WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The British and Irish Lions will reach an important crossroads in only the second match of their New Zealand tour Wednesday when they play the Auckland Blues in their first ever meeting with a Super Rugby side.
Unless the extensively changed Lions side can dramatically improve on an inadequate performance by the tourists in their opening match against the Provincial Barbarians, expectations on coach Warren Gatland's team may plummet, with their plans around selection and preparation for the tests against the All Blacks compromised.
The Lions squad needs to quickly restore the confidence of the nearly 30,000 fans that have followed them to New Zealand by scoring a win over the Blues which demonstrates they have the strength and depth to challenge New Zealand in the three-test series that begins June 24.
The excuses the Lions have cited to explain a weak and disordered performance against the Barbarians — a team of amateurs and semi professionals, many of whom had to take time off work to play — won't stand now that the tour is more than a week old.
The Lions blamed jet lag and a limited preparation for a performance which saw them forced onto the back foot before they managed to rally and turn a 7-3 halftime deficit into a 13-7 win. They were never in control of the match and were defending desperately when it ended.
Those excuses don't wash in modern professional rugby. Most of the side that took the field Saturday had been in training for some time before the team's departure and southern teams traveling to the northern hemisphere often go into test matches on a similar buildup.
The match against the Blues, for which the Lions have made a comprehensive 15 personnel changes, can be expected to reveal whether the inadequacies the tourists displayed were an aberration, as they claim, or demonstrative of their general weakness.
The Lions, who regard set pieces as their forte, achieved no superiority at scrum or lineout despite a substantial weight and height advantage and a surfeit of international experience. They allowed themselves to be bullied at breakdowns and showed no flexibility in they way they attacked the Barbarians, who hadn't time in their limited match preparation to practice defensive patterns.
The Barbarians were the team that made the play, trying to create quick recycled ball, while on defense they relied on instinct and simply tackled anything that moved.
Against the Blues on Wednesday, the Lions will face a much more practiced and prepared opponent. The Blues are in the depths of the Super Rugby season and their attacking and defensive patterns are well-honed. They have eight All Blacks among their lineup and a dangerous backline which will test the Lions' defense more severely than the Barbarians.
Coach Gatland is confident the Lions can match the Blues physically and in their high-paced style.
"We've just got to match fire with fire with our approach to the game," Gatland said. "I think the fact that we would have been here for a week on Wednesday, understanding what's coming at us and how tough the challenge is going to be, I think that's going to put us in good stead.
"A few guys were flat and disappointed that we didn't win the (Barbarians) game more comfortably, but it was a win, an ugly win at that, but we came out of it on top and there's only one way to go and that's to improve on the performance."
The most disappointing aspect of the Lions' first-up performance was its total lack of ambition. Matches involving Barbarians sides generally have a festival atmosphere in which both teams run the ball at every opportunity. The Lions never tried to do so, which suggests they will follow the far more conservative style — dubbed Warrenball — that Gatland has adopted as coach of Wales.
Gatland bridles at the use of the term.
"The modern game of rugby is about getting over the gain-line, trying to get front-foot ball and playing to space if that's possible," he said.
"We know we didn't play so well on Saturday and it gives us an opportunity to go out against the Blues and be positive. The message to the players is we want to be able to play positive rugby. We want to be able to move the ball and create chances."
The Lions must improve Wednesday because their tour only gets harder from here on. The Blues are the weakest of the New Zealand Super Rugby sides; the Crusaders, who the Lions will meet on Saturday, are the best and will prey on any team showing signs of self-doubt.