The Aviva Rugby Premiership returns this weekend with a host of matches , a few teams will be void of their international superstars who will be having the much needed rest from a gruelling Lions Tour of New Zealand .Nevertheless we will be feted with some end to end action from teams jostling for the early positioning ………………………………. Be sure to keep up with 15-13 Linebreak throughout the season for live action reporting and insights to this seasons rugger battle .
Lord Byron once said “In play there are two pleasures for your choosing, the one is winning, and the other losing. unfortunately the sporting grandstand showdown at Eden Park left everyone with a bemused unsatiated feeling. Perhaps a vexatious fitting end to six weeks of drama, razzle dazzle,intrigue and controversy.
Eden Park has not seen an opposition victory in 23 years , The Lions got close but not close enough as they failed to create chances to overhaul their mercurial opponents, credit however should be given to them as they hung in there courtesy of Owen Farrell’s boot along with Elliot Daly’s monster penalty kick. From the onset the All Blacks looked to impose themselves, starting with an improvised Kapa O Pango minus the cut throat gesture but nevertheless spine tingling.They seemed intent on correcting the errors of their Wellington defeat playing with verve and ambition. The Hurricane All Black backline players were in imperious form, as they collaborated to score two tries and banish any thoughts of their first start status.It would have been worse for the Lions as New Zealand butchered three try scoring opportunities before half time. The Lions exhibited their “All For One” motto as they stuck together and hung in there, 12-6 at halftime.
In the second half saw an opportunity for the Lions to capitalise as Jerome Kaino was sin binned for a forearm to the face of Alun Wyn Jones.Once again they seemed not able to do so as they blundered and were inept. From forward passes to knock ons and wayward lineouts it seemed they were doing everything in not wanting to win.With Farrell managing to land a penalty in the last minute of Kaino’s exile , a grandstand finale was in store. however there would be no break in the deadlock right up until the controversial moment of the penalty turned scrum. Referee Roman Poite initially awarded a penalty from the re-start when replacement hooker Ken Owens caught the ball in an offside position after Liam Williams had got his hands to it. He would review it and seem to stick with his initial decision but yet change his mind to a scrum when talking with both captains. A scrum would be had and it would amount to nought. Poite would eventually end this enthralling but ultimately frustrating Test match.No real joy. No satisfaction. After six weeks, after 10 absorbing games, after three quality Test matches, no one wanted or would have envisaged a drawn series.
The Lions have come through a series where many had predicted 3-0 whitewash loss to the Kiwis.Honour and pride was restored in the red jersey from scoring that sensational try in the first test and facing such intense media scrutiny over their geographical call ups. They never buckled in their togetherness.The Lions have shown that the All Blacks are not invincible,They stifled them with their rush defence and a rugby league type of line speed defending forcing them to revise and think of new strategies to win.The pressure cooker environment seemed to have a telling effect on how both teams played. The Lions failing to capitalise on numerical advantages and the All Blacks profligate with their clear try scoring opportunities.The series was enthralling, brutal, exciting and sprinkled with superb individual performances from Jonathan Davies, Maro Itoje,Anthony Watson and Taulupe Falateau. Hopefully this series provides a blueprint in showing that the southern hemisphere sides can be beaten on a regular basis.
Here’s hoping the Lion’s brand continues to live on despite the murmurings from the clubs, The tours are huge and the camaraderie that binds players from different countries lives on beyond their playing days and provides wonderful stories for supporters and players alike. Core values of world rugby such as integrity,passion and solidarity have been on show in abundance .The Lion’s fans bring a energy that no other team’s supporters can replicate and it will be 2029 until New Zealand witness the Lions roaring mightily on their shores.
Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war”. Unfortunately for the British and Irish Lions this is one skirmish they cannot avoid, despite perhaps the enemy knowing their art of war.The clock is running as history beckons for two teams that meet once every twelve years. For the Lions a chance at sporting immortality and very a rare series win in New Zealand and for the All Blacks , defending the pride of a nation as well as upholding what seems to come naturally to them ‘ the excellence of winning’.
It’s now or never for the Lions as they prepare to face a primed and hurting All Blacks, this is the biggest game outside the world cup .A battle between north vs south, different mantras and cultures. Unchanged from the win in Wellington the Lions are brimming with confidence and raring to go. Statistics and analysis from the last match will not have a bearing on this game as this will be like a cup final with the winner taking all. The Lions are 80 minutes from a series win in New Zealand only once achieved by the 1971 side. For them to achieve this feat they will have to be at their excellent best, discipline on this tour has been appalling to say the least. Head Coach Warren Gatland has gone with an unchanged side and the team must repay the faith shown to them and keep the penalties to a minimum and away from kickable range.Players like Mako Vunipola will have breathed a sigh of relief,after having seemingly played himself out the squad with 4 penalties and a yellow card. Alun Wyn Jones was ok and will need to be spectacular for the duration he is on the field. The Lions stepped up in their ferocity in defence and Captain Sam Warburton was nuisance in the breakdown in stifling New Zealand getting their quick three second ball. He will have to go to another level in leading his troops. They will have to play on the edge but yet have the balance not to incur penalties .Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell must exploit the new centre pairing of Ngani Laumape and Anton Lienert Brown as they will have much success down that channel. They however must be prepared for what is coming down their own channel as New Zealand will send their fire power in their direction.
Touring has a way sometimes of putting doubts in players and their ability especially when the team does not produce the results or performance that is worthy of their status.The Lions will have to trust implicitly each other’s abilities, banish any hesitations and collectively believe they can win. They however face a team that is not used to losing , keen to protect their 23 year unbeaten Eden Park record. More importantly the All Blacks will be defending national pride . They are an iconic team with a win record in the 90th percentile, despite their setbacks in losing important players like fullback Ben Smith, Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams. They have embraced adversity and churned out more stars with firepower in Ngani Laumape , another Barret this time in the form of Jordie and brought back destructive winger Julian Savea. A few Kiwi players will be making special milestones,Aaron Cruden and Charlie Faumuina will both rack up 50 Test appearances for the All Blacks if they take to the field. Saturday night Kieran Read will play his 100th Test for the All Blacks since debuting against Scotland in 2008 and captain the All Blacks for the 25th time.
The stage is set for a gladiatorial tussle, leaving a legacy and the jersey in a better place for both sides is at stake.Irrespective of the tour itinerary from hell the Lions have managed to remain as their motto says “one for all” Both teams share a dual admiration for Manna (respect) and whānau (family) . The clock is running towards the decider, we will soon know who will prevail. Hopefully it will be an epic contest, an occasion to savour for the coming of ages.
See it for what it is, not what you want it to be would be the total summation of the second test.For only the second time in 40 years the Lions achieved victory in New Zealand, however The All Blacks never really got going and yet the Lions did everything they could in nearly losing the second test. Westpac Stadium enveloped in teeming rain and swirling winds provided the backdrop.From the very start the All Blacks performed a tame haka which really did not raise anyone’s heart rate. The first 25 minutes saw a titanic struggle as each side battled for supremacy , no one would have ever predicted what would follow as Sonny Bill Williams seemingly innocuously tackled Anthony Watson. Television replays would reveal that the New Zealand centre had lead with the shoulder, crashing straight into Watson’s unprotected face. That left match referee Jerome Garces no choice but to issue a red card. An infamous stat that will consign Williams to history as the first All Black to be sent off at home and only the second after Colin Meads.
This unexpected curveball for both teams would provide them with different strategies of how to achieve success. For the All Blacks it was how would they survive for 65 minutes with a man down whereas for the Lions it was the unexpected kill they could feed on. However it would be the men in black who would react the quickest and galvanise themselves whilst the Lions stumbled and blundered in trying to rip apart their prey and eat.The first half would end 9 a piece but what was witnessed in the second half was alarming to say the least , the three key components in any team’s game plan ,possession, territory and discipline seemed to have been totally forgotten by the Lions. Thirty one percent in possession and territory is inexcusable let alone the 13 penalties they conceded Mako Vunipola contributing with four on his own, all within kickable range. How fortunate that Beauden Barrett’s profligacy at goal allowed the Lions to be only nine points adrift after 58 minutes.It seems having a man sent off or sin binned spurs a team into action , Vunipola was sin binned and the Lions managed to score a try a few minutes later making it 18-14. However their lack of discipline would see them give New Zealand another 3 points with a needless penalty. One could be forgiven in forgetting that one team was missing a player as the All Blacks seemed to be coping well and pulling away. The Lions would come back with delayed pass by Jonny Sexton onto Hooker Jamie George who made a rampaging break that allowed Murray to storm through a gap, touch down and see Farrell boot a match-levelling conversion.
With ten minutes to go and the scores tied it ironically came to discipline , a key component that was missing from both sides the whole game.Charlie Faumuina was unlucky to concede the penalty that would send his team to only their first loss at home since 2009.The Lions will be ecstatic that they won and levelled the series but there are worrying signs from the game that need to be examined.Despite their one-man advantage, though, the Lions were almost made to pay for poor discipline.It took 77 minutes for them to take the lead, despite Williams getting his marching orders in the 25th minute.It shouldn’t have taken so long in taking control of the match meaning perhaps a lack of composure .Tactical kicking was poor as well. The positives are that they scored two tries and managed to keep the All Blacks tryless.Their defence was very good as they showed more aggression in the breakdown. A foolhardy match to say the least and it should be seen for what it is not ,what you want it to be. All roads lead back to the North Island with Lions coaching staff having to have a proper look at that match reel and fix the deficiencies quickly otherwise an All Black backlash could see forty points against the Lions. Confucius sums it up perfectly “The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools”.
Vince Lombardi once remarked “You don’t do things right once in a while. You do things right all the time” and this was the painful lesson the Lions had yet once again had to learn on this tour of New Zealand.Lately being against The Super Rugby champions; Hurricanes who kicked and scampered back to life when it looked like they were down and out. Many pundits and correspondents have written and commentated saying what a fabulous game it was .I beg to differ as the Lions were in a position to seize the day and blow away the Hurricanes with their superior talent and strength yet once again they could not cope with kiwi side’s relentless endeavour with ball in hand and collective team spirit .It should have never got to the point of flyhalf Dan Biggar trying to win the game with a long range drop goal attempt.
This unsavoury performance has once again resuscitated some of the uncomfortable issues that many have chosen to sweep under the rug. Firstly the controversial geographical callup of the replacements , the continual dangling of the carrot with the promise of making a test matchday 23 when you have 96 hours to recover and then compete against the best side in the world. Thirdly would be the continued ill discipline of the team and lack of concentration for the full eighty minutes. The Lions had the opportunity to put this game to bed way before the yellow card and in a team of seasoned international players one would think they had the nous to be able to deal with the loss of a player for ten minutes. I was flabbergasted to hear Head Coach Warren Gatland’s comments about not devaluing the jersey , why on earth would he even consider calling them up as cover if they were never going to take to the field ? More importantly when they were there,why did they not get the chance to at least show their wares and try to repay the faith shown to them ? It goes against the “All for One ” motto that is supposed to embody the Lions spirit and will be soul crushing for the chaps confidences. As a collective what kind of ripple effect will this have on the rest of the squad ?
This brings me onto my second point and the need by the coaches to continually tout players with carrot of being able to make the matchday squad 3 days later . Granted these chaps are professional athletes but even if you make it into the test squad chances are you will not be operating at your optimum in then having to face the best side in the world after having expended so much energy trying to impress. I was not totally impressed with performance of the Lions against the Hurricanes , yes they scored three tries but they could deliver the killer blow and pull away from the “Canes”. They were notable contributions from Biggar, Ian Henderson,Courtney Lawes, cameos from Rory Best,Tommy Seymour and George North but these were not really outstanding performances of what I would expect from test capped internationals . Maybe I am being too harsh ? Lawes may have played himself into contention for the second test but that is largely due to the way he is known to play already, bar the head injuries he has suffered did he really need to go out and show what he is capable of ? Ian Henderson had a mixed game as he showcased his brilliance at the breakdown and in loose play but may have yet compromised his chances with a yellow card that cost his team victory. However I don’t think he is totally accountable : The Lions management need to have a closer examination of themselves, it was evident that they needed fresh impetus off the bench when the team lost Robbie Henshaw . Yet they decided to move George North into the centre and Leigh Halfpenny to fullback instead of bringing on Finn Russell. Towards the end of the game it was visible that the side was tiring from the sustained pressure of the revived Hurricanes.
I should not forget the mighty effort displayed by the Hurricanes who perhaps showed that collective team spirit , where each member of the team plays for each other is cultivated over a period of time rather than over a matter of weeks .The Hurricanes driven on by the “little bus” Ngani Laumape, scored two tries in the space of four minutes to draw level and could have won it late on unfortunately hero turning villain with neck roll. With the midweek matches finished we are left with two matches against the All Blacks , how these Lions play will determine how history will remember them.
The excitement including mine preceding this game was of metronomic proportions, everyone was caught in the passion and drama of the special occasion that happens every 12 years. I am pretty sure the deep inquest and analysis to the Lions defeat is well and truly in session, there be will many views cast as to what transpired at Eden Park. I was very confident that Warren Gatland had picked a side capable of defeating the All Blacks at a venue they have not lost in twenty three years. The Lions are bristling with strength and quality to overcome the New Zealand team, add in the wet conditions and I thought this was a great opportunity to secure a confidence boosting victory. An explosive start to the game saw the Lions go a metre short of the try line. They should have scored as Connor Murray’s final pass was a fraction late to Elliot Daly and this type of precision or lack of would be one of the differences between the two teams. Daly would get bundled into touch by Israel Dagg, chance gone. Much has been said about Gatlands style of rugby named “Warrenball” yet I certainly did not expect the All Blacks to use directthe route rugby and unlock the rush defence. However they are not the number one test team for nothing! The All Blacks pack dominated the Lions pack in the scrums, Tadgh Furlong was visibly struggling and his face showed midway of the first half. New Zealand second row Brodie Retallick was immense as time and time he led the charge in the narrow channels which left the forwards scrambling to contain him. The first try of the game was lesson in never switching off for the full eighty minutes; Lions defence coach Andy Farrell must have been having kittens as Lions had enough time to reorganise their lines after referee Jaco Pepyer had given the All Blacks a penalty. Scrumhalf Aaron Smith took a tap and passed to Barrett, who threw a long ball to Dagg and his long pass found hooker Codie Taylor patrolling the right flank and able to pick up the ball from his feet beating Daly to score. This is something that should not happen on a junior level let alone on the test arena. A positive from the Lions before the end of the first half would see them score a sensational try, Aaron Cruden posted a deep kick into Lions territory, Anthony Watson secured the ball on the touchline and fed fullback Liam Williams who fooled Kieran Read before setting off on an arching run, ghosting past Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams in midfield to take play to the halfway line. Daly who did an in-out before sending it back to Davies who fed flanker Sean O’Brien in for a superb score. The half would be evenly poised at 13-8.
The second half saw chances go begging for the Lions despite being in theirs opponents 22, unforced errors would see them lose territory and possession at crucial times. The All Blacks were definitely not as generous, as they punished the Lions with timely precision. Their runners came onto the ball at pace which would allow them to go beyond the gain line. Centre Sonny Bill Wiliams was effectively used in the forwards channel as a battering ram and his offloads always found a recipient. The battle of the number eights was won by New Zealand skipper Kieran Read as he had an immense 77 minutes and outshone his opposite number Talupe Falateau. Read was involved in a crucial second half try, showing excellent hands at the back of the scrum to pick and off-load in the lead-up to Rieko Ioane’s try and move the game beyond the Lions reach. So what could have been for the Lions will make their video analysis session painful to watch. I would not recommend wholesale changes but perhaps a few tweaks. They were outmuscled in the forwards so perhaps bringing in Maro Itoje to start and the abrasive Courtney Lawes. I feel that skipper O’Mahony did not have good game and failed to lead his team vocally and especially in controlling the referee as at times the All Blacks were streetwise in some of their plays. Cue the inclusion of tour Captain Sam Warburton to the starting line-up, he was very good when he came on and is excellent at the breakdown an area they lost comprehensively. Sinckler or Dan Cole should replace Furlong on the tighthead position. The scrum cannot ill afford to have a bad day and not feed their backrow and backline of quality ball. Its baffling why Farrell had an ordinary game, however I would resist in changing the flyhalf. The backline was fantastic and should be allowed to carry on as they are and supply them with more clean ball to play with. Anthony Watson and Liam Williams were fantastic to watch. Despite the score line the team is very close to clicking as a whole, rugby is a team sport that requires cohesion,outright commitment and keeping that penalty count down is imperative. I am sure the chaps are hurting but they must take solace in that they bombed a few opportunities on Saturday. The All Blacks showed in doing the simple things right and very well victory is yours.What will define this Lions team and how they want to be remembered is in the manner of how they get up. They may have been outgunned and outmuscled but rise Lions you must and roar.
Sun Tzu once said “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim”. Warren Gatland is standalone man, making the decision on the Lions match day 23 to engage with the All Blacks at Eden Park come this Saturday. Let us examine his troops to see their efficiency, effectiveness and readiness for the Eden Park skirmish. The scrum has been the mainstay of the tour so far, with its ability to disrupt provided they adapt quickly to whoever is officiating. They have dominated in the lineout and the coal face, Mako Vunipola is an extraordinary player with wonderful hands and high work rate. His one tiny blemish is that he may not be the strongest scrummager but he will be valuable in his loose play. He combines with his Saracens teammate Jamie George, who has strength, pace and accurate throwing essential for the set piece. Much has been said about him getting his England caps coming off the bench, it is wonderful to see how he has definitely earned his test start. Tadhg Furlong has been tasked with keeping the scrum stable, straight and he certainly returns that and more with his tackling. He definitely has got All Blacks attention after his Maori performance. Alun Wyn Jones provides composure and experience which probably edged him over Maro Itoje in selection as the latter has been guilty of indiscipline, something they can ill afford to give free points to the All Blacks. Alun has a phenomenal engine and work rate .Second row partner George Kruis is simply world class, he has an amazing presence in the lineout, a great rugby brain and I will go as far as saying he is equal with New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock who is regarded as the best in the business. A nice balance has been struck in the backrow as Taulupe Faletau has negated the absence of his cousin Billy Vunipola at number eight. He has been outstanding in the games he has been chosen, showing his ball in hand skills and excellent defence. He provides an extra option in the lineout and I am pretty confident he will outshine All Black Captain Kieran Read. Sean O’brien is destruction personified he is abrasive in his ball carrying as well as destructive at the breakdown. New Zealand will be wary of him as he hunts down their backline. Matchday Captain Peter O’Mahony completes the backrow and what a transformation as he nearly didn’t make the Ireland game against England let alone the tour. O’Mahony‘s mental toughness and leadership will be vital when the Lions have to go into the dark places to extract victory.
Warren Gatland (Gats) has gone with a backline with a bit of spice and nice about it. Liam Williams at fullback is certainly spicy; he had a good tour thus far besides his forgetful performance against the Blues .Make no mistake this Welsh operator is key to lighting up the Lions backline with his ability to run great angles, counter attacking and courage under the high ball especially in the wet. Anthony Watson brings electrifying pace and endeavour, safe under the high ball as wel,l one hopes he gets his hands on the ball to showcase his skills. Elliot Daly has embodied what Gatland has said all along in playing well and you will have a chance. Daly cemented his starting berth with an influential performance against the Chiefs; he has a nice balance about him when he runs with the ball, astute in defence and a magnificent boot in his arsenal. Outside centre Jonathan Davies brings experience and great support play, along with solid defence he combines well with Ben Teo in the middle of the park, the Auckland born inside centre is a big destructive direct runner with great footwork and a offload .The damp conditions will suit him as he leads the challenge to the All Blacks especially against the mercurial Sonny Bill Williams. The final but yet vital combination is Connor Murray and Owen Farrell. In some circles Murray has been vaunted as the best scrumhalf at the moment in the world with his precise box kicking and great delivery to the backline. He has an air of authority and control which will be vital to link up the forwards and backs. Farrell is highly respected in New Zealand, he is in my mind their general .The Saracens and England flyhalf has great control and aggression, at times may he be guilty of over exuberance. Consistence with the boot makes him valuable along with ability to pass releasing his runners. He is not afraid to tackle and will lead the charge on his father’s Andy (defence coach) rush defence. The substitute’s bench is littered with an array of firepower, Kyle Sinckler adding dynamism with his ball carrying although he must exercise good temperament. Ken Owens is good solid player and will give it his all when he comes on .Maro Itoje starts from the bench; he was unfortunate not to make the starting line-up. In my view being slightly impetuous at times in giving away unnecessary penalties has counted against him. However he is brilliant in lineout stealing effecting turnovers and taking the ball up. Jack McGrath is silent assassin with strong scrummaging skills and good ball skills he will definitely make his presence known when he comes on .Rhys Webb is a lovely sniping runner and will up the tempo of the game if need it be, I hope he will be able to fit his game to the Lions setup .Leigh Halfpenny provides you with safety and reliability and this what has seen him start off the bench as he does not have the attacking prowess of his Welsh counterpart Williams. Johnny Sexton is a talent to have on the bench as seems to be reclaiming his “mojo” he has great tactical kicking awareness as well the ability to get stuck into tackles and produce turovers. Injuries have hampered tour Captain Sam Warburton in making the start; I would actually stick my neck out and say he was fortunate to make the 23 as CJ Stander has been playing well. Sam brings great venture at the breakdown and should have an impact on the game. So the decision has been made, it’s a bold section full of verve. I have them to sneak a win by 6 points; General Gatland has shown real intent in wanting the Lions to devour the All Blacks.
“Winning is a habit. Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs. Watch your beliefs, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.” Were the famous words of Green Bay Packers superbowl winning coach Vince Lombardi . The Lions mid-week team can at least feel they have restored some pride and confidence and done much to improve the general perception of their abilities, in their last hit out before the first test against the All Blacks on Saturday. Head Coach Warren Gatland has caught a lot of flak from both the British and New Zealand press corp as he took the Lions to his hometown stadium where is amassed 140 plus caps for Waikato and is still fondly loved and remembered. His words to the team were simple yet direct play well, enjoy being in the red jersey as the door is still open to make the test team. Traditionally this is the game no one wants to play but Gatland made sure that his team knew that being a Lion is about, an honour one should cherish and that each performance midweek or on the Saturday contributes to the harmony of the group.
This match was a potential banana skin for the Lions as the Chiefs were bereft of nine first-team players after being ransacked by both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks. Nothing less than a resounding victory would be required to both the record 30 000 in attendance, global audience as well as the coaches. The Lions were dominant from the onset winning both the lineout and scrums; they constructed a 20 phase play that allowed them to take an early lead through a Dan Biggar penalty. Indiscipline would rear its ugly head for the Lions as prop Joe Marler over exuberance saw him with a late shoulder charge on opposite man Nepo Laulala and earning himself a yellow card. Fortunately this seemed to galvanise the Lions as they managed to win a penalty with a powerful scrum. The Lions would emerge from the sin bin period ahead and not having conceded any points. The Chiefs would get punished for their poor set plays as the Lions’ went over for the first try of the night, after great backline play and Nowell scooping the loose ball from the ruck to dive over the line. Biggar converted making the score 13-3 –Lions in command. The rest of the first half petered into a foray of dross misadventure and lack of enterprise from both sides with handling errors creeping up.
The second half saw the Lions click into gear and raise their standard of play; a hallmark of the Lions has been the forwards who managed get the second penalty try of the tour as Chiefs Mitchell Brown was guilty of pulling down a driving maul bound for the line, earning himself a trip to the sin-bin. Courtney Lawes before the try had departed for his second HIA of the tour-a worrying sign for the coaches after clashing heads with teammate Marler. The Lions now in ascendancy would add a third try with a beautiful flowing move that so Elliot Daly speed down the left wing and delectably produced a divine pass to kiwi born Jared Payne who found Robbie Henshaw. The Irishman would be tackled but a quick play of the ball allowed the Lions to score through Nowell as he shimmied and cut back to score his second try of the match and Biggar adding the extras. Nowell would be involved once again as he deftly collected a miskick from Chiefs Captain Stephen Donald, feeding Liam Williams who cut back a superb line beating a raft of defenders to give former Hamilton schoolboy Payne a walk in to score .Conversion added on and the score was 34-6: great counter attack from the Lions.
The Lions would have another opportunity to score at the end as replacement Tommy Seymour butchered a certain try after a beautiful arching run from his own 22 metre line only for his final pass to Payne to go horribly wrong five metres out and also lead to his teammate being forced off at the end with a head injury. The match ended with unnecessary scuffles as ref Jerome Garces blew for full time. British and Irish Lions mid-weekers finally got the job done on this tour, they beat the Chiefs tonight by first relentlessly grinding away with that rush defence, strong set piece and then finally the backline sizzled and dazzled taking advantage of the space in attack. Forget about who was missing from the Chiefs as it was still a formidable side. The Lions had to harness their thoughts put them into action and make winning a habit thus determining their character and destiny ensuring the Lions will roar come Saturday at Eden Park but tonight the Lions ate.
The wet drizzly conditions in the Bay of Plenty witnessed the British and Irish Lions throttling the Maori All Blacks with dominating territory and possession. Right from the start the Lions managed 17 phases of composed rugby before the Maoris finally cracked and Liam Messam was caught offside, playing advantage they went for a crosskick to the right wing but they got nothing from it and came back to the mark, for an easy conversion for Leigh Halfpenny. They would extend their lead to six points before the Maoris All Blacks responded with scrappily getting the ball to halfway and then going right with Milner-Skudder, opting for a grubber which was weighted beautifully and held up just outside the 22m. George North tried to recover sliding in but failed making the ball loose. Messam hacked it forward to score. The impressive efforts of the Lions forwards were again undermined by frustrating little errors and needless infringements and despite putting the Maoris under pressure with the high ball, The Lions conceded too many sloppy penalties and it allowed the Maoris to relieve pressure far too easily. Tadgh Furlong and Maro Itoje were guilty of giving away penalties too often and there was a perfect example at the end of the first half when Conor Murray kicked the ball out thinking it would be half-time without realising the rules had changed and now you must take the lineout if it’s a kick from a penalty. They got away with it but it could have been costly. However the half would end with the tourists leading 15-10 perhaps a time to reflect on missed chances from promising positions for the Lions and the Maoris to rediscover their free flowing game.
The second half saw the Lions taking complete control of the game as they converted a penalty early on after incessant forward pressure. Relentless Lions scrum power resulted in the most crucial ploy of the game coming down to a penalty try in the 50th minute.
It followed the sin-binning of halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow for a no arms tackle on Lions fullback Leigh Halfpenny which connected with his jaw as he went down in Damian McKenzie’s tackle. From the resulting penalty, the Lions twice set scrums which exposed the Maori fallibility in that area and the penalty try was awarded. Going straight back onto attack, they caught wing Rieko Ioane just out from the goal-line and drove him back to earn another five-metre scrum which, after No.8 Taulupe Faletau’s first run saw lock Maro Itoje drive under the defence for a second try in three minutes making the score 29-10, Earlier Jamie George had a try denied because of inconclusive evidence that he had grounded the ball over the goal-line. It is of no surprise that Lions recognised that after the Highlanders game loss midweek that they needed to play to their scrum strength which helped them bring about penalties aiding the win, but also because of how it limited the home side’s lethal backline. The Lions will need to display out and out ferocity for the full eighty minutes to keep the pressure on the opposition. A few players have definitely in my mind sealed their spots for next week’s opening Test against the All Blacks, Ben Te’o showed he has the ability to storm into contact, but there are too few offloads and no one running off his shoulder to break the line with pace and accuracy. That is vital given the way defences are these days. While George Kruis showed his leadership of the line-out will be invaluable to Gatland, and Itoje’s all-action game means he will surely start at lock. Anthony Watson, despite being starved of possession, did enough to suggest he could start. A positive as well was the penalty count which was limited to four, this is imperative to maintain such discipline of gifting away free points. To be successful the Lions will have be to physical, have a high work rate, exceptional line speed and an excellent kicking game , roll on Eden Park.
The result will read 23-22 and will have the perception that it was a tight close match; on the contrary the truth could be nowhere near. The Highlanders duped the British and Irish Lions into playing super rugby. A game of high risk and reward, In my last article I alluded to the Lions knowing their enemy and playing applying their own game plan, somehow they failed to build on from the Crusaders game. So many turnovers, penalties and too maany points left to rue. Why did a team made up of some of the finest rugby nations on the planet lose to a team depleted of regulars?
In Baltic like conditions inside the stadium the match started with Lima Sopoaga, opening the scoring with a penalty in the fifth minute when Courtney Lawes was caught offside. The Lions would soon draw level with Dan Biggar converting a penalty, The Highlanders game plan was all about stretching the Lions one way, then the other and getting the ball into the hands of both Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo, who both had points to prove for different reasons. Fekitoa, unwanted by the All Blacks, was bristling attitude without over doing it. He ran hard but with awareness and accuracy to ensure there were no wild offloads or poor decisions.As for his tackling – that was world class. Naholo, with his first touch, managed to go from a standing start with four Lions in front of him, to charging down the wing. With his second he nearly dived in at the corner and then got his just reward with his third when he popped up at first receiver and smashed over – sadly collecting Courtney Lawes’ head along the way in what was a nasty blow for the big Englishman. The Lions would respond once again which should be seen as encouraging as they scored their third try of the tour through Jonathan Joseph with a wonderful individual effort after taking a neat pass from Dan Biggar. It was all level at the end of the first half. The Lions would come out all guns blazing in the second half ensuring a purple patch for the men in red as they added more tries , Tommy Seymour read one of Lima Sopoaga’s kick-passes to perfection to score . Tour Captain Sam Warburton showed sheer bloody-mindedness to crash over from close range. With the score at 22-13 it was the Lions game to control and put the game to bed, however they let the Highlanders back into the game with indiscipline conceding penalties to which Highlanders replacement flyhalf Marty Banks took full advantage with his tactical kicking finding touch five metres out. This would lead to the Highlanders scoring from a driving maul from their lineout through Coltman. Banks would add the extras and the lead was reduced to two points. Somehow the Highlanders managed to totally dominate the Lions Scrum and gain a penalty with six minutes to go which Banks gleefully converted making the score 23-22. The Lions would get one last reprieve when Elliot Daly was given the task of converting a penalty from 60m out unfortunately the Hail Mary kick was agonisingly two metres short and with that, the game was over.
Both teams put on a fantastic show as the game was played at such a ridiculous tempo; take your eyes off it and you’d miss a piece of ingenious handling, a sidestep or a moment of sheer desperation. However the Lions deviated from their own game plan and were way too undisciplined. 19 turnovers and 12 penalties are not good enough to win an international game. Dan Biggar did not impose himself as he let his scrumhalf Rhys Webb dictate the pace of game. The scrum should be a key weapon for the Lions. This is the best of Britain and Ireland after all. Four countries who pride themselves on scrummaging. As it turned out, it was the Highlanders who dominated the set piece. Missed opportunities such as the final pass from prop Kyle Sinckler to fullback Jared Payne when the try was on. The angle option taken by Rhys Webb when he had a man in support were far too many. Basic game management was lacking as well as failing to adapt to the southern hemisphere referee, let’s hope this will not be a talking point come the first test. Time is running out for the Lions too feed properly on their meals before the great battle of the First Test.