In the hours before kick-off in the Lions’ 23-22 defeat by the Highlanders, full-back Stuart Hogg was ruled out of the tour with a fracture to a bone in his face.
His departure handed Jared Payne a chance to stake his claim to the Test full-back slot.
Ultimately he did not do that.
The New Zealand-born Ireland international had a fitful game. He was good in parts – notably putting in an excellent tackle on express train wing Waisake Naholo in the first half – but was indifferent in others, such as knocking on a routine high ball off a second-half kick-off.
Leigh Halfpenny has not set the tour alight so far. The Welshman appeared in a laboured win over the Provincial Barbarians in the tour opener and the 22-16 defeat by the Blues.
But I think, even had Hogg stayed fit, Halfpenny might have been ahead in Warren Gatland’s thinking.
He doesn’t give you any of the X-factor that Hogg would have done. But, on the other hand, he is entirely reliable. He is probably the best goal-kicker in the world and, with Owen Farrell missing another penalty that he would usually slot today, that quality could be vital in the pressure of a Test match.
You don’t want to take a chance in that department.
He also has outstanding Lions pedigree. He had the Test jersey on the tour of Australia in 2013, played brilliantly and won the man of the series award.
England’s Anthony Watson looked very dangerous in attack when deployed at full-back against the Crusaders after Hogg’s injury.
He has made the biggest impression if the Lions need someone to come on and act as a strike runner from that position.
Liam Williams came onto the tour in great form, but has looked like a rabbit in the headlights so far.
Usually he is low on errors, high on accuracy when playing for his country, but the occasion seems to have got to him.
Centre of the attention
Jonathan Joseph was playing catch-up after a quiet opening game against the Provincial Barbarians.
I think he has made up some of the ground in an intriguing battle for the midfield slots.
Joseph said himself that the opening game was “not the ideal situation” to make an impression given they had only stepped off the plane three days earlier.
This is the game that he would have liked to have played then as an opening statement.
He scored a try with a typically astute running angle, sensing the space and then turning on his pace to exploit it.
But it was his inside running lines, coming haring onto the ball in the build-up to Sam Warburton’s try and again in the final play of the game, that encouraged me.
It showed him getting involved, looking to get his hands on the ball, challenging defenders on the inside as well as the outside.
Webb picks up the ball and runs
Conor Murray’s polished performance in Saturday’s win over the Crusaders threw down the gauntlet to Rhys Webb.
The Wales scrum-half caught the eye with some sniping breaks, but, for me, the basics were lacking when you contrast his performance with Murray’s.
He was a little too slow to the breakdown, didn’t burrow in the breakdown like Murray would to speed up the recycling and his box-kicking was a little too long.
Conor Murray is just exemplary in his exit strategy and the Lions have no margin for errors against the All Blacks.
‘Gatland wouldn’t shirk big call on Warburton’
To be honest, I didn’t notice Sam Warburton for long periods of the game.
He took his try well, picking and going intelligently around the fringes, and is a shrewd judge of when to commit himself to a breakdown, maximising his effectiveness in defence.
I’m not sure how much that ankle injury has taken out of him. He is not playing badly, but he is not playing brilliantly either.
Warren Gatland has taken difficult decisions in his coaching career – none more so than leaving Brian O’Driscoll out of the third Test in 2013 for instance – and I don’t think he would shirk from the inevitable furore if he did the same with Warburton.
I don’t think it will happen though.
Warren has always gone for Warburton ahead of Justin Tipuric for Wales and on a tour like this experience is key.
Warburton has that. He knows how to keep a team together through the stresses and strains of a Lions tour.
Sinckler set for impact role
Kyle Sinckler always had a great chance of recreating the role that he had for England during the Six Nations – coming off the bench and using his pace and size to punch holes as a defence tires and space opens up late on.
There was a moment in the first half against the Highlanders where he showed he could do that far earlier on as he ghosted past fellow prop Daniel Lienert-Brown and into space.
But when it comes to a starting spot he is up against Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong who is a stronger scrummager and also effective in the loose.
I think the Lions will try to make the set-piece a weapon against the All Blacks and that Furlong is part of that tactic.
Naholo’s fireworks light up Dunedin
Every match on this tour is a reminder of the hosts’ quality and a chance to enjoy some of the special talents that New Zealand have in spades.
In the Blues win over the Lions, Rieko Ioane was electric. Today it was the chance for Waisake Naholo to shine.
His pace and power make him one of the most lethal finishers in world rugby and in scoring his try, he surged past Jared Payne and bumped off Courtney Lawes.
He can make some magic happen even when play has slowed and a defence seems set. A hand-off, a step, the acceleration, and suddenly something is on. It is just phenomenal individual ability.
Results start to matter
The Test matches are still the only matches that matter in terms of results. They are how this tour will be remembered and against provincial sides as good as those in New Zealand, the Lions record is bound to take a few dents en route to meeting the All Blacks.
Victories do give a team confidence and belief though.
It is imperative to beat the Maoris on Saturday. There are some big names in the Maori squad – the likes of Nehe Milner-Skudder and Liam Messam – and it will be a Test-match quality contest.
The penalty count was way too high today with 12 conceded. The support for the ball carriers was not strong enough either with the first and second players to the breakdown taking too long to arrive on the scene.
Warren Gatland will want both to improve and have the courage to promote players whose form has forced them into the Test reckoning alongside rivals who were seen as more likely before the tour started.
|Lions tour fixtures|
|3 June||Provincial Barbarians||Won 13-7|
|7 June||Blues||Lost 22-16|
|10 June||Crusaders||Won 12-3|
|13 June||Highlanders||Lost 23-22|
|17 June||Maori All Blacks|
|24 June||New Zealand|
|1 July||New Zealand|
|8 July||New Zealand|