalp of the champions, the Hurricanes.
The game was played at an incredible pace, one that would have caused the Lions endless problems simply because we do not play at anything like that speed.
The key to beating these teams is control of the tempo and the key to that control is a pack and clear headed half-backs.
For all the talk of rugby chaos this test series is looming as a clash of rugby cultures. It is a clash that is historically won by New Zealand but for now, having bought time on Saturday, the dream is alive.
5. On Tuesday the Lions play a weakened Highlanders side. Nine absentees through a combination of All Black and Maori demands and the inevitable few injuries.
They are promising a much quicker game beneath the roof. Though the team is far weaker on paper than that of the Crusaders, this could be a trickier test than the names on the sheet suggests.
The loss of Aaron Smith, in particular, and Ben Smith is immeasurable but there are a few threats lurking down south.
6. Malikai Fekitoa was hurt by his omission from the All Blacks squad. He will be looking for a major performance. Against him are Jonathan Joseph and Robbie Henshaw.
Ben Te'o seems to be the name on most observers lists for the 12 shirt but Henshaw is, I think, right in the thick of it.
Jonathan Davies is favourite for the outside centre position but a big performance against Fekitoa could change everything for Joseph.
7. Keep an eye out for Lima Sopoaga. Aaron Cruden limped off Friday night so the Highlanders fly-half could find himself on the bench for the first Test. Hansen likes to switch Beauden Barrett to full-back and open the entire field in the last quarter.
Sopoaga needs game time himself...with Richie Mounga being harassed from start to end a rough ride for another potential All Black would be no bad thing for the Lions.
Warburton unsure of Test spot
Sam Warburton concedes he may miss the British and Irish Lions' first Test against New Zealand
8. Chief hassler, one hopes, will be Sam Warburton. The skipper has not been seen since an inconclusive opening performance.
A strong showing for 40 or 45 minutes will put him on course for a collision with Sam Cane. An average effort and the claims of Sean O'Brien (very good on Saturday) and Justin Tipuric will grow.
9. The All Blacks announced their squad last week. It was typically powerful. Powerful enough to ignore the claims of Nehe Milner Skudder and Damian McKenzie. The former has not played much rugby this season but is an irrepressible talent while the lightweight McKenzie is one of the most exciting rugby players in the world.
The Lions will face the pair in Rotorua when they match up with the Maori and another Haka on Saturday. Throw in the Leinster-bound James Lowe and that is one hell of back three.
The Highlanders have a pretty useful winger of their own coming up against the Lions too. Waisake Naholo is another player released by Hansen ahead of the Test series.
The strength of opposition (don't discount the strength in depth of the Highlanders) gives this tour a heft from day one that has been lacking in the last few tours. Games have meaning, players can be judged against high quality opposition.
The Lions team selected for Tuesday looks like a midweek side but this is more than a mere accessory to the main action. It is a momentum builder. An impressive win and the Lions will be bouncing just that little bit more as they head back to the North Island and the much touted Maori clash.
10. There is rugby outside New Zealand although it's hard to take your eyes from the main event.
I diverted mine long enough to be mightily impressed with England winning in Argentina. Good to see George Ford looking so composed again. He remains a class act.
A solid start for Gregor Townsend too but in global terms most interesting was the performance of a fresh looking South African side against an experienced enough French XV.
The world needs South Africa strong; the world also needs a special series here at the bottom of the world. Even New Zealand fans, long used to supremacy, want a spectacle not a whitewash.
We'll check on the Lions progress towards that first Test next week. Now I must away for a coffee with Josh Kronfeld.....he was a pain in my butt here in Dunedin when I played fly-half for the Lions 24 years ago, but I think we can let bygones be bygones after that space in time.
Your round Josh (well, I said coffee but......you know how it is.).