by Conor O'Shea

First match nerves, combinations not used to each other, acclimatisation issues: you name it they can trot them all out. Any way you look at it though, and this, as Paul O’Connell readily admitted, was not a good performance whatever the scenario.

Against the weakest opposition the touring Lions will face they really struggled in a game that should have been won by forty points. It is true you should always respect the opposition but the Royal XV were real minnows. In a country where it is about putting down markers the Lions didn’t put one down at all. However, the reality of it is that the result and performance will not impact on the tour’s real test matches to come.

Not in the team were the likes of Gethin Jenkins, Euan Murray and Brian O’Driscoll, and it is these special players that will elevate the touring party. Even so, whether they will raise the party to the heights necessary is debatable.

Blue Bulls performance sounded a warning

While the Lions themselves laboured, the most significant result of the weekend came a couple of hours later when the Blue Bulls of Pretoria destroyed the Waikato Chiefs 61–17 to win the Super 14 title in a manner that puts into perspective the challenges that lie ahead for the Lions. These Boks are not like the 1997 vintage and as I said previously, winning this series would be a greater achievement.

But back to Saturday’s game against the Lions. First matches are great to be involved in on tour because they get you up and running when everyone is so desperate to play – the Leinster boys probably less so in this instance for all the right reasons!

However in a tour of this nature and with competition so fierce you can write yourself into or out of contention quickly and while the pecking order and thinking on who is in and out of contention for test slots may not be publicised, it is apparent from within the squad early on.

This is why touring can be hard and why it is said that the so called mid-week players make or break tours. As the test team evolves the ‘dirk trackers’ who do not make the test side keep momentum and spirits high and for that reason the Lions will be concerned by the first performance.

If, with five minutes to go, the Royal’s right wing Bjorn Basson had not gone to catch a ball that was going out on the full, the Lions may well have lost, Basson’s error of judgement gave the Lions the field position from which they got the score to put them in front.

Of course they will get better as they move on to play the Golden Lions in Johannnesburg (Coca Cola Park - but I will still call it Ellis Park) on Wednesday and then the Free State Cheetahs next weekend and they should win both but they will have given every team who expected to be steamrollered some confidence and everyone will now look to claim a scalp.

Lee Byrne staked a claim for the full-back spot

Some players you expect to be test match starters come the end of June excelled. Lee Byrne will be almost impossible to dislodge from the full back birth and Tommy Bowe took his chance to get the try, defended well and on form looks a shoe in for the test side. Shane Williams looked better on the hard grounds and with Luke Fitzgerald, Ugo Moyne and Rob Kearney all still to play the back three will be a difficult area to select.

In the mid-field it was a difficult baptism for Keith Earls but he is a class act who maybe let the occasion get to him a bit. He will learn and get better and will hopefully pick up plenty from being around the environment, but his chances will be limited from here on in. Inside him, Jamie Roberts put down a real marker for the tour and anyone going for the number 12 jersey.

Ronan O’Gara controlled things well from fly half while many around him struggled. He kicked all his goals, scored a try, set up Tommy Bowe’s try and gave the Lions good field position when they needed it. It will be up to Stephen Jones to answer on Wednesday.

Rucking a problem in opener

The pack as a whole dominated the scrum and the lineout worked well after initial teething problems. However, they were still not as dynamic as they could have been at ruck time and it was this that, despite their physical superiority, made life difficult for Mike Blair at scrum-half.

But all in all it is not a match to be overly concerned about. The tour will be judged on the tests and how this team is gelled over the next few weeks is the challenge. For the moment it is an unsatisfactory start for the squad and the challenges are about to be ramped up.

They will be more than up for it but the Boks, and those Blue Bulls, are ready and waiting.