British & Irish Lions 59-8 Barbarians, Hong Kong
The hard work starts now
Tom Hamilton in Hong Kong
June 1, 2013
Lions centre Jamie Roberts struggles to keep hold of the ball on a difficult night in Hong Kong © Getty Images
While the scoreboard showed a resounding 59-8 triumph against the Barbarians, what may come as more of a relief to the British & Irish Lions is the fact their players came through the furnace in Hong Kong unscathed. The humidity was brutal. Both skippers Sergio Parisse and Paul O'Connell said post-match they were the hardest conditions they have played in.
The match was a stop-start affair with water breaks and poor handling putting paid to any chance of a fluid match. The crowd were clearly getting restless with the Hong Kong locals - who failed to turn up in their droves with the official attendance at just 28,643 - finding Saturday's game a far cry from the Sevens they enjoy every March.
At times the match seemed little more than a pre-season run out for Gatland's men. The Baabaas attempted to play the game in the spirit expected from them with Joe Rokocoko a standout player, but the ball soon became akin to a bar of soap with the match littered with knock-ons and misplaced passes.
Owen Farrell seemed to struggle more than most with a few of his passes finding the saturated patchy turf rather than his nearest team-mate. He was also charged down twice and was involved in a flashpoint early in the match. His Saracens team-mate Schalk Brits appeared to strike him on the cheek with Farrell lashing back. It was an offence which could have seen Brits sent-off but Gatland admitted he was happy both sides stayed at 15-apiece to keep the match on an even keel.
But Gatland was quick to defend his fly-half post-match, saying: "It's pretty hard when someone lays a punch not to react." But the No.10's eagerness to fight fire with fire will have been noted by the Wallabies and the Super Rugby sides who are no strangers in getting underneath the opposition's skin.
Looking at the positives from a Lions' point of view, Justin Tipuric performed superbly at openside while Paul O'Connell bagged a well-deserved try in what was a committed performance from today's match captain and the previous tour's skipper. At half-back, while Farrell struggled, Mike Phillips took the game by the scruff of the neck and dragged his flagging team-mates forward.
Similarly, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies were solid in the centres. They seem to have immediately re-found the same sort of chemistry that proved to be so effective in the final game of the 2013 Six Nations. They provided the Lions with essential go-forward with Davies on occasions turning to the boot and forcing the Barbarians back. But while Gatland will have taken heart from the impressive performances from the experienced heads, one red-faced Scot's turnout at the back of the field may have brought a smile to his face.
Stuart Hogg was eager to get on the ball and kicked well out of hand. While Keith Earls fell apart in the opening match of the 2009 Lions tour, Hogg flourished. He may not have got on the scoreboard but he kept the Barbarians guessing and if he continues in this sort of form, then he could yet be one of the standout players on this tour.
Away from the field, Hong Kong did its best to cater for the Lions. The corporate side of this match was clear for all to see with various sponsors emblazoned all over the field, in the stadium and even on the board behind the coaches post-match. But for the local Hong Kong Rugby Union, it will surely feel aggrieved that local player Rowan Varty, who played 13 minutes against England on Sunday, failed to feature in today's game. It was a trick missed in helping raise the profile of the XV format of the game in this part of the world.
But humidity, dropped passes and retaliation aside, the first match of the 2013 Lions tour has now been and gone. The scoreboard shows a convincing win for the tourists. The coaches were adamant it was a worthwhile exercise with Gatland saying the experience of Hong Kong would have had similar benefits to a week of training at altitude.
And that's the essence of this match. It was an opportunity for the tourists to get some game time under their belt, it was just a shame the poor opposition and the conditions made it a slightly bittersweet affair. The Lions fly out to Perth on Sunday evening and will leap from the furnace of Hong Kong over into an expectant Australia. Gatland said today's players have laid down a marker, but the hard work starts now.
The Lions' Mako Vunipola and Richard Hibbard take a breather © PA Photos
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.