With Alun Wyn Jones playing the full 80 minutes and his Ospreys team-mates, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb, coming off the bench, it was a big day for the region.
The 2017 British & Irish Lions recovered from a slow start to kick off the Tour with a hard-fought victory over the NZ Provincial Barbarians at Toll Stadium in Whangarei.
Anthony Watson’s second-half try proved vital for the tourists who trailed 7-3 at the break to their fearless opponents.
A Sam Anderson-Heather try and Bryn Gatland conversion had the hosts in front but the Lions – wasteful before the interval – took their chance when it came in the second period.
Owen Farrell – on for Jonathan Sexton in the second half – released his England teammate Watson down the right for the pivotal try before adding the extras.
And with Greig Laidlaw having also slotted a penalty, that proved to be enough for the tourists who head back to Auckland now to prepare for Wednesday’s clash with the Blues.
The Lions – who kicked off the 1993 Tour at this same stadium with a 30-17 win over North Auckland – were caught napping from kick-off to put the hosts immediately on the front foot.
The home side – in keeping with their Barbarian spirit – then sent kickable penalties to the corner but the Lions stood tall in defence, Ross Moriarty and Joe Marler particularly impressive.
Having finally relieved that early pressure, the Lions hit the front when Sexton – who had earlier missed his first attempt – slotted a penalty for a 3-0 lead.
The BaaBaas were up for the battle in front of a sell-out crowd however, Luteru Laulala and Inga Finau next to combine on the counter for what seemed a certain try before a jaw-dropping cover tackle from Taulupe Faletau saved the day.
The BaaBaas kept coming, an up-and-under from Gatland – who caught the eye throughout against his father’s side – caused confusion and from close range soon after, Anderson-Heather barged over.
Gatland added the simple extras and the hosts were 7-3 to the good with the half-hour approaching.
But the rest of the half was all Lions, Rory Best and Sam Warburton constant menaces at the breakdown while in attack Stuart Hogg started to showcase his dancing feet and Kyle Sinckler was everywhere.
But try as they might, they couldn’t breach the BaaBaas defence –Watson tackled into touch with the line beckoning before both Faletau and Hogg were held up over the try-line in quick succession.
And while the BaaBaas ended the half camped on their own line, impressive scrambling saw them into the sheds with a 7-3 lead.
Having turned down a couple of kickable penalties before the interval, the Lions were not so wasteful as the second half commenced and Laidlaw – taking over duties from Sexton – slotted a penalty to reduce arrears to 7-6.
Farrell was then thrust into the fray before the 50th minute and with his Saracens teammates Mako Vunipola, George Kruis and Jamie George – as well as Tadhg Furlong – not far behind him, the Lions then hit the front.
Moriarty’s initial break came down the right before Farrell put his England teammate Watson over down the same short side, the replacement fly-half making no mistakes with the extras for a 13-7 scoreline.
The England fly-half then smashed the post with a penalty after the hour-mark when looking to make it a two-score game.
In the closing stages the Lions had to front up against a fearless Barbarians side but the red wall held firm to kick the Tour off with a hard-fought, but much-needed win.
(Report courtesy of www.lionsrugby.com)