British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland was intent on assuming a brave face after his side suffered a 22-16 defeat to Super Rugby outfit the Blues at Eden Park in Auckland.
A third Leigh Halfpenny penalty had restored the Lions’ lead only for an incisive Ihaia West try to hand the Blues a victory which condemned Gatland’s outfit to their first tour defeat of 2017.
Winger Rieko Ioane had earlier crossed the line to give the hosts the lead before a converted CJ Stander try and Halfpenny penalty edged the Lions ahead, only for Sonny Bill Williams to dot down prior to the break.
The defeat adds to the Lions’ stuttering victory over the Provincial Barbarians on Saturday, although Gatland believes his players will be all the better for this experience come the first Test against world champions New Zealand on 24 June.
“There is so much strength in depth in this country,” said Gatland. “I don’t think there will be a lot of difference between some Super Rugby sides and the All Blacks. These guys have been together seven months and the All Blacks are coming together cold.
“We know the quality of New Zealand sides and that was a big improvement from Saturday. We will continue to improve. We’ve played a lot better and we’ve put ourselves in a position to win the game.
“The pleasing thing was it was a big step up in performance. I was more disappointed with Saturday night. I thought we played pretty well and competed with a side that’s got a very good record here at Eden Park.
“The thing about playing these quality sides, it’s about preparation. In 2013 we won the first game against the Barbarians by 70 and the next against the Western Force by 60. It wasn’t great preparation.”
Gatland, whose side face the Crusaders on Saturday, was also upbeat on the prospects of fly-half Dan Biggar making a quick recovery after being forced from the field in the first half and failing a head injury assessment.
“The medics think he’ll be fine during the week and should be okay,” added Gatland after a week during which he was irked by suggestions his teams tend to employ one-dimensional “Warrenball” tactics.
But his side were beaten yesterday by what he described as a “moment of magic” as Williams off-loaded to the onrushing West, who clinically converted to dispatch the Lions.